A Peruvian woman stands with friends outside Starbucks. In her late 50s, she wears clothing whose quality suggests that she bought it at Piura’s new mall. Her height (above 5’2″), hair color, and air of entitlement whisper of European ancestors. This sight is everyday in Lima. Not so here in northern Peru.
Ecru-colored capri pants reveal her calves and ankles; open-toed shoes reveal a spa pedicure. Her appearance makes me veer from my normal observations– that of the clear, wide line between the middle class and their maids– and instead focus on the woman’s white skin. It’s the color of a corpse washed ashore from an ocean grave. Here, though, as a white American woman, I can’t help but wonder about its local aesthetic value.
White, Black, and Brown Outs
Mine is not a rant on how wonderful it is to be white. Actually mine is a question of why it’s supposedly better. Everywhere I’ve been around this colorful world, white skin is revered. A Peruvian lover once whispered, “Mujer blanca“, or white woman, to me during coitus. My students in XingCheng, China, lost themselves in daydreams when staring at me and my white skin at the front of the class. In India, children and elderly women on crowded trains unapologetically reached out to touch my bare arms.
It’s not because mine is white American skin. One of my university colleagues is married to a Spaniard whose skin is almost pale as mine.
“He’s always charged more in taxis because of that skin,” she jokes with me during a smoke break between classes. “Everyone thinks because he’s white he’s got money hidden in his mattress. I don’t know about that. I keep looking; I haven’t found it yet, and we’ve been married for several years.”
There are still other complications. In India, for instance, a would-be employer told me this:
“You’d be great for us in sales,” he said.
Knowing that I couldn’t sell water to a man lost in the desert, I tried to have him optimize my other skills instead. He resisted.
“No, it’s for a sales position. Indians think Americans– well, they think white people are smarter.”
I looked at him, slackjawed, unable to form a response he said this:
“I don’t think that’s true, but it’ll be good for sales.”
I felt like a circus act.
What he said echoes elsewhere, though. In China many locals rent to Caucasians because, a colleague told me, “They think we’re cleaner and maintain apartments better.” At supermarkets and home/garden stores here in Piura every single person exiting the doors is stopped. Their bags are searched, their receipts investigated. White people, though, are just waved through.
The Grass Is Whiter
There are no answers to be found here. it seems, there’s always something better, something more exotic about The Other. The grass is always whiter, so to speak. But when does white stop being attractive?
That middle aged woman in front of Starbucks was, to me, hurts like the glint of shine off an iceberg. But would the locals agree?