This piece was first published in Danish magazine Friktion and is republished with permission.
Dutch beer company Heineken has recently faced backlash for its “lighter is better” ad, where a light skinned Brown bartender slides a beer past three dark skinned Black people towards an Eurasian woman, with whom he shares a wink, before the slogan “sometimes lighter is better” appears. As a mixed race person, who might be racialised in a similar way to the exotic yet safely light skinned woman in the ad, this ad struck a well-known chord. Spending a good half of my life in a white Danish environment, I have often found my ambiguous racial appearance used by white people as a symbol of a conforming, non-threatening otherness. Although still seen as a person of color, I also embody a whiteness that can make me come across as safe mediator to ease racial tensions and white guilt.
Considering the overwhelming whiteness in European advertisement in general, I don’t believe it to be a coincidence that Heineken, as a white owned company, chooses to use people of color and racially ambiguous people as the stars of this ad. In representing the “lighter is better” demographic, the two lighter skinned actors become pawns to the white system which uses them to mask its racism, that becomes perhaps more subtle with the acceptance of some people of color.
However, who is able to get the white stamp of approval (and the resident permits, passports, job opportunities, salaries, social capital, etc. that it often entails) is far from arbitrary. Being mixed with white has made me seem more like them, and thus more acceptable. In a culture where the desire to project an image of leftist progressiveness is often at odds with a deep rooted urge for homogeneity, a person of color mixed with white can quickly become a symbol of white tolerance, that simultaneously doesn’t threaten their status quo. By embodying some degree of whiteness, I have readily been accepted as the model immigrant, the success story who has been able to integrate and may now consider herself Danish. The masks of whiteness people of color may utilize as a navigation strategy become ever more convincing if worn by more white passing people. But this shallow white tolerance is built solely on our ability to mimic their ways. We can never consider ourselves accepted until all people of color are included equally in this acceptance.
I was recently put in a situation where my white employer sought my approval of her self-image as a non-racist, after she didn’t hire a black person because she’d be “constantly afraid of saying something wrong around her”. She elaborated how she didn’t feel that tension around me, and that despite our different opinions, we are the same on the inside. I refuse to serve this comfortable intercalary role for white people. It is no coincidence that my employer chose me to validate her tolerance, because while being perceived as close enough to her whiteness for comfort, she also accredited me with the power to judge racism on the behalf of people of color. In this way, people of color who are mixed with white, are annexed by white people to pacify racial tensions, as a fetishized symbol of interracial unity.
This “safe” embodiment of the “foreign” brings with it as well a peculiar kind of sexual capital. In people of color who are mixed with white, intrigued white people who want a taste of the exotic without venturing too far away from the known, see a unique opportunity. Through some less successful sexual experiences with white men, I have learnt that there is a specific female Eurasian fetish, which holds similar connotations to the Asian fetish, but with the added overt sexual agency and other “attractive” traits attributed to white women, in essence a blend of two stereotypes perfectly tailored to the white male fantasy. I find this to be yet another embodiment of how people of color become more coveted, useful and accepted when they also embody whiteness.
As a half-white, half-Asian woman I find myself viewed by my white surroundings as a safe and relatable personification of their orientalist fascinations. I theorize that this intercalary role is a convenient tool for white people to mask racial tensions and guilt. By exhibiting acceptance to people of color who embody whiteness, such as in the “lighter is better” advertisement, in the model immigrant trope, as assumed interracial mediators to white people, and as westernized exotic sexual fantasies, white society attempts to maintain its dominance while exhibiting an image of tolerance.
White western modernity often prides itself on being progressively accepting of people of color. However, we can only ever hope to attain this tolerance when we assimilate to the hegemonic white way of being, and embody whiteness in every way attainable to us. Here, people of color who are genetically mixed with white, have an advantage in visually representing what is perceived as people of colors’ conformity to white standards. By embracing the less foreign and threatening otherness lighter people of color have come to represent, white people are able to realize their self-image as progressive non-racists, while maintaining a stable world view in which whiteness continues to be superior. We will not be your symbols of interracial unity, we will not ease your white guilt by masking your deep-rooted racism, we will not be your exotic yet safe model immigrants, confidantes, lovers. We will not serve you curry without the spice.
Written with inspiration and support from Fællesskab for Kritiske Antropologer and Sanctuary: POC Community Healing
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[Featured image: an Asian person with light skin and dark hair has their eyes closed and are looking down. They are wearing a white tank top and the background is blurred.]