I grew up in a pretty well-off nook of Trinidad. I didn’t have the same complexion as many of the friends I grew up with in my neighborhood. I remember many a sunny Saturday spent lounging in the pool, when two of my light-skinned or Trini white friends would play a game that I’ll call “I’m Darker Than You.” They would slather themselves with tanning oil, broil like lobsters, and then compare their tans. “I’m darker.” “No, I’m more tan.” Of course, yours truly wasn’t eligible for this game. It always amused me that my friends would try so hard to be something that I naturally was. My mom got annoyed about it. She saw it as a kind of insult that they would strive for a black complexion without the reality of blackness, I suppose. I don’t know. In my opinion, that was giving my friends credit for deeper thoughts than I think they were having at that time.
Prolonged sun exposure is more frowned upon now. More people use sun screen instead of tanning oils that are the basic equivalent of applying I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter on their skin. But still, we’re standing on the opposite sides of a racial fence and admiring what the neighbors look like. Dark skinned people use fade creams, and light skinned people go to tanning beds, or slather tanning lotions on their bodies. I’m skeptical of anything that would turn my palms orange. We might use products that help us achieve the look of the opposite race, but we don’t actually seek to emulate another ethnicity, right? Wrong. Meet the ganguro girls, teens that embody a Japanese fashion sub-culture that adds a new, fascinating angle on ethnic appropriation. Apparently this trend peaked in 2000, but traces of it remain in Japanese culture.
According to this quirky, fascinating Salon.com article by Malena Watrous, Ganguro want to look black and American, like their idols TLC and Lauryn Hill. In pursuit of a color that’s beyond tan, they frequent tanning salons, purchase sunlamps and smother their faces in brown makeup. It’s not uncommon for a girl of limited means to color her entire face with a brown magic marker. For those ganguro with the funds, however, Japan’s hippest hair stylists will coerce usually rail-straight Japanese locks into bulbous “afuro” (afro) perms that take half a day to set and cost about $400.
And we’re over here are paying good money for Japanese straighteners, silky blonde weaves, and bleaching creams. The article continues to explain that these girls (much like my friends from childhood) weren’t thinking on any kind of subversive racist level:
While the color of their skin lends them a group identity and ganguro label, they seem to give little thought to the historical or sociological implications of their so-called blackface. An advertisement for the tanning salon “Blacky” in Egg magazine shows a close-up of a pretty African-American girl, beckoning to the reader with a crooked index finger. The italicized caption reads, “Come wid mi,” — a Japanese stab at “black English.” Asked why they work so hard on their tans, why they want so desperately to approximate “black America,” every ganguro I interviewed gave the same curt and unexamined answer: Because it’s cool, because it’s sexy.
Well, I won’t argue with anyone who calls me cool and sexy. I guess imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It just blows my mind that these girls will take a Sharpie to their face for fashion. That’s just crazy.