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No, fake tan isn’t racist or problematic

“So what’s in the news?” a female friend asked me yesterday, knowing that I had one day of work left before my wife and I take our long awaited summer holiday. “Well”, I replied, “it turns out you might be a racist”.

I had never considered before that the lady in question – amongst the most caring and compassionate person I know, might be hiding a dark secret. But I happen to know that on one or two occasions in her life, like a lot of Irish women, she’s employed the use of fake tan. And if you missed yesterday’s life-changing revelation in the Irish Times, here it is:

“When a white Irish woman dons fake tan for a night out, she is wearing a costume that allows her to experience a fleeting taste of a more exotic identity, with none of the obstacles people of colour face.

We can’t talk about fake tan without acknowledging the historical context of skin colour and the value that has been placed on it. For centuries, Eurocentric beauty standards have favoured lighter skin tones, often at the expense of people with darker complexions. Racism and colourism – prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone – have resulted in marginalisation, discrimination and inequality for people of colour. By artificially darkening skin, fake tanning culture inadvertently perpetuates the fetishisation of high melanin content, without acknowledging the struggles faced by those who naturally possess it.

The line I’ve highlighted in bold there is the one that jumped out at me most from the piece, because of what it implies: “perpetuating the fetishization of high melanin content” would, apparently, be acceptable if the artificially bronzed goddess perpetuating said fetishization acknowledged the struggles of those who are naturally darker skinned. Unfortunately, the Irish Times did not think to provide Irish women with an appropriate mechanism of acknowledgement: Should they wear a sign around their necks reading “I hereby acknowledge the struggles faced by those whose skin is naturally darker”? Would an Instagram post suffice? Or is a private reflection, or maybe an act of private penance, sufficient to achieve the necessary social permissions for donning some of St. Tropez’ finest?

It’s tempting here to attempt some kind of intellectual dismantling of the case advanced in the pages of the Irish Times: That fake tan amounts to cultural appropriation and racist mockery; that observing people wearing it can be “painful” to those with darker skin; that fake tan “devalues the authentic experiences of women of colour”. But to engage with this nonsense risks, on some level, legitimising it.

The real question which should be asked is how it has come to pass that people with authentically demented beliefs about the world, and how people should behave, persistently get such large platforms to advance their views, while those with more – I’m just going to use the word – normal outlooks on life find it hard to get a word in edgeways.

In part, I think, the answer is clicks: God love them, but media outlets do not survive on “normal”. They survive by elevating the weird and the nonsensical in order to secure our attention. The Americans used to have an old saying in newsrooms along the lines of “if it bleeds, it leads”. In the modern Irish media that might be revised to “if it’s crackers, it’s clicks”.

But there are lots of things which are objectively mental that don’t get columns in the Irish Times. This country is not short of people who believe in all sorts of conspiracy theories about one world Governments and lizard people – the thing is, they never get columns in the Irish Times. There’s a difference in other words between high status lunacy and low status lunacy. “Fake tan is racist” is the kind of thing a respectable academic lunatic can believe, and therefore it can be published. “King Charles III is secretly a lizard”, while no less insane, isn’t the kind of thing you can utter respectably in the UCD woman’s studies faculty.

And so we have this reinforcing system where high status lunacy is promoted from the top down, and where adopting the views of a lunatic actually reinforces you as having a high social status.

It should also be noted that this particular bit of lunacy is in the same family as other, far more entrenched, species of lunacy: “Fake tan is racist” is not a million miles on the spectrum from “all men are potential racists”, a belief that has been almost entirely adopted by the great and the good in Ireland, and is deployed when the need arises. Almost all of it has a single source, too – social studies departments in Irish Universities, who have turned teaching high status lunacy into a business model.

The other point of it is to keep people in a constant state of insecurity, always wondering what the latest “offensive” thing might be: One week, it’s braiding your hair (racism). Another day, it’s the wearing an outfit inspired by some other culture (appropriation). Another day, it is using the wrong pronouns. The net effect of it is a reign of terror which not coincidentally empowers to the greatest extent the overwhelmingly white membership of academia: It is they who get to pronounce whether or not you are a racist or a bigot or a transphobe on a given day. It is they who decide whether you need to apologise.

Anyway, you don’t need to apologise, ladies. Tan away, and leave those who have a problem with it to, as they say, cope and seethe.

See you all in two weeks.


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