Keeping it Colorful

“Oh, I don’t want to go outside, I don’t want to get dark.” My Japanese friend bluntly turned down my invitation to come and learn how to ride a motorbike. “Umm…. haha, okay.” I responded with nervous laughter, surprised that she would let something so seemingly trivial stop her from learning this skill. This wasn’t the first time I had heard the “dark skin is bad” sentiment here and it definitely wouldn’t be the last. As someone with naturally darker skin and no fear of getting tanner from being outside, I’m never sure how to respond to people that vocalize that sentiment. Most of the time it’s not directed at me – it’s a personal statement about a personal preference – but it’s hard not to feel uncomfortable as someone embodying the very characteristic they are eschewing.

Because of my uncertain feelings and the heaviness of the topic, I’ve been unsure how to approach the topic on here, but I was finally prompted to share my experiences after listening to a recent Stuff Your Mom Never Told You podcast. The episode, titled “Colorism” armed me with a new set of vocabulary and perspective with which to discuss the issue and differentiate it from racism. It’s a fantastic episode and I’ll wait patiently here while you go listen to it. … Done? Okay, let’s carry on.

Let’s clarify some terms. Colorism is a form of prejudice where people are treated differently because of the color of their skin. This sounds deceptively similar to racism but is different, yet it’s somehow more insidious because it is an in-group issue as well, where people within the same race are treated differently based on their skin color. While racism is a hot-button topic, colorism is not often discussed, perhaps because of how internalized it can be and how often it’s simply conflated with racism. I’ll admit, it sounds like another ridiculous “-ism” for the social justice warriors of Tumblr to throw around, but it’s actually a social phenomenon distinct from racism (which is a whole other can of worms I’ll tackle in a later post).

I was aware colorism to some degree before my time here, but to a less pronounced degree and without a real word to describe it. In the US, it’s particularly an issue within black communities, where lighter-skinned African Americans have long been viewed more favorably both by both black and white standards. Studies performed in the 40’s showed children of various races imbuing positive attributes on white dolls, while describing black dolls as “bad” or “likely to be poor”.1 Still, as an Indian-American, I’ve been relatively fortunate to be surrounded by diversity and while it’s not perfect, tolerance of diversity in skin tone exists to a great degree than in many more homogeneous places.

My first conscious encounters with colorism were on visits to India. Fair and Lovely ads would ubiquitously broadcast the story of young girls whose lives were transformed for the better once they used the product to lighten their skin. Fair and Handsome promised the same for men, saying “Now it’s easy to be handsome!”, equating light skin and good looks. When I was younger and would ask if people actually used these products, my mom would be quick to voice her opposition because of all of the chemicals they contained. Most of these products were endorsed by Bollywood actors and actresses who had light skin, but since they were also always perfectly made up, had killer wardrobes, and could bust into song and dance at a moment’s notice, their “accomplishments” were easier for me to dismiss.

I had trouble deciding which ad to go with because there’s so many that are so awful, but this classic combination of sexism and colorism is the winner. A father is lamenting his lack of a son to help financially support the family, so his daughter decides to “become a son” and uses Fair and Lovely to get a job as an air hostess. Plus, she catches the attention of the (equally fair-skinned) hunky pilot – bet that wouldn’t have happened when she was dark! 

Perhaps because my visits were always relatively short and surrounded by doting family rather than blunt strangers, the light skin ideal was never pushed at me that aggressively as it is here. I mentioned it to my mom, figuring she might have had a different experience growing up there. She recalled, half-laughing, about how she was always considered the dark one in her family and her lighter-skinned siblings and friends would garner lots of praise for being light-skinned-and-beautiful. Even though she commented on the absurdity of this, she ended the phone call noting “… but really, don’t get too dark.” In spite of – or maybe because of – her upbringing, she echoed the default: lighter skin is more beautiful.

Nowhere has that idea been forced upon me more openly than here in Laos. It’s interesting existing as a dark-skinned person in a society where light skin is so obviously valued. Like the podcast mentioned, there absolutely exists bias about skin color in the US, but a lot of it isn’t presented as overtly as it is here. People often voice fears of becoming “too” dark and carry umbrellas to shade their skin or wear long-sleeved sweaters in the blistering heat, not to hide from the sun’s damaging UV rays, but from their darkening power. Ads feature beautiful half-Caucasian models with glowing translucent skin. I have to make sure to check the fine-print on face wash before buying it because the vast majority contains some sort of whitening agents. The issue is not isolated to one gender either; men and women alike strive for that elusive ghostly paleness.

Maybe if I had a half-sibling?

While no one here has directly told me I should lighten my skin, the bias in that direction is clear. When looking at pictures, Theresa’s family in northern Laos noted, “Oh she is beautiful, but she is dark.” When I went to get passport photos taken, the result was in the uncanny valley – the photographer had lightened my skin and did something weird to my jaw so I looked vaguely like but not quite myself. My students make note of my skin color often as well. One time I was eating lunch with the Movie Club I help with and one of my students told me, “Teacher, you are dark, but you are bright!” Pointing at another student, whose nickname is even “Dam” – dark – she said, “He is dark, but he is not bright!” Dam nodded along and I responded once more with nervous laughter, trying to dismiss her statements as a joke.Yet, the most offensive experience was a few weeks ago. When my (pasty white) boyfriend was visiting, we went to get a massage. At one point the masseuses cornered me and asked me in Lao where I was from and if Sean and I were dating. They were stunned to find my boyfriend is “falang si khao” – white foreigner – and repeated that fact, dumbfounded, as if it were unfathomable for someone so white to want to date someone so dark. I just sat there, stunned and unsure how to respond beyond saying “doi” – yes, yes it it’s really possible.

It’s scary how internalized these attitudes are. When comparing Eastern and Western cultures in the Western Cultures class I teach, I mentioned the beauty ideals of darker skin vs. whiter skin. For homework, one of the students compared these ideas with the picture below. Like the experiments with white and black children and dolls in the 40’s, my student associated the dark-skinned figure she drew with negative attributes and the light-skinned one with positive ones. The student in question is a very sweet girl and I doubt she even realized how malicious this kind of internalized colorism can be. I’ve made it my goal to incorporate discussions about diversity into my classroom, but I’m up against both a language barrier and years of socialization.

I was so upset when I came across this in the stack of papers I was grading. Many a 😡 was sent to the people that make up my online support system.

It’s interesting how it isn’t an absolute phenomenon based purely and objectively on skin tone; that is, it is inextricably linked to perceived differences in race, making it an especially difficult topic to discuss. It’s an interesting case study having Theresa, Mari, and I together here. Theresa is Lao-American, while Mari is blonde-haired and blue-eyed. She fits everyone’s stereotypes of what an “American” looks like and even though objectively, she’s darker than Theresa, she gets praised for her “fair” skin. Since Coco Chanel returned from the French Riviera with sun-kissed skin – accidentally, mind you!2 – a tan signifies class for white people, while a combination of vestigial colonialism and racism means that it does the opposite for people of color.3

For more awesome comics about language and cultural differences while travelling and living abroad, check out Itchy Feet

To be fair (no pun intended), light skin has been the ideal in many Asian cultures for long before colonization. Lower class workers would spend long days in the sun, leading to darker complexions, leading light skin to become a status symbol, indicating that one was wealthy enough to spend their time inside. This class distinction blurred with colonization when wealthy white Western foreigners imposed their rule upon these cultures. Thus in colonization, wealth and race were strongly linked. Today, seeking light skin doesn’t mean that everyone wants to be Western, but more likely, “rich Asian”.4

One day, I was walking to lunch with a coworker. We made a funny pair, her with her umbrella and me towering nearly a foot above her, exposing my face and arms to the sun. As she noted that I would tan in the sun, I told her I didn’t mind. I tried explaining to her that it’s funny, because in the US, a tanned complexion is prized and pale is a derogatory term. She looked at me, confused, for a moment before responding simply and definitively, “… No. White skin is better.”



1 5 Truths About Colorism That I Learned As a Black Woman in NYC, Kristin Collins Jackson, Bustle, 18 November 2014

2 The History of Tanning: Going for Gold, Linda C. Brinson, How Stuff Works, 5 October 2009

3 Spray Tan Politics, Stuff Mom Never Told You, 11 April 2016

4 The Significance of Skin Color in Asian and Asian-American Communities: Initial Reflections, Trina Jones, UC Irvine Law Review, December 2013


3 thoughts on “Keeping it Colorful

  1. Love love love this post! So informative and so true in Vietnam as well. I’ve noticed the same exact thing, but didn’t have a word to describe the phenomenon until reading your post. I like that you make the distinction between racism and colorism, and how lines are blurred between the era of colonization and class distinction. Definitely a conversation I want to have with some Vietnamese pals over here.

  2. Hi, Pooja! Just coming up for air after a long year, and hadn’t visited your blog in a while — and this is an amazing post! I studied some of these issues as an undergrad and grad, and think you would enjoy reading “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison at some point (well, not enjoy exactly, but it’s an amazing read). Anyway, can’t wait to catch up when you get back! Best, Elizabeth

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