Unlearning Colorism

This is a spoken word piece that I wrote very quickly and I didn’t have  time to edit.
My Chinese name, Ming Zhu, means Precious Pearl. I was named that by my grandfather in the hopes that I would be as pale, luminous, and flawless like an expensive pearl is.
I was three when I first heard the words uttered by my great aunt to my grandmother, “Your granddaughter would be so much prettier if she was lighter.” It’s a traditional thing since back during the dynasties, if you were rich, you stayed inside and didn’t need to work hard under the harsh sun. Then being pale became the thing to be since it meant that you were rich.
I was told to stay outdoors and try to slather layers upon layers of sunscreen to prevent me from tanning. I was told to use “brightening” creams which were supposed to lighten my skin to be a more “acceptable” tone. If I did go outside, I was made to wear a wide brimmed hat to make sure that I didn’t get darker. I was told to aspire to have Fan Bing Bing’s skin tone, her pale as snow white skin, because she is considered the modern Chinese beauty.
When I was eight years old, and I had a couple of photoshoots of me in cultural dress, the photographer insisted on editing my pictures. He lightened my skin so light to the point that you would think that it wasn’t me. This happened on numerous occasions, not that one time. Even when having professionally done senior prom pictures, they retouched and Photoshopped my skin at least four shades lighter.
When I got into makeup at 15, there were 25 shades of mayo, eggshell, and bone white but not one shade that matched my golden tan skin. Even now at 19, it’s extremely difficult to find a shade that matches me even when I go to higher end shops like Sephora or MAC. The salesperson tries to sell me a shade that doesn’t work, the shade is either always Donald Trump orange or takes the warmth away from my skin to the point that I look like a zombie. Although I have more options than other women of color, it’s still ridiculous that many of us have to buy 2 expensive bottles of foundation and mix it just to have an okay match.
I was 17 when I learned about the systems of oppression. I learned that colorism is the prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. I am privileged enough that my skin was light enough not to be considered “the help” when I was in China, but my skin is considered too dark to be considered beautiful. Other ethnicities regard me as fair skinned but my own race bullies me because I am too dark.
Learning this in my social change class awoke the realization that I am inherently privileged, I can afford to buy makeup that somewhat matches my shade. That I indirectly benefit from anti-blackness because as Asian Americans, we usually distance ourselves from African Americans and their struggles. We demand that they support our causes, yet we abandon them when the topic of Black Lives Matter arises.
I am still unlearning my internalized colorism, the 15 plus years of hating my skin. It’s difficult when the few representations of East Asian women are traditionally pale and light skinned. Whenever you think of a prominent Asian American woman in modern media, you often think of Jaime Chung or Lucy Liu. Because why can’t a darker skinned Chinese woman play Mulan? She fought in a war for 12 years under harsh conditions so wouldn’t she be tan? Because why is Scarlett Johansson, a white woman, the better choice to play a Japanese character over an actual Japanese actress who deserves the role? She is taking a role from Asian Americans who already have limited starring roles.
I embrace being tan, loving the way that when the sunshine hits my skin, it turns an incredibly beautiful golden tone. I am slowly learning to love myself for who I am instead of being a young woman with insecurities and internalized colorism. I think about how beautiful my skin tone is every day and how if I ever have a child, I would not subject them to all of the anguish of hating themselves over skin color. I would teach them to love themselves and that they are beautiful the way they are. My grandpa was right, I am as flawless as a priceless gem.

Published by

Rita

College student who loves beauty, Computer Science and Social Justice.

3 thoughts on “Unlearning Colorism”

  1. I loved reading this. Thank you for sharing! I’ve heard similar things throughout my life – “don’t go out in the sun too much”, “you’re so dark”. It’s a process unpacking colorism and addressing anti-Blackness in our Asian Am communities but so glad you’re thinking through these things and sharing!

    1. Thank you for reading!
      It’s been 2 years since I’ve been trying to unlearn my internalized colorism. It’s been a long process. I still have to tell myself not to use sunscreen to prevent my skin from getting darker but to use it as a way to prevent skin damage. To let myself enjoy the sunshine instead of fearing it.
      The anti-blackness is totally real since Asian-Am communities love to appropriate black culture, they refuse to be allies.

      1. It definitely takes time to unlearn everything we’ve internalized. But it’s so great to read that you’ve been taking steps to do it! I’ve been trying to have more of these convos with friends and fam, especially the women of color in my life who are taught to be ashamed of their dark skin!

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