I am a brown skinned girl who grew up in a country that was occupied by different Western colonizers until after the second world war when the Philippines became fully independent from the US. While the country’s independence from foreign tyranny may have ended many decades ago, we are still haunted by the ghosts of our past unceasingly perpetrating to our very psyche the standards, definition and quality of a person the foreigners have instilled in us. I guess independence was not entirely achieved.
Racism continues to persist in our civilized and educated world. Despite trying to understand its history, engage in discussions after discussions, and become more didactic and raise global awareness, bigotry remains pervasive. Over time, we emphasize the importance of equality but unfairness and discrimination yet remain an everyday challenge for many. We always thought of racism as white people’s prejudices or antagonism against people of color, and that is correct. However, how can this be addressed properly if there is an existing relentless biases and discrimination among people of color themselves.
Filipinos look up at Western standard of beauty as if it is the unbreakable golden rule that we have to follow. We have an egregious obsession with our skin tone that it actually defines our future, our career, our choice of partners and many aspects of our lives. Sadly, those who were endowed with steep amount of melanin in their skin are, more often than not, being marginalized and looked pass to in favor of people with paler skin tone.
My sister and I have a similar facial feature that at times, some people have sneaking suspicion that we may be twins especially when we were a lot younger except that she has a fair complexion and I am brown. When we go to the banks, the tellers assume that my sister makes the transactions. When we are wandering in shopping malls, she would always be offered with flyers of all sorts. In many instances, she would always receive a pronounced preference obviously because of her lighter color.
Unfortunately, the Philippine society is more inclined to root for individuals with lighter skin tones. In job advertisements, there is always a requirement for pleasing personality and Filipinos are aware that its context does not sic to having lily-white character but it refers more on something physical even the roles do not require fronting up to people. In school, kids with darker skin are being bullied and made fun of. I know because I was once at the receiving end of such juvenile hounding. In dating, regardless of the person’s gender, someone will always prefer someone who is fair-skinned for a partner. Lighter skin is always in the checklist even for those whose tone is on the other end of the color spectrum. In our modern world, light complexion is still synonymous to wealth, beauty and elegance. In contrast, brown or dark skin tone means poor, unattractive and less favorable. Some people may refuse to admit that this is the case, but that is the hard truth that Filipinos experience every single day whether consciously or unconsciously.
What else is the clear attestation to such obsession to a Eurocentric standard of beauty but the multibillion dollar beauty industry that promotes skin whitening products like creams, soaps, lotions, pills, and even intravenous drips. I do not know anyone in my Filipino circle who have not tried any of these products. I have used them too for many years. I remember when I was in high school, most students in my class would wear sweater or any long sleeve clothings even at the height of summer. I would always wash my face with soap up to three times to the point that my skin stings. I would try a product called eskinol to cleanse my face at night – the product claiming to have whitening properties even when I felt that it was already burning my face. These went on and off in my teenage years through to my young adult life when acceptance is more important even at the detriment of health. However, this did not last because I thought that keeping such regime was so laborious and strictly adhering to a routine was not one of my strong points. Thanks to my laziness!
What is horrifying I must say, is that some Filipinos are prepared to make use of any whitening products with labels they do not understand and even without the approval of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)! Some are prepared to apply skin bleaching products in their quest to change their color. Needless to say, there were many reports that some products result to massive rashes, inflammation, scarring, thinning of the skin, discoloration, liver and kidney disease and many others. A couple of years ago, one of my best friends had to go to the doctor and spent a huge amount of money to treat her skin inflammation and infection resulting from an application of a cheap whitening cream with a foreign label.
What is more alarming is the fact that some people are, to all intent and purposes, using whitening products to their young kids. While it is petrifying, it is also understandable because having fair skin means a better chance at life in the country, even for some who are aware that these may be fraught with numerous health risks. Unfortunately, such phenomenon extends to many other Asian countries, Latin America, Africa and other parts of the world.
Today after many social, political and technological revolutions, the world is still affected strongly by prejudices by one group against another group of people. The world, it seems, is becoming more dangerous to live in. Filipinos have always been victims of biases and bigotry committed against them by many people of other races even among Asians themselves. However, Filipinos have also been victims of prejudices of their fellow Filipinos which are being passed on to children whether inadvertently or not.
We get enraged, we feel sad, scared and hurt when we see on TV or social media how some Filipinos overseas become a sitting target of racism in many forms and shapes. Many Filipinos living in other countries can attest that at one point or another, they have been subject of prejudices whether directly or indirectly. This is a very uncomfortable situation to say the least. Extremely fearful, when an encounter becomes quite violent. As a Filipino society, we cry foul.
How is this different from the discrimination that Filipinos inflict against their own just because of the darker shades of their skin?
Would it not be up to us to change all these by trying to stop the prejudices we hold against our very own color? People treat us the way we treat ourselves. I’d like to think that we are treated by people of other races the same way we treat our fellow Filipinos.
I’m pretty sure that it is onerous to even start a discussion about colorism because of centuries of psychological impregnation of the idea that white is beautiful. We were indoctrinated by it thus it became part of our belief system. But I think we should have a robust discussion about this which we can start in our very own home. There is hardly any conversation about colorism in the Philippines. If there is any dialogue about this topic, it is done by few young Filipinos who live overseas who either grew up or were born outside the Philippines.
Maybe we can begin by accepting the color that we were born into. Maybe we try to appreciate our own color regardless of its shades. Maybe we can start thinking that our worth and value do not depend on our skin tone. Maybe we can shift the paradigm slowly no matter how difficult it is. Clearly, there is no easy answer to this. I am not sure whether it’s going to change the perception and behavior of people of lighter race towards us. Maybe yes, maybe no. It may take generations to make that transposition if it’s going to happen. But at least, we can try to remove that very same bias within ourselves, within our own community.
Only then can we be truly liberated!