Tackling Colorism in Asian Communities

Featured Illustration: Katherine Tsai

grey-line-png-6

When we think of racism, the easiest thing that comes to mind is ignorant white folk and the ghost of colonialism past (is it though?) and the pain it has consequently brought us for years. What we sometimes fail to criticize, and even acknowledge at times, is the racism that exists amongst other minority communities. Its subtleties and microaggressions make it so that we often fail at recognizing it as racism.

I was born and raised in Indonesia, a country in South East Asia that has a long colonial history spanning almost 400 years. 75 years ago, we finally achieved independence and have come a long way since. But the values that once oppressed us are still here — instead of slipping off the lips of our white Dutch colonizers, they’re coming from our own family members. I can remember scorching middays, laying out in the sun, when a well-meaning auntie or uncle would say, “Soph, get of out the sun! You’ll turn dark and ugly!”

And it could be argued that they meant well, that they didn’t want me to get sun damage from staying out for too long. But the phrase ‘dark and ugly’ was something that has stuck in my mind ever since. It never made sense to me — my mum is dark-skinned and she’s one of the strongest and most beautiful women I know. And it doesn’t stop there, I know plenty of dark-skinned women who are not only beautiful but amazingly accomplished, both personally and career-wise. So, where does this dangerous idea of colorism come from?

According to this VICE article, there’s a disturbing correlation between light skin and purity — “tanned Indonesians — they’re seen as run-of-the-mill girls, they’re seen as [slutty].” It has even gotten to the point where skin bleaching products are considered the norm in marketplaces, despite their proven dangers. Skin whitening products make up the most revenue within the Indonesian cosmetics industry.

This is not an isolated issue, either. Big corporations such as Unilever, L’Oreal, and Shiseido have marketed these so-called ‘whitening and brightening’ products all over Asia, Africa, Europe, and America. Even when banned, these kinds of products are still able to circulate in underground black markets. And they’re banned for a reason: many skin whitening products have ingredients such as mercury or illegal amounts of hydroquinone. These women would rather have what they believe is ‘perfect’ skin and sacrifice their long-term health and well-being.

This needs to stop. Colorism within minority ethnicities is arguably just as dangerous as the racism that comes out of white communities. The results are similar: young children of color slowly but surely begin to hate the skin they are born in, and endure growing harassment throughout their lives because of it. As long as we correlate darkness with ugliness, we will continue to teach future generations that their value will first and foremost be measured by their skin.

The traditional idea of colonialism has, for the most part, disappeared. But now, we face the dangers of the ‘colonization of the self’ — sure, we can blame outside influence for this, but in order to create real change, we’re going to have to start from within ourselves and our communities. As soon as we unlearn this form of internalized racism, we will finally be rid of the influences that started with our ancestors’ oppression.

. . .

Sources: