Reaching for Whiteness: Colorism and #BlackLivesMatter

Written by AJ Joven. Follow him at @aj_joven.

My family never let me feel my color. My mother let me be a kid, which meant that I'd get as brown as possible during the summers due to being outside all day. I had no concept of "colorism" until I visited the Philippines in my 20s. The beauty section of an SM department store (the Filipino version of JCPenney) housed all sorts of skin-lightening creams. I was shocked when I saw these products and their advertisements and wondered how we could hate something so fundamental about ourselves as the color of our skin. I remember feeling deeply confused and hurt.

I think of that when I think of the uncomfortable relationship Asian Americans have with the African American community, especially#BlackLivesMatter. That knotty and complicated relationship can be viewed through prism of the model minority myth (asserting that Asian Americans overachieve in areas of education and upward socio-economic mobility, setting them aside or above other minority groups), or the tense relationship between Asian-American shopkeepers and African-American clientele. The discussion, though, rarely delves into the concept of how that preference for lighter skin within our own respective heritages allows for the harmful bias and discrimination against black people in America. We are predisposed to disliking darker skin within our community and that must be confronted and done away with.

Colorismprejudice within a community against people of darker skinhas its roots in colonialism. Across the world, wherever imperialism has touched, colorism can be found. A common example in the US would be the term “mulatto” which was meant to describe a person of mixed racial heritage (typically white and black) in America. For Filipinos, that class of people were referred to as mestizos.

This class of people were afforded a level of privilege that indigenous populations in colonial areas did not receive. Encouraged by that, mestizos who exhibited the preferred features of the Spanish would often then attempt to “pass” as part of the elite. Filipinos today encounter it in the works of Jose Rizal, but the deep-rooted effects still reverberate: one of my first memories in Manila is of being warned about panhandlers on the street. Most of them were dark-skinned children, who I was told were indigenous. Being indigenous, then, is still being conflated with being part of an undesirable class. The echoes of that message are found in the deep market for products that affirm that message.

Colorism isn't only a Filipino problem. Many Asian Americans have stories of family members chastising them for staying out too long in the sun, or ones about relatives wearing giant sun visors and half sleeves while driving. There was even a referenceplayed for laughsaddressing this on the Season 2 premiere of ABC's Fresh Off the Boat. But the consequence of this problem is that Asian Americans have historically had a hard time finding common political ground with other social justice movements. Compounding the model minority myth, Asian Americans have historically skewed more conservative, taking up political stances reflective of their relative privilege. (1) The recent gains, owing mostly to Millenials, indicate a shift in voting patterns and political identity among this group. This rift between Asians and other minorities aids white supremacy.

Many Asian American Millennials have grown up as beneficiaries of the diversity programming that did survive; I am the product of a high school that targeted students of color from inner city neighborhoods that exhibited high achievement in STEM subjects. This program allowed me to see people of color as intelligent academics. It also opened up worlds of opportunity that mainstream media would put beyond my reach. Since graduating, I've seen classmates go on to the top schools across the nation and create change wherever they've gone.

While my experiences directly refute colorism, they are experiences that our parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents have not necessarily lived. More, the nature of America’s own history of racism and colonialism only serve to provide a willing and firm foundation for those old colorism instincts to flare up. Going back to the term “mulatto” (the American synonym for “mesitzo”) allows us to see that American society’s historical approach to color stratification is not different from the experience of color stratification in AAPI culture; reading examples in literature by luminaries such as Langston Hughes often underscore the gap in valuing lighter skin versus darker skin. Despite the promise of freedom and liberty, America has allowed for the colorism of our forebears to take root and flourish here.

It is the responsibility of our generation to reach out to those generations that have not had the opportunity to have experiences to regularly challenge their preconceived notions to speak up and show them how the same colorism that said darker skin means fewer opportunities continues to play itself out in America today. That the same thinking that would lead one to proclaim lighter skin as a symbol of excellence, social elitism, and refinement, is the same that’s lead to the deaths of Tamir Rice and Tyre King. That it’s the same thinking that values one person’s life over another by virtue of melanin.

It's on us, the beneficiaries of diversity programs and the generation of various ethnic studies initiatives, to have those difficult discussions with our family members about the importance of supporting #BlackLivesMatter. We are the bridge between the false impressions that centuries of colorism have imprinted on our cultures and the truth we know today: that black lives matter too.