“Whitewashing” America

This week the Twitterverse exploded after a political blogger named Lamar White, Jr. posted a portrait of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. In the portrait Jindal, an Indian American, is pictured with a skin tone that is practically white. The difference is especially striking when comparing the portrait with a photograph of Jindal. Other than his characteristic “crooked smile,” the image looks nothing like Jindal.

Jindal3Images courtesy of Lamar White, Jr., Robin May, and Logan Smith

While not Jindal’s official portrait, the image does hang in the Louisiana Capitol building. In response to the Twitter and subsequent media reaction, Jindal’s Chief of Staff, Kyle Plotkin, shared an image of Jindal’s official portrait. In the official portrait Jindal’s skin is certainly darker, but clearly not reflective of his actual skin color. As noted by one critic, “Sure, Jindal has a bit more color, but he looks sunburned, not ethnically Indian.” I agree.

Jindal2Jindal’s official portrait, courtesy of Kyle Plotkin

Full disclosure: I am a native Louisianan, and I am not a fan of Bobby Jindal. In fact, part of the reason I choose to leave my beloved home state was in response to what I consider the great damage Jindal has done to Louisiana, especially in regard to education, healthcare, and civil liberties.

My personal opinions of Jindal aside, why are these “lighter” representations of Jindal problematic?

First, Jindal has grand political ambitions and many speculate that he intends to make a run for the White House in 2016. These images of Jindal with near white skin are just another example of Jindal turning his back on his heritage. Other notable examples, of course, are the changing of his name to “Bobby” and his conversion to Christianity. The underlying presumption is that he is trying to “assimilate” to white culture to make himself a more viable Republican candidate in the minds of the voting public.

Second, the images are just another troubling example of the “whitewashing” of America. We see it most often in the entertainment industry. Celebrities’ images are digitally manipulated to make their skin lighter (i.e. whiter). One of the most notable (and disturbing) examples was Elle magazine’s grossly manipulated cover image of Gabourey Sidibe.

SidibeImage courtesy of Colorlines

Digital alterations are done to make celebrities’ images more closely conform to “stereotypical” representations of beauty in American culture. These manipulated images become “pictorial stereotypes” that create dangerous statements of what is beautiful, what is important, and, ultimately, what is acceptable in our American culture. While Jindal’s portraits are original images (rather than manipulated photographs), the effect is the same. His image has been “whitewashed” to make him “acceptable.” Rather than championing diversity, stereotypical images such as these systematically erase our differences.

Hollywood is one thing. The fact that this alarming trend is seeping into politics is truly horrifying.

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