Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a god? Me neither – but in Sri Lanka I’ve automatically been given godlike status simply because of the colour of my skin. I can walk into any building without being questioned, get invited to random people’s houses for lunch, be featured on the news coverage of the Colombo Marathon or speak to government official just because I’m white.
At first I thought this phenomenon was because I was from another country. However, in speaking to other volunteers of different races, it has become quite evident that ours are totally different experiences. Take for instance Kamal, a VSO volunteer who has lived her entire life in the UK. She is of Indian ancestry,and it is a wonder to her the situations us whiteys end up in. She has not once been randomly invited by a stranger to his or her house for a meal.
Then there is the typical Sri Lankan response VSO volunteer John from Uganda gets. People just don’t understand why he would be here. When he explains that he is serving as a volunteer, they get even more perplexed. After all, isn’t Africa only full of poor and starving people? Sri Lankans should be helping him not the other way around.
Sri Lankan society has a history of a caste system and status is still very eminent in society. Status plays out according to your family name, economic situation etc. As soon as a Sri Lankan walks into a room, the others automatically know where he or she ranks in terms of status and treatment is carried out as such. This is not seen as unfair. The traditional belief that everyone has their role in society, every role is needed and the whole of society works better if people stick to their role.
In terms of status, being white is the trump card. It doesn’t matter if you are royalty or a vagrant, if you are white, you could walk into a party of Sri Lanka’s most rich and famous and not be questioned. Every prestigious party needs a token white couple or two to parade around!
Upon further inspection, I’ve noticed a deeper fascination with the colour white. Stores sell skin whitening creams, models on posters are photoshopped to look lighter skin, even the politicians running for office in the current election look whiter in their campaign posters.
The Sinhala word for white is sudu and it is the root for the verb “to clean” (pirisudu). Buddhists view white as a pure colour and wear only white for meditation, in the temple and to funerals.
Not sure if this fascination with white came with the British rule or if it is something more deeply rooted than that. Maybe it’s simply a case of always wanting what you don’t have. Think of how much money is spent on skin tanning products in North America.
The only thing I know for sure is that being white unfairly gives me power that I haven’t earned. As annoying as sticking out like a sore thumb can be at times, ultimately, I get treated well because of the colour of my skin. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a race that is discriminated against in a society. Not only would you have to deal with stares, but they would be cruel stares and poor treatment would follow.
To end on a lighter note (pun not intended), here is a ridiculous India ad for a skin whitening cream that airs on Sri Lankan Television.