Colorism and its impact on anti-black racism in Asia.

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It’s the end of the summer, and as often at the end of a summer, my skin is a dark, golden brown. As a child growing up in sunny Arizona, I cherish my memories of playing outside, swimming in neighborhood pools, and hiking in the hot sun. I love my brown color and think nothing of the shades it turns based on the seasons of the year. But this year, similar to the many years I would return as a child to my mother’s native Taiwan, I field many questions about my skin color.

“Are you mixed?”

“You don’t look like you are from here”

“Your skin is so dark.”

And my favorite…

“You look like a Black person.” (Ni kan qi lai shi hei ren).

There are some very veiled and not so veiled biases in these comments and brings up the centuries-old ideallogy in Asia that lighter skin is better than darker skin.

At its root, colorism, and the resulting discrimination and bias that is a result of colorism has its roots in classism in Asia. Unlike the racist ideology that was a direct result of the rationalism of slavery by Western European countries of Portugal, Spain, Great Britain (Kendi, 2016), colorism in Asia came from the idea that lower-wage workers had to work in the fields and had darker skin as a result. Lighter-skinned people were able to stay out of the sun. “Having white skin isn’t only about being Western. In Asia, there is a deeply rooted cultural notion that associates dark skin with poverty and working in the fields, whereas pale skin reflects a more comfortable life out of the sun and, therefore, a higher socioeconomic status.” from SCMP.

This line-of-reasoning, when taken even further, results in anti-black racism. In many countries in Asia, the population is very homogenous, resulting in the perpetuation of this stereotype and the further objectification of people with darker skin; indigenous communities, South East Asians, and people of African descent.

These cultural beliefs are deeply ingrained in the minds of many Asian communities. It is difficult to discuss this idea because it is easy to dismiss it as “cultural”. We just don’t like dark skin because the sun can cause skin cancer. We just don’t like dark skin because we don’t want to get sun damage.

There is a difference between wanting healthy skin and colorism. Having healthy skin is something that folks of all colors can have. Moisturizing and wearing sun block is a great practice and I am not going to call out my grandmother who is 98 years old and wants to carry an umbrella when the hot, Arizona sun is in the sky.

What I am going to call out is the thirty-one billion dollar skin whitening and bleaching industry world-wide and its roots in white supremacy culture. These products often times have illegal products in them such as mercury and, “mercury salts inhibit the formation of melanin, resulting in a lighter skin tone, yet many cosmetic products contain mercury levels higher than that amount to increase whitening effects.” (WHO) These companies, primarily owned by large beauty companies in America like Nivea and Dove praise and prioritize whiteness.

Worldwide, there are folks who are starting local movements around skin tone. Hashtags such as #EffYourBeautyStandards and #UnfairandLovely are examples of such movements.

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#unfairandlovely Instagram meme. retrieved March 21, 2016 from here.

This video, made by a white reporter in the Philippines is extremely tone deaf. What she is missing and therefore fails to tell her audience is that the western standard of beauty, which includes many of the characteristics below is what drives the worldwide beauty markets. These ideas, including light skin, come from white superiority and colonialism which feeds into internalized mindsets of what is beautiful for young people of color all over the world. “Being white, tall, and skinny with long legs, big breast, and full lips — this is what sells today. These are the ideal Western beauty standards promoted by the fashion industries, television, internet, and social media.” article here.

Here in Taiwan, the prioritization of whiteness in beauty standards is palpable. Many billboards and ads still feature western models for Taiwanese products from cars, clothes, and cosmetics. Modeling agencies pay more for Western-looking models. On the flip side, dark-skinned folks including Southeast Asians and Black folks experience prejudice in everyday life. Some buxibans even refuse to hire English teachers who are not white and some parents complain about their children having Black teachers. One parent told a principal of a Taiwanese private school that “her children would have nightmares if they were in the Black teacher’s class”. Another friend experienced extreme discomfort when stared at and gawked at by middle schoolers on the High Speed Railway. A close friend’s child was made fun of in school for skin that “looked like poo.” For a forward thinking small-island democracy, we need to do better. Having dark skin-color is not a bad thing. In fact, it is gorgeous and beautiful to be golden and dark toned. We need to bring attention to the internalized-whiteness that has strangled us — that perpetuates this myth, and ultimately harms people with darker skin.

Stefanie Davis, who is a co-lead of the Taiwan-based Black Lives Solidarity Global Initiative, feels that the answer is through personal connection and education.

“Being Black in America — there are systems in the government and police force that directly affect our lives.” Here in Taiwan, “Instead of stabbing at us, it’s like people just poke at you… After a while, when you are just trying to live your normal life, those pokes get annoying, and it becomes a really big bother. Due to the microaggressions that are occurring — it requires education. We have to be able to educate and share that some of the things people are doing, are not okay.” Davis says she is “looking for an authentic apology, not an excuse”. (Full interview: Black Lives Solidarity Rally, Taipei, Taiwan, Spring 2020)

If we are doing everything we can to center Black Lives here and now — then we need to have these discussions with young people now. We need to start dismantling where white supremacy shows up in all aspects of our lives and start centering ourselves. We need to get back in touch with what it means to be us — not what it means to be us under the ‘white gaze.’ As we do that, we need to protect and stand up for the Black and Brown communities around us. Our liberation is tied to the liberation of Black and Brown communities worldwide and this is one way we can address it. We need to talk about the colorism that exists within our own communities and to break down the ways in which colonialism and whiteness has latched deep into our psyches. We need to free the next generation and build towards a future that can exist in healing and self-love.

Kendi, I. X. (2016). Stamped from the beginning: The definitive history of racist ideas in America. New York: Nation Books.

The Taiwanese American Conversation about #BlackLivesMatter. (2020). Retrieved 3 September 2020, from http://www.taiwaneseamerican.org/2020/05/the-taiwanese-american-conversation-about-blacklivesmatter/

Note to white folks reading this article: White folks, you have your own work to do right now, and that is talking with your own community about anti-racism and white supremacy. Don’t stick your head into this conversation until you have done the work to have your own. I don’t want to see any performative allyship with white people calling out Asian anti-blackness until you can call out your friends, uncles, parents about their white fragility. Thank you for reading. Now return to the task at hand.

Educator, Mother, Traveler, Justice-seeker, and Hustler for the people

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