White People Problems

Gone is the era in this country where certain drinking fountains and swimming pools, etc, are exclusively demarcated for white people.

And yet there is one place in this country—indeed in this (supposedly progressive) city—that is—even in this day and age—pretty much exclusively for white people. And I’m not talking about the City Council.

I’m talking about Tanning Salons.

I’ve driven past Tanning Salons all my life. As a non-white person myself (see my picture below, where I pretty much look like a Mexican Eazy-E), I’ve gone past them without ever really taking notice; Tanning Salons are seen yet unseen; a secret club of a society that I’m not privy to.

What happens in these places? Is it like that “White Like Me” Eddie Murphy SNL sketch? Are loans dispensed without credit checks or even identification? Does champagne flow like water?

At the California Sun on Mangrove, 20-year-old Kaitlin, blond, sweet and bubbly with a sequin-bedazzled shirt, explains the various lotions and “tan-extenders” to me. “This is our Juicy Desire,” she says, gesturing at a bright bottle of 18X bronzer on the shelf behind her. “It has pineapple, mango and kale in it, so it’s super super good for your skin! It’s packed full of antioxidants.” Kaitlin also shows me the Jwoww Bronzer, which she explains is “natural” and made with stuff like black walnut. Then Kaitlin points to a bottle of “Kardashian Glow.” “This stuff is amazing!” She says. “It’s really cool, cuz there’s a coolant in it, so it’s gunna cool you down in the hotter beds and it’s gunna leave you really cool and refreshed.”

The term “white people problems” is thrown around these days in very disparaging ways. It’s used to refer to a class of difficulties that includes iPhone battery life, dry cleaning lawsuits, the sociology of airplane seat reclining, and the horrors of baristas who don’t know how much foam a double macchiato ought to have. But these aren’t technically really White People Problems, obviously. People of color have to deal with this shit, too.

But choosing between Jwoww, Kardashian Glow and Juicy Desire is an actual White Person Problem. And it’s one that, with my melanin, I’ll never have to face. In fact, having a blond girl named Kaitlin describe these products might be the most deeply white experience I’ve ever had. That tanning salons are essentially exclusively a white thing is why, last year, Republican Florida Congressman Ted Yoho suggested that the 10% tax on tanning booths included in the Affordable Care Act was a “racist tax” targeting white people.

I ask Kaitlin something I’ve been wondering about: Why is it that, with white dominance all around the world, with people in Asia using whitening lotions and Abuelas in Latin America remarking “Que blanca!” with joy when their grandchildren are born lighter than expected, do white people here want to get darker? Does darkness, which once signified manual labor and, thus, the lower classes, now signify, among certain caucasian subcultures, a life of superior leisure and fun?

Kaitlin considers the question for a beat or two. “I know when I feel tan it makes me have a lot of confidence,” she explains. “They say if you can’t lose it, tan it!’ It makes you feel skinnier.”

“So it’s like wearing black?” I ask. “Except it’s your skin?”

“Yeah, exactly,” Kaitlin says.

After this little philosophical exchange, the manager, Amanda, starts in with the hard sale. I try to explain to her that I’m just doing this for “journalistic” purposes. “Look at my skin,” I tell her, pointing to one of my brown arms. “I really don’t want a month membership, trust me. I just want to try it one time.”

Amanda is not having it. “So you’re going to pay $15 for one three minute session, when you could pay the same for a month membership?” she asks, rhetorically, visibly perturbed; her arms crossed defiantly, her lips tightly pursed.

“Uh, but Kaitlin told me it was only $10 for one session,” I say. Amanda looks totally busted. She’s so dead set on getting me to sign up for a membership that she’s willing to dissemble. I call her out on it. She explains that I’m going to totally screw over her sales numbers if I opt for the one time session. “It counts as a missed opportunity,” she explains. “You were an opportunity to sign up a new membership. And if you don’t, it counts as a missed opportunity.”

Amanda abandons the dissembling but doubles down on the guilt trip. “I think we helped you out,” she says. “So you can help us out. I did just let you talk to my assistant manager for 10 minutes.”

Then she switches tactics again. Her voice softens to a purr. ”I mean you’ve got two cute blondes smiling at you,” Amanda says. They stare me down; their ultra-white teeth juxtaposed against their tan skin; gleaming in wide, frozen smiles.

It’s working. The guilt, that is. “So I’m like ruining your life if I get a single session?” I ask, breaking down.

“You really are,” Amanda says.

I agree to pay for an entire month. That is until halfway through the application I realize it’s one of those ongoing memberships I’m going to have to call and cancel. “Screw this,” I think. “I’m going to tan elsewhere.”

Over at the Electric Lounge, on Nord, super cool 17-year-old Chico High senior, Jacqueline Garcia—who can’t even legally tan—lets me tan for free. I opt for a standing booth. I feel like a non-buff Terminator about to time travel, getting into this thing naked. The lights are warm and loud fans swirl air around me. It’s kinda nice I guess.

When I’m done, I ask Jacqueline the same question I asked Kaitlin about why white people want to be darker now while many people around the world want to be lighter.

“I guess that, wherever you go, everyone is trying to be something that they’re not,” she says.

Yes, Jacqueline. Yes.

About Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff

View all posts by Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff
Former busboy, sauerkraut-mixer, and Japanese hair model, Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff is a writer and father of two, living in Chico. After quitting a job as an Erin Brockovich-like legal investigator, then hitting rock bottom in a scene that involved roommates, tears, nudity and police officers, the UC Berkeley graduate decided to go for broke (and he’s accomplished his goal!) in the exciting world of small town weekly newspaper writing.