Growing up with kayumanggi (brown) skin should not have been a problem for me, but it was. I live in the Philippines, a country where skin color discrimination is pervasive but is highly overlooked—a nation that breeds colorism into normality.
Colorism is defined as skin color stratification or, in the words of Professor Marget Hunter, “the process of discrimination that privileges light-skinned people of color over their dark-skinned counterparts.” Issues on colorism have been raised in different parts of the world, such as North and South America, Africa, and Asia, but to what extent does it affect the Philippines? Should we even care?
My answer is yes. Why so? Here’s my story.
Reducing identity to color
When I was in Grade 1, we were taught the three groups of Filipino ninunos, namely, Malay, Indones and Ita. Drawings and cut-outs of people in three varying colors were posted on the blackboard, as we discussed their history, their lifestyle and their contributions to our modern society. The most memorable lesson to me and my classmates, however, were the appearances of these three groups. Come dismissal time, we weren’t talking about the lifestyle of our ancestors nor were we talking about their valuable contributions—we started sorting ourselves.
A classmate of mine cheekily proclaimed herself as an Indones because she had white skin and a high-bridged nose, while others claimed Malay because of their ‘normal’ skin tone. I, on the other hand, retreated to the side, hoping nobody would take notice of me. It was too late. “ITA!” my ‘Indones’ classmate shouted. Their laughing heads turned, pointing and giggling at how I was the perfect representation of an Ita: crimped hair, flat nose, dark skin and all. How was that funny? Why was I hurt? My six-year old self couldn’t understand.
I used to view myself only as a Filipino, but that encounter changed everything. It revealed a social hierarchy that would later haunt me for the rest of my childhood, making me realize how identity can easily be reduced to color and physical appearance. Dark skin had since then become a curse I wanted so badly to break.
Attempts at acceptence
I used to be a competitive swimmer. I would train six hours a day in chlorine-filled pools during the summers, swimming just minutes from waking up, and swimming just hours before bedtime. On school days I’d head to the village clubhouse as soon as class ended, and leave only when the pool caretaker ordered me to. Just imagine the amount of sun exposure my skin experienced. Just imagine how darker I had turned each day. The sun loved me too much, kissed me like its own daughter.
“ULING!” the same white-skinned, ‘Indones’ classmate called me. “Uling ka, ‘di ba?”
Those words hurt me more than sunburns ever did, but unlike sunburns, they didn’t fade that easily. In fact, they didn’t quite fade at all. I soon found myself trying every product that promised me whiter skin. I gave in to papaya soaps and whitening lotions and facial scrubs and whatnot. I became the very epitome of this ‘white skin’-obsessed culture.
When nothing worked out and none of my attempts at acceptance had stopped the color-shaming, I presumed that there was no other choice but to quit. Quit swimming. Quit water. Quit the sun. I quit my first love because I needed to be accepted, I needed to be white. That’s what my childhood made me feel like, anyway.
Needless to say, my final attempt at acceptance proved to be futile. I turned a few shades lighter, but I was still the same color. I still lived in the same skin. As I grew older, my bullies remained bullies and their taunts had transformed from childish insults into passive-aggressive punchlines.
Once, I had someone tell me, “konting ligo nalang, pwede ka na,” as if I could wash off the dark layers of my skin in order to pass their beauty standards—as if being dark was undesirable, as if it meant being inferior.
I drive by EDSA and lose count of billboards of glutathione and skin care advertisements promoting ‘flawless,’ ‘perfect’ and ‘beautiful’ white skin. Mestizas and chinitas had become the faces of beauty—most of them, anyway, if not all. Morena celebrities are photoshopped and edited to look shades lighter. We, myself included, edit and filter our own photos to look ‘fair’ online. It happens everyday, and it’s the sad truth.
Beyond skin color
Dark skin has been relegated and associated with ‘second-class citizens’ and is continuously stigmatized as the color nobody should want. Far too much importance has been placed on skin color that we allow it to dictate our society’s perception of beauty, let alone our very own ideologies. I have been a victim of colorism, and I personally know how it can be a determining factor in one’s self-esteem.
Skin color is only color. It’s only a speck in the spectrum of beauty. What power does it hold to hold us back?
I’m writing this because I don’t want another child to ever feel unwanted, ugly or any less deserving just because she ‘failed at the genetic lottery’ and was blessed with kayumanggi skin. I’m writing this because something needs to be said and done about colorism, and it has to be now. #StopColorism – Rappler.com
Ayn Bernos is a 4th year English Language Studies major from the University of Santo Tomas. She is currently specializing in Critical Discourse Analysis, a linguistic approach that focuses on power relations, ideologies and dominance in discourse.