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Photo by: Michael Alvarez-Pereyre
White sells
By REUVEN BEN-SHALOM
12/27/2012
What has happened to the famous exotic Israeli beauty? Yemenite, Indian and Ethiopian woman are stunningly beautiful. Who decided that we consider only white to be presentable and appealing?
 
Last year, during a session with immigrant children from Ethiopia, I was making a point about us all being equal. A sixth-grader stood up, walked over to the bookshelf and came back with a few books. She handed them to me and said: “Look at the pictures and tell me if we’re equal.”

I didn’t know what to say.

I have always been conscious of ethnic discrimination in Israel, but since this happened, I have been observing our media environment in a different light, and I don’t like what I see.

Take my bank, for instance. Concurring with the dominant yellow color in its logo and commercials, most of the models are blond-haired and blue-eyed. Does the bank expect me to identify with these people? They look Scandinavian, for heaven’s sake! But never mind me. What would an Ethiopian think? Would he feel that he and his community are respected? Would he want to bring his business to this bank? The answer is no. He might sense that they welcome customers from Denmark, Switzerland and Russia but not from India, Yemen or Ethiopia.

Wherever you look, Israeli mass media and advertising conduct cultural and racial discrimination.

I reviewed 60 consecutive covers of a leading Israeli magazine on parenting.

The findings were astounding. Every single child and parent portrayed for the past five years was – for lack of a better term – white, and there was an obvious preference for light-colored hair and eyes. No Cochin Indians, no Ethiopians and even people with a darker complexion were heavily made up, making everyone similarly pale.

I wrote to the chief editor, and her response was complete denial: “Observe the covers and you will find full representation of all ethnic groups living in Israel.”

I looked again but could not find one deviation from the “white mold.”

The phenomenon of unrealistic representation is widespread, serious and sickening.

I recently visited a private medical center in Ashdod, a city with large Ethiopian and Russian-speaking communities. The entrance is plastered with bigger-than-life posters, every single one of them portraying white doctors and nurses.

Go online to one of the major Israeli portals.

You will notice shallowness, celebrity idolization and obsessive inclusion of sexual content – aiming for the lowest common denominator. But I ask that you also notice the scarcity of people of color. If you find a male exception, it’s Barack Obama, Will Smith, or some other Hollywood or NBA star. The female exception is of course Beyoncé, Rihanna or Michele Obama.

Rare appearances of dark-skinned Israeli models are usually connected to an article on immigration, discrimination or integration.

Reviewing front pages of leading fashion and women’s magazines reveals the same pattern. Most models are not only heavily made up, but “whitened.” Famous figures of Eastern origin, including Yemenite and Persian, have lost their natural skin tones and seem like pale, lifeless images.

What has happened to the famous exotic Israeli beauty? Yemenite, Indian and Ethiopian woman are stunningly beautiful. Who decided that we consider only white to be presentable and appealing? I called a photographer I know, and asked for his opinion. Michael agreed with my cultural discrimination claim, but further opened my eyes to the unvaried and one-dimensional nature of fashion photography in Israel. Our “white fixation” goes beyond people and leads to a lack of artistic diversity and depth.

Many ads not only depict pale-looking models wearing white clothes. Light colored, plain backgrounds and extremely bright lighting make the whole composition almost look like a blank white page.

Photos look monotonous, one-dimensional and boring. They lack depth and tone, express no worries or doubts and show neither shadows nor shade. The world doesn’t look like that.

Cultural discrimination perpetuates social gaps and influences the way we relate to each other. We are being brainwashed that not all people are equal and that a certain look is better and prettier. Children not “blessed” with the right skin color can sense this, and may feel rejected and suffer from low self-esteem.

Don’t analyze this academically. Just put yourselves in the shoes of a child of Ethiopian origin, and imagine what he or she sees watching TV, reading magazines and going to the mall.

There may be some “technical” reasons. For instance – most Ethiopian Israelis don’t have enough capital to constitute a substantial market share worth targeting in commercials.

It was African-American purchasing power, not moral awakening, which led to change in the United States.

It may also be argued that some commercials reflect reality. For example – there aren’t as many Ethiopian doctors as Russian. But I expect us to transcend these kinds of excuses.

What can be done to overcome this cultural backwardness? I don’t believe we should, or can, jump to the extreme we see in the US and Europe, where every photo “happens” to portray the appropriate politically correct combination of races, even though I would rather have that kind of hypocrisy than the current blunt discrimination.

It might seem superficial, but it has an important indoctrinating influence, mainly on children.

I believe that coercion by legislation is irrelevant here. We must change, I hope in a speedier manner than natural market forces will ultimately dictate, and sooner than the usual 10-year-cultural-lag behind the US.

Editors, photographers, advertising and PR professionals – you can all begin making bottom-up changes. Hire models who portray the amazing and beautiful Israeli diversity. Try to appeal to all segments of our society. Allow yourselves artistic freedom. Show color, texture and depth. Give your Photoshop editor a day off. Go easy on the makeup, and try to enhance, not cover or alter.

Israela Avtau is an Israeli of Ethiopian origin who has a successful modeling career overseas (where she is “the Israeli”), but not in Israel (where she is “the Ethiopian”). In a recent interview, she talked about discrimination and told of a case when her face was whitened with makeup.

Her protest was silenced with this explanation: “White sells.”

The writer is a former Israel Air Force pilot and founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd. reuven@CCSt.co.il
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