Blackness in Indonesia

Before starting this journey, I developed a set of goals for myself. One of those goals was to observe the social climate of the countries that I visit (i.e. race, class, religion, politics). I decided to use my Blackness as a bridge into other communities of Blackness that are different than (or similar to) the many facets of Blackness that exists in my own country. Because I cannot shed the skin that I am in (nor do I desire to), I want to simultaneously get a picture of how Blackness is performed, viewed, and treated amongst foreign societies by using myself as the “experiment”.  Being painfully aware of the often times threatening systemic racism and discrimination in my own country, I know how important it is to be aware of the different social environments I bring my Blackness (and sometimes Black Woman-ness) into. 

 While I am far from the conclusion of my trip, I will periodically step in to document the observations and experiences I have regarding social matters as I go/as they come up. Here are my social observations of Indonesia during my time there.

[IMPORTANT] - Keep in mind that these are my thoughts and experiences through the only lens I know – the lens of a Black American female and recent University graduate. What this means is that my interpretation is not the end all, be all and I can be COMPLETELY wrong in my assessments. After all, I am not from these countries, nor do I believe in absolute generalities. So I am no way, shape or form in the business of telling TRUTHS I do not know or fully understand. So take my words and experiences as MY words and experiences and leave it to the country’s citizens to tell their truths. 

The preference for whiteness in Indonesia couldn’t be missed. In the city, there is virtually no beauty billboard or advertisement that doesn’t feature the lightest and brightest Indonesian one could find. Beauty products highlight white preference through skin lightening creams – a serious concern, I was told, as a doctors visit for skin acne could turn into an almost forced skin lightening cream suggestion as supplement. Indonesian television shows more commercials with white or white Indonesian actors and actresses than commercials with brown skin people. It reminded me of my childhood and movies, TV, and commercials back home and how oblivious I was to the diversity of the world. Thinking white is right; white is good. White is everything despite the fact that myself and everyone I knew at the time didn’t look that way nor lead lives like those safe, upper middle class/wealthy “normal lives” like those portrayed on the television screen. 

    Witnessing the same white-washing so ubiquitous in everyday life some 20,000+ miles away from home was both saddening and eye-opening to say the least because, like the many U.S. businesses here, it points to Western influence/presence in Eastern countries for me. But I cannot say I was surprised, more like appalled, because out of the three Indonesian towns I’ve been in, everyone and I mean EVERYONE sported caramelized skin or darker with straight, sleek black hair. My hosts in Jakarta were the “lightest” Indonesians I’ve seen. The preference for whiteness occurs socially as well. White skin is celebrated and white skin people are almost revered as celebrities – separate from nationality – western seemed to equate only to whiteness. 

    For example, waiting outside of a tourist office for the bus to our hotel (pre-Mount Ijen), school was letting out (?) for the youngsters. I was the only traveler that didn’t have pale skin in my group. When we exited our van, the students screamed greetings in English with vibrant enthusiasm… the European travelers. At one point I even heard  a child scream “Hey Teacher!” at one of the white travelers. It wasn’t until our bus finally arrived that I was noticed by three of the students, who then asked me where I was from. Although I too am “western” , that did not make a difference; the students continued to vie for white attention, like fans seek that of celebrities. 

    Another example: A few of us from the hostel motor biked out to see Borobudur Temple and meet up with other hostel-mates who went ahead of us. Myself and two other Indonesian friends were the only ones with colored skin. We went on a busy day it seems, as there were many local high school or middle school groups present. Upon meeting up with the other travelers from the hostel, swarms gathered for pictures with the white males. It seemed like at every turn, you’d hear  giggling as the young girls gathered the courage to get a photo with “The Westerners”. At some point, a larger Indonesian woman came to ask for a photo with one of our group – he was quite dashing, tall, blonde, and handsome – but I guess he grew tired of photos and declined. She responded “I’m not beautiful enough to get a photo with you guys”…….

    I learned from a British traveler that it’s easy for “Westerners” to hook up with local women in these parts (Asia/Southeast Asia). Another sign of so many privileges in one – as I am sure the white girls can get some play from local men as well. This, in conjunction with his really bad “Asian Fever”, is telling – though it could just be hook up culture itself. On the flipside though, the European travelers were perplexed by the attention they received for their white-western-ness and were confused by it’s celebration – as one traveler put it, “It’s so strange because we spend time trying to be tan..”   

    Another observation I’ve noticed was the privilege of travel in itself appearing (to me) to be primarily in the hands of white travelers. In every hostel/hotel I’ve been to, tourist locations and activities, I was the sole traveler with melanated skin. Out of four complete weeks in Indonesia, I’ve seen three separate people or groups of Black folks ONLY. I have yet to bunk with or converse with travelers or locals who look like me. Which raised the question for me – Do Black people not like to travel or have no interest in travelling? It’s one thing to always think about the reality of not being able to afford to travel, which was me until I found this fellowship opportunity. But I know I am not the only one who have dreamt of somewhere else. And I know there are many more out there like me waiting and working for the time and opportunity to do so. So why when I look around, I see no one of resemblance on holiday or vacation like the hordes of European travelers and their families? 

    It is disheartening, isolating, and triumphant at the same time to be the only me. I have seen Papuanis -People from Papua/New Papua Guinea- on two different occasions (once I was mistaken for one myself) both whom I wanted to run to because for once I saw Black skin, plump lips, swollen noses, and kinky hair like mine! I was so relieved and hungry for their attention in the hopes of fostering community based on our likeness and with the hope of dulling feelings of isolation and loneliness. But it didn’t work out that way. I saw the Papuani girls in passing and the Papuani guy I saw at the Chicken Church barely exchanged glances with me, though I did manage to smile and wave. He gave a smile back but I ended up feeling even more isolated and alone when it appeared that my strong urge to connect through our Blackness was not matched by him. It hurts to see someone followed by feelings of familiarity and comfort and then to remain unacknowledged. To remain an outsider – despite the similarities we shared – like in a poem I wrote: 

“A nose, wide and plump like my Grandfather’s. 
Lips, swollen and darkened like my Father’s.
Hair, jet black and coiled into tight kinks, like mine. 
Skin, sun-absorbent and melanated, like mine.

Yet worlds apart. Disconnected.” 
                                                                  -Kepriah Davis (Mook)
                                                             October 6th, 2016 

I later had conversations about Papuanis with Indonesian friends after being insanely motivated to go to the Blackness – the land of Papua! However, I learned that even in the capital of Papua, you will mainly find Javanese people there and that the Black Papuani tribes are in remote jungle, where I would need a translator to communicate with them. Here in Jogja, Papuanis who wish to study here gets put up in a boarding house free of charge. The Indonesian people have a problem with Papuanis, as I was told that they’ve made a name for themselves as crooks or gangsters because they break the rules and beat up anyone that mocks them. Apparently, they are even feared by the Indonesian police, as they would not stop Papuanis who are driving without a helmet on a motor scooter (breaking the law) out of fear of being attacked. My friend told me that he’s met nice/good Papuanis and “gangster” Papuanis so he does not relate the entire Papuani people to violence and fear. He also made clear that Indonesian people don’t “see” color and that their strained relationship with the Papuanis are strictly due to their acts of violence. 

I feel I’ve heard this story before and couldn’t help but to thirst for the other side of the narrative, the Papuani narrative, as I know historically and today how Blackness is deemed as something dangerous, criminal, violent, and something to be feared/hated. I wonder where the truth lies and what forces are at play here.