“Petals off a Peony,” the title of my biweekly column, refers to my mother’s hometown of Luoyang, China, which is known as the City of Peonies. A single working mother and immigrant, she is the most incredible person I know. Everything I write is for her.
October is here, bringing with it tortuous midterms, cheesy horror films and seven metric tons of pumpkin-flavored-scented things. This is the time of year when that autumn coziness starts to set in, when scarves and gloves slowly make their way out of the bottoms of our drawers and when everything around us seems to blush with color.
This year, October also brings the latest Dove controversy, the latest in a long line of social faux pas. While Dove has found success in the past for its campaigns promoting female empowerment and body positivity, most of their ads have been hit-or-miss.
The Internet, for the most part, is pretty reliable when it comes to calling out B.S. Because of this, it’s become a fantastic place for people to have conversations they wouldn’t normally have outside of it. Usually, these conversations are productive and enlightening. But not always.
Nowadays, it seems as if people are less interested in taking the time to assess a situation in its full complexity, instead opting to jump immediately onto the bandwagon. It feels like everybody is yelling over each other to be able to say, “Look how angry this makes me. Look how socially aware I am. Doesn’t that make me such a great person?”
The public’s response to Dove’s new ad, for instance, has morphed into a stampede of “woke” individuals on Twitter scrambling to find someone — anyone — oppressed enough to invent hashtags for.
What product is responsible for such grave offenses against humanity, you may ask? Body wash. I shiver to even utter the words.
The ad itself features women of Asian, African-American and Caucasian descent, the variety of ethnicities probably Dove’s attempt at promoting racial diversity. But what transformed this from a typical beauty ad into a frenzy of controversy is a part showing a black woman taking off her shirt and turning into a white woman.
People called the ad racist, claiming that it depicted dark skin as being dirty and light skin as being clean; therefore it put out the message that dark skin needs to “washed” in order to become lighter and more beautiful.
That sounds awful, and if it were the case, I’d be furious too. But watching the full clip reveals that the white woman also takes off her shirt to become an Asian woman. Unless American beauty standards have suddenly shifted to favor Asian features (lol), it’s obvious that the internet has done what it does best: taking things out of context for the sake of drama.
But the real damage is not to Dove’s reputation. Dove, a $4 billion company, will come out of this none the worse for wear. Despite its previous controversies, Dove still enjoys its title as the 10th most valuable beauty brand in the world.
The public outcry has been immediate and widespread — but does it actually represent those that it’s supposedly trying to help? Is it an accurate reflection on what POC truly think?
Lola Ogunyemi, the actress in Dove’s ad, is proof that it might not. When she heard she had landed the job, she was overjoyed. She saw the ad as an opportunity to “represent [her] dark-skinned sisters in a global beauty brand” and to “remind the world that we are here, we are beautiful and, more importantly, we are valued.” She describes her dismay at how the ad had been interpreted by the public, reducing her platform to one of an “unwitting poster child for racist advertising.”
The problem with crying wolf is that somebody has to be the sheep. Somebody has to be the damsel to your white knight, the indigenous to your civilized. By forcing this “victim” narrative onto POC or other marginalized groups, you are only taking away our autonomy. You are only reinforcing existing power structures by using your privilege to dictate our identities.
The fact that I am female and Chinese-American and that there exist certain sociopolitical barriers I must face does not make me a victim. It makes me a fighter. Do not pigeonhole me to your labels. Do not take my pride and turn it into shame. Do not erase my narrative.
I am not a victim because my oppressors have not won. They have not gotten the upper hand, and they have not succeeded in cutting me down. I am still here, and I speak for myself. As Ogunyemi says, “I am not just some silent victim of a mistaken beauty campaign. I am strong, I am beautiful and I will not be erased.”
Her words remind me of a line in a slam poem I once heard. It goes like this: “The problem with speaking up for each other is that everyone is left without a voice.”
As we navigate discussions about race or other sensitive topics, we must always ensure that everybody has a voice. We must be careful in our eagerness that we are not covering up those we are trying to help. Being an ally is not just about speaking up. Mostly, it’s about listening.
So if you’re listening, thank you, truly, for your concern. Thank you for your passion, your hashtags and your boycotts. Thank you for your voice. But I’ll take it from here.
Contact Serena Zhang at xiaosez ‘at’ stanford.edu.