colorism.

One of the incredibly inspirational women I follow on Twitter tweeted that her mother in law, who was visiting, had said about her sweet adorable daughter, “I wish the baby was fair like you and not dark like me.”

And it was heart-breaking. Not only the reality that would be difficult to address with the little girl, but the self-deprecation of the mother in law.

If I described the lovely child, she has tea-colored skin. A little bit lighter than tea, with olive undertones–the same olive undertones of her amazing mother, who (if I remember correctly) is white.

And the same as mine. I’ve debated writing about skin before but always put it off, because it’s difficult to estimate my own privilege. Olive skin can be fair, but it also tans very quickly and easily. I’m at a medium right now, so I will be forced to demonstrate with swatches of makeup. At my lightest I look like this:

And when I’m rather tanned:
Looking at the swatches now, they don’t look very dark. (It is understandable if you are scoffing at this point.) But that is assuredly because the swatches are liquid-y and transparent. It’s different when gathered as denser pigment in your skin and associated with a race other than white. I have had to endure the inflictions brought by the prejudice of colorism, but I feel like it’s not my place to speak of them because other women are darker and consequently have had experiences that are so much more horrible. It’s similar to what I feel when prejudices against headscarves are discussed: I can’t bring myself to talk about what it’s like to be judged for not wearing them, the discerning looks and the thick smiles and the expressions that say how can she know what she’s talking about when she doesn’t look devout? because the women who do wear them are actual targets of harassment.

There’s also a sense of guilt because I don’t have to be dark (I feel weird about even using the words dark and fair because they’re entirely relative), and so not only do I feel that I am wrongfully drawing attnetion away from the voices of women who hurt much more than I do, but that I’m doing it on purpose. If I wanted to, I could stay inside or always walk in the shade or something and never tan. Except that with olive skin, you can be in the shade and if the sun is even up you’ll start to tan. You just start absorbing it, even when you’re not beneath. I can get a tan in the middle of winter. If the sun’s up and there are clouds in its way, I’ll still start to tan. To truly never tan I would have to stay inside.

And that is no way to live.

And yet it’s a life that many women choose from when they’re alarmingly young. At age seven I remember racing across the blacktop, turning to look back, and seing two of my friends (both of Vietnamese descent and lighter than me) shrink into the shade of a nearby building.

“Why don’t you want to play?” I demanded.

“It’s sunny. We’ll get dark.”

I wanted to play with them, so I joined them in the shade. For about two minutes, that is–I couldn’t stand it. “We’re not doing anything here! I’m going on the swings!”

Dreamers can’t be held when there are swings that are free.

Though my own experiences don’t exist in a vacuum, I can only describe what I know: I can’t speak for the women who have it worse, who’ve used “fairness” creams, who’ve been driven to bleach their skin, who’ve hurt themselves dangerously and emerged believing they were more beautiful.

When I walk into a department store there is foundation in my shade. The olive undertones aren’t catered to–most times foundation undertones are either pink or yellow when there’s so much more to skin–but the generic shade is available. There are celebrities with my skin, and the implication that a woman with my skin-tone can still be an iconic beauty.

But I did grow up hearing, “You were so fair when you were born. You could be still, you know, if you just stayed out of the sun.”

I grew up hearing, “Wow it’s been 30 minutes and you’re so much darker than when you first left! You’ve stayed out there for too long!”

I grew up hearing, “You have such deep eyes and pretty lips. If only you’d stay out of the sun. Why be dark when you don’t have to be? Do you know how many girls would love to be able to control their shade?”

Because my skin color can change drastically, there was pressure from everyone to change it and maintain it according to an unrealistic (for me) standard of beauty. And it was always super disturbing.

But it wouldn’t matter how light I am anyway, because it will never be light enough. As I said earlier, there are clear ties to race and racism: the little girl has the same skin tone as her white mother, and yet she is perceived as darker because she’s mixed. It’s really absurd, and it’s an example of white as default: only white people can have light skin. Or, if you have certain features that are coded as white–those are white features, even as you’re not white. Because white people also happen to have them, and therefore they “own” them even if you happen to have them too; these features are defined as white by privileged white people and considered beautiful by privileged white people, who then force these standards on the rest of us through media outlets and actively contribute to the oppression of people of color.

I’ve always loved my skintone no matter what shade it happens to be at any given moment. It’s the undertones. Like seriously, (excuse obnoxious moment here) sometimes I lie in bed and hold my hand against the light of the window and marvel at the caramel-y shade. I can’t really describe it. My mother, who’s also got the same undertone but in a lighter shade with more peach, has tried as well. “It’s not really like anything,” she’s said. “There’s a different quality to it.” Skin has notes to it, like perfume. Often I live in my head (because I am an escapist) where everyone loves their own skin and it saddens me when little things like this remind me of how far that is from reality.

4 thoughts on “colorism.

  1. I've been told to stay out of the sun ALL THE TIME. I had to go to the doctor once for really strange aching throughout my arms. And guess what he said?Vitamin D deficiency. I needed sunlight.

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  2. This is a great post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on such an important and relevant topic. It's disturbing and tragic how colorism impacts communities of color, especially women of color, and upholds white supremacy and the globalized idealization of white beauty. Skin-lightening products that target women in Global South countries to perpetuate colorist hierarchies and the "superiority" of "fair" skin is just one example of how dangerous colorism is. I remember seeing television commercials from India, for example, feature Bollywood celebrities endorsing skin-lightening creams and preferring "light-skinned" women over "dark-skinned" women. Even more upsetting is when these prejudices surface in the community – and in very oppressive ways.Your point about "only white people can have light skin" is a powerful one. Histories and realities of slavery, colonialism, and white supremacy are often taught to be "things of the past" (and much is romanticized, omitted, altered, etc.), therefore no one sees how they operate and function today. I wrote about the race-bending in the "Prince of Persia" film and all of a sudden, white people were shouting, "Iranians are white too!" They get to decide who is white whenever it helps maintain racist forces in our society, such as media (and subsequently dismiss the concerns of people of color and make them look like they're "unreasonable" or "making a fuss out of nothing"). When Persians were all brown in the horribly racist "300," defenders of the film said I was "over-analyzing" and making "noise about nothing." However, where was the argument that Iranians are white?Anyway, I found your blog through a mutual blogging friend. Will be adding you to my blog roll. :)

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