Our brown skin, slanted eyes, and Spanish surnames often confuse people; depending on the day, season, or context, people may perceive us as Asian, Latinx, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, multiracial, or sometimes Black. Some Filipino Americans are so racially ambiguous that strangers will have to stop and ask us what we are.
Others experience a variety of microaggressions based on whatever race people stereotype us to be. Sometimes, we are told (directly or indirectly) that we aren’t really Asian; that our skin is too dark; or that we are among the lowest of the Asian totem pole. Because these messages are often communicated by East Asian Americans (e.g., Chinese, Japanese, or Korean Americans), many Filipino Americans report feeling more affinity with Pacific Islanders, Latinx, and Black Americans, and some build coalitions with South Asians to proclaim that Brown Asians exist.
At the same time, our own Filipino family members and communities have taught us many messages about the meaning of being brown. Most Filipinos (in the Philippines and across the diaspora) have likely heard a parent, grandparent, or older relative encourage them to stay out of the sun or to avoid getting dark. Others may have even been encouraged (sometimes forced) to use Eskinol – a bleach cream that boasts the ability to whiten skin. So, even if many of us are taught to be proud of our ethnic identity as Filipinos, we can still carry with us an internalized oppression or colonial mentality, that teaches us that dark skin and indigenous qualities are bad.
On my recent trip to the Philippines, I learned just how prevalent colonial mentality still is in the Philippines, as well as how taboo it is to talk about it. I also saw first-hand how colorism (or prejudice and discrimination based on skin color) is promoted in almost all aspects of Filipino culture. In both metropolitan and provincial areas that we visited, most of the people around us were my skin color or darker. Yet, a vast majority of people featured in the media (e.g., television, billboards, and magazines) were light-skinned.
When I first stepped foot in a 7-Eleven, I noticed that almost all the soap and facial cleansers were infused with some sort of “whitening” element. When we visited a shopping mall, a large grocery store devoted a whole aisle to whitening products. Through these subtle environmental messages, Filipinos are taught that light skin is better or more beautiful, while dark skin is inferior or ugly. These messages are even transmitted to Filipino Americans who may not have ever stepped foot in the Philippines who may learn such messages from their immigrant parents or family members, while also being exposed to American standards of beauty which still perpetuates Whiteness as the norm.
Perhaps I should be more empathetic and recognize that Filipinos’ desires to be lighter-skinned are merely the results of 400+ years of Spanish and American colonialism. Perhaps I should be more understanding of a country that has experienced so much historical trauma and accept that colonialism and colorism have been integrated into what the Philippines is today.
However, it is hard for me to do so because I recognize the negative impact colorism and colonialism has on people. The research studies of scholars like Dr. Leny Strobel and Dr. E.J. David have found that colonial mentality is harmful and has long-lasting negative effects on our psyche. Colonial mentality has been linked to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and more. It affects the way we think about ourselves (e.g., how attractive we feel, how capable we feel about doing things). It also affects the way we think about others (e.g., how we view darker-skinned Filipinos and darker-skinned people of color).
Throughout my life, I’ve witnessed many ways that colorism and colonial mentality have affected people’s lives. I once heard one of my 6-year-old nieces say that she was “dark and ugly” as she looked at herself in the mirror. I’ve felt stunted in situations when multiracial Black Filipino Americans were being teased or called egots (a derogatory word for Black people), and I’ve felt awkward in instances when multiracial White Filipino Americans were praised for being mestizo (a glorified word for mixed race with Spanish or White heritage). I’ve listened to many Filipino American friends admit to a lack of self-confidence, or even self-doubt, because they don’t think they’re pretty enough, smart enough, or White enough.
With this, I challenge Filipinos across the diaspora to have honest conversations about how negative messages about skin color affect our lives. I challenge those with lighter skin to examine the privilege that light-skinned people tend to have (e.g., they are favored by their grandparents; they are complimented on their beauty), while recognizing the ways that they may stereotype or indirectly hurt others (e.g., using the term “light-skinned” as a synonym for “pretty”). I challenge those with darker skin to combat the internalized messages they’ve learned about their brownness and to love the skin they’re in.
Finally, I challenge everyone (Filipinos and non-Filipinos) to critically analyze the ways we build hierarchies in all of our groups. While colorism is embedded in many countries around the world, systemic discrimination may also manifest based on gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, social class, religion, ability status, age, size, and other identities. And because we know that these hierarchies cause some people to feel superior and others to feel inferior, let’s do what we can to speak up against the status quo and advocate for change.