“If only you had light skin.”
Whether you are South Asian, East Asian, West Asian, etc., all Asian countries share one thing in common: colorism
October 11, 2019
Prologue: “You would look prettier if…”
There always seems to be that one specific moment where you just know: After this, you cannot look at yourself the same way.
Merely five minutes before her very own moment, she was weaving through the throng of people in the doorway; an odd mass of adults greeted each other with warm hugs, ‘Welcome!’s, and ‘It’s been so long!’s. Old Bollywood music seemed to play from all corners, its volume competing with the clamor of relatives and friends all making conversation. Small children ran around, and she had to stop abruptly to avoid bumping into one. Technically, she was also a child, but she was a bit older: a child with 10 years under her belt.
In her endeavor, she briefly passed an ornate, full-length mirror. For a fleeting moment, her reflection took up the glass. Long, black hair, swishing from side to side in a thick braid. Her mother had helped her brush and plait it, as if to tame her wild mane before presenting her at the party. Also with her mother’s help, she donned a pretty, traditional garb of different colors. The bright shades of blues, greens and reds contrasted nicely against the dark umber of her skin.
A moment passed, and she finally found herself standing by her mother’s side. Her mother was conversing with another woman, whom the 10-year-old girl had never met before.
“Oh, my gosh,” the woman, who had been introduced as ‘Aunty’, exclaimed to her mother. “You’ve changed so much since you’ve gone to America!”
Then, the Aunty directed her scrutinizing gaze toward her. Another ‘oh, my gosh,’ left her lips. “You are so beautiful!”
She felt a smile tug at her mouth upon hearing the compliment. ‘Thank you,’ she was about to say, but the Aunty was not done.
“You would look prettier if you were lighter skin, though.”
Her mother wasted no time in defending her daughter, but the damage was done. This was the moment that she realized her skin ‒ too dark for others’ preference ‒ was considered ugly. She was considered ugly.
Act I: Colorism Clarification
According to Cynthia Sims and Miraj Hirudayaraj in “The Impact of Colorism on the Career Aspirations and Career Opportunities of Women in India,” colorism is “a preference for light skin tones and devaluing of dark skin.” It is a phenomenon that is evidently genderized, one that is “mostly affecting women” and “creates social and workplace inequities and negatively affects women of color.”
People who have never heard of the term “colorism” before may wonder, ‘Colorism? Isn’t that just racism?’
It is not.
Colorism, which has a lengthy history and prolonged prevalence in Asian countries, is an issue that occurs within ethnic groups. But, both are still forms of discrimination, and both still have deleterious, degrading effects on a colored person’s stance in society, job, opportunities and general acceptance.
Furthermore, colorism stands apart from racism in that it favors light skin. In Is Lighter Better?: Skin-Tone Discrimination among Asian Americans, co-authors Joanne L. Rondilla and Paul Spickard state that “for women who are not White, much of the beauty issue is concentrated around the color and texture of their skin.” In many Asian communities, “the prime value is placed on being light and smooth.”
In Asia, colorism can be seen everywhere. It is evident in the multitude of skin-lightening products promising to ease the pigmentation of your skin. It is seen in the celebrity class, which provides the epitome of successful Asians with light skin. It is in the bullying of kids at school, who bear the brunt of the jokes and taunts for the simple reason that their skin is darker than the others.
This is colorism.
Act II: Glorified Sunscreen
In India, there is no shortage of colorism. The issue was particularly inflamed during British colonial rule; favoring light-skinned Indians for jobs over those with darker skin was a popular strategy employed by the British to subjugate Indians. Although the former colony had since rebelled and became independent a long time ago, India continues to be a hotspot for skin-tone discrimination.
Alumna Aarushi Bhaskaran shared part of her experience growing up in India. She had lived there for most of her life before moving around the age of 13 to California, where she now resides.
“Well, my entire childhood in India was full of instances of colorism, even though I didn’t really know the term back then,” she said. “There’s this ‘fairness cream’ called Fair and Lovely that’s really popular in India, and it’s supposed to make your skin lighter.”
However, Bhaskaran did not believe in the cream’s abilities. “It’s actually just glorified sunscreen,” she said.
Fair and Lovely, and the rest of the cosmetic industry, profits off of the popular value of lighter skin among Indian women. One of Bhaskaran’s earliest memories with the cream was at the ripe, old age of three-years-old. She had found a bottle of the cream and made the decision to put it on.
It was not a happy accident, though ‒ she knew what it was.
“It used to really bother me,” she said. “I didn’t think that beauty had anything to do with skin tone, but so many people just normalized those ideals and I hated it. I guess, though, when I was little, the toxicity was enough that even I kind of internalized it for a while and wanted lighter skin. […] I was actually pretty light-skinned as a toddler.”
The same may not be said for every young Indian girl growing up in India, but for Bhaskaran, the effects of colorism were definitely far-reaching. At three-years-old, already with fairly light skin, she had wanted to go lighter.
After a year or two of putting on Fair and Lovely on that fateful day, Bhaskaran had gotten tanner. “I just didn’t feel pretty,” she stated.
Her distress was amplified by the prominence of other factors. “[…] So many random people just had these ideals of beauty that I saw in ads and in movies and that I heard random women or friends of mine talking about… it was just everywhere.”
Eventually, as she grew older, Bhaskaran grew out of that toxic mindset. But it took her some time to feel comfortable in her darker skin. What helped her come to a different conclusion about skin-color was a positive support system and a few examples that showed darker skin are beautiful.
“My parents have always been a lot more progressive than many people in India, so they honestly raised me to be pretty open-minded and accepting of all people,” Bhaskaran stated. “Colorism is just another narrow-minded thing that makes zero sense, so they would never want to instill values like that in me. If you’re being taught to be open-minded, and not be prejudiced, finding certain skin tones more attractive is something you can’t really justify to yourself. Plus, I had some really, really pretty darker-skinned friends, and so that whole logic [of favoring lighter skin] was just so obviously skewed.”
Act III: Not everything is as simple as Itim and Puti
Itim. In Tagalog, the most popular language in the Philippines, the word means “dark” or “black.” Often times, you hear the word itim when someone is commenting on another’s skin tone. Particularly in the phrase, “Ang itim, itim mo.” You’re so black.
To say “white” or “light” is puti, but the word never seems to be used with as negative of a connotation as itim.
Rachel Ramirez, a Filipina born in Saipan, wrote in “It’s A Cultural Moment For Asian Representation ‒ As Long As You’re Light Skinned,” that she often had family and friends tell her that same phrase: “Ang itim, itim mo.” This emphasis on her dark skin tone pushed her toward various skin-lightening methods, even grasping for the practices that were only rumored to lighten your skin.
“At seven years old, I started using papaya soap ‒ a famous Filipino skin-lightening product that is vastly advertised in the Philippines, which I visited frequently,” wrote Ramirez. “And while it never did work, I also often scrubbed my body with calamansi, a tiny limelike fruit in the Philippines, because rumor has it that it makes the skin lighter.”
Colorism makes people become desperate, vying for a way to remove that dark pigmentation. According to Amirah Geneta, a 13-year-old Filipina living in the Philippines, people do not just limit themselves to papaya soap and calamansi. Just as Fair and Lovely is popular in India, Gluta is the go-to skin-lightener in the Philippines. Gluta, which comes as a serum and as oral capsules, promises to brighten and lighten skin. Geneta also said that people often visit the dermatologist to remove scars and dark spots.
Growing up as a child in a society that values a specific appearance is absolutely devastating to their confidence if they do not conform to society’s standards. “Light skin is usually adored,” Geneta stated. “My classmate gets bullied almost every day because of his [skin] color. And they joke around. When they turn off the lights, they say that they can’t see him.”
For children to be bullied in such a manner, to be told that ‘they can’t see them’ ‒ what else is to happen except for that child to lose their self-worth?
Conclusion: The Real Ugly
“Ang itim, itim mo.”
“You’re too dark.”
“You would look prettier if you had lighter skin.”
Young Asians hear these statements from people around them ‒ friends, family, strangers on the street or at school from other kids on the playground. They see them in the prevalence of light-skinned models, in the celebrity class that they look up to, in the astounding number of skin-lightening products that people so desperately resort to. They feel the blow of every word, each letter articulating how their skin ‒ too dark for society to appreciate ‒ is unsightly.
Because in Asia, dark is ugly.
Dark is not ugly. Dark is not something to be devalued in society. Dark people should not be shamed for the melanin in their skin, a pigment whose only purpose is not to be shamed but to protect against skin damage from the sun.
Dark is not ugly. Colorism is.