Ang itim, itim mo, a Tagalog phrase that translates to “You’re so black,” was a phrase that my family and friends often tossed my way growing up.
As a child who was born and raised in a tropical U.S. island in the Northern Marianas called Saipan, I wasn’t allowed to stay under the sun for too long. I wore long sleeves under the sweltering sun so my skin wouldn’t get any darker. At 7 years old, I started using papaya soap — a famous Filipino skin-lightening product that is vastly advertised in the Philippines, which I visited frequently. 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.
I tried almost every skin-lightening product out there. Nothing worked. As a child, I had mixed feelings every time I visited the Philippines. I hated being brown or dark-skinned, especially when everyone around me had a lighter complexion than mine.
In the United States, we often hear terms such as “white privilege,” “whiteness” and “anti-blackness” often associated with racial discrimination deeply embedded in our culture and history. When most people think of Asians or Asian-Americans, the looks that come to mind are those with a lighter complexion, often from East Asian countries such as Japan, Korea and China. The reality is that these common stereotypes and misconceptions aren’t just a U.S. problem. Other countries and cultures often have similar misguided views as well.
The recently released Hollywood film “Crazy Rich Asians,” which is soaring at the box office, perpetuates the stereotype that all Asians are East Asians or light-skinned Asians.
“When most people think of Asians or Asian-Americans, the looks that come to mind are those with a lighter complexion, often from East Asian countries.”
Brown and dark-skinned Asians have been left out and constantly overlooked by the media and society for many decades. Where are the brown Malaysians, Filipinos, Vietnamese and Indians? Let’s not forget those in Arab countries in West Asia. Borders are arbitrary, and apparently so is geographic ethnic labeling.
Growing up, I also watched teleseryes, Filipino TV dramas, on the Filipino Channel. While I did enjoy the cheesy or dramatic plots, rarely did I see a brown or dark-skinned Filipino on these shows. In “Crazy Rich Asians,” there is one Filipina, Kris Aquino — a Filipina actress and a sister of former Philippine President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino — but she is still a light-skinned Asian, from a well-known family, with the traits of how Asians are typically portrayed in the U.S.
Though I understand that the release of “Crazy Rich Asians” is a radical moment in terms of Asian-American representation in Hollywood — believe me, I was one of the movie’s hailers because it is indeed a milestone for Hollywood — the cast undeniably consists of light-skinned East Asians. While I spotted a few brown Asians in the film, they unfortunately play service roles such as guards and maids for the affluent family that accounts for most of the main characters. The movie leaves out the marginalized Asians in Singapore such as Malays and Indians and migrant workers from the Philippines and Bangladesh and thus feeds into the dominant yet misguided view that East Asians account for the entire continent, disregarding that brown Asians are a substantial part of the Asian population.
Brown and dark-skinned Asians are often dislodged from the Asian-American label. Asia is the largest continent, and “Asian” is a broad term. Nonetheless, only certain Asian groups make it under that umbrella.
It wasn’t until I went to college, at the University of Portland in Oregon, when I learned to love my skin and my identity. I remember hating my skin color and wishing I were white, Korean or Japanese. Most of my family are light skinned, and I was one of the few who, I guess, didn’t get the lighter skin genes. Unfortunately, my dad still calls me negra, a term used to describe Africans.
It also wasn’t until college that I was introduced to the term “anti-blackness,” which is the belief that black people are inferior and that having a dark skin color is inherently a bad thing. Anti-blackness is a global issue that co-exists with white supremacy. Dismantling this notion means unlearning what you know. It is a continuous process, so no matter how hard I explain to my dad that negra is a considerably racist term, with some cultural barriers, he can’t get past that unlearning stage.
Over a year ago, the hashtag #MagandangMorenx, which translates to “beautiful brown skin,” flourished across social media platforms. The campaign took off when actress Asia Jackson started the hashtag to dismantle the colonial mentality around Filipina beauty. Like me, she has been in and out of the Philippines and faced the difficulties of colorism from family members as well as from seeing billboards, teleseryes and Filipino magazines claiming that whiter skin is better.
“I challenge Hollywood to dismantle anti-blackness and deconstruct the misconception, which ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ perpetuates, that all Asians are light-skinned, Chinese-looking, smart and wealthy.”
I am 22 years old, and I have learned to love my skin more than ever. Although I have not been back to the Philippines for about a decade, I am no longer afraid to fight my culture’s beauty ideals. I have grown to love and accept myself for who I am, regardless of the color of my skin.
So I challenge my fellow Filipinos and brown or dark-skinned Asians everywhere to love your skin. I also challenge Hollywood and everyone else to dismantle anti-blackness and deconstruct the misconception, which “Crazy Rich Asians” perpetuates, that all Asians are light skinned, Chinese-looking, smart and wealthy. And to my fellow Asian-Americans who consider themselves people of color, remember that it is our responsibility not to feed into these racial and cultural stereotypes.
It’s applaudable that Hollywood is making strides, but let’s not overlook the folks outside the margins ― the ones who look like me. We are all beautiful, no matter our skin color, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
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