The Black and White Truth of Colourism

“You’re lucky that you don’t have to get a tan.” Said one of my caucasian Australian friends back when I was living in a residential college.

Ever since I was 12, I used beauty products with bleaching properties because the Malaysian sun and my heritage made me tan easily. I was praised for being fair (for a south east Asian at least). Growing up in South East Asia meant I was always surrounded by commercials and beauty products that encouraged people to be fairer. I was also constantly exposed to media that whitewashed characters or created negative stereotypes of those who weren’t fair-skinned.

So it’s not surprising really that I grew up hating being tanned. It had been ingrained in me ever since I was a little girl that if I was fairer, I would be more beautiful and I would be able to go far in life

And then I came to Australia and lived in a residential college with mainly Caucasian Australians. I lived in a community where I was surrounded by girls who got spray tans and wanted to get tanned to be beautiful. And when one of them expressed their jealousy at the fact that I didn’t have to worry about getting a tan, I bristled with indignation. Because here they were trying to make their skin darker to be beautiful while back home, women especially had to lighten their skin in order to be deemed as beautiful and to have a higher chance of being successful.

I was angry and still am angry but not at the girls who wanted to get a tan (it’s not their fault). Neither am I angry at the girls, myself included, who lighten their skin (it’s not our fault either).

I am angry at the situation; at the fact that those who are light-skinned and privileged can afford to change their skin tone just for beauty and make themselves appear darker without having to worry about being discriminated, while the rest of us have to lighten our skin in order to be successful or to at least be treated with respect (after all, society is kinder to those they deem beautiful).

I am furious at the fact that colorism is still evident in this day and age and that we feel the need to change the colour of our skin to feel beautiful (because really, whether we’re extremely pale or dark or in between, we are all still beautiful). Although movies like “Crazy Rich Asians” has opened doors to an increase in representation in media, there’s no denying that colourism still plays a large role. POC characters who look and dress according to the Caucasian/Western standards of beauty and those who are on the lighter end of the spectrum get hired, leaving their darker-skinned counterparts struggling to get by or even worse: hired to play the help.

And how can I not feel frustrated even though I’m technically on the lighter end of the spectrum? Because colorism goes beyond racism. Where racism involves us discriminating each other based on the other person’s ethnicity, colorism makes us discriminate the people whom we share the same ethnicity with. Yes it is important for us to acknowledge and fight for our rights when we are discriminated because of our ethnicity and the colour of our skin, but we also need to be aware of our own internal (and toxic) mindset that may lead us to unconsciously discriminate others not just based on the colour of their skin but the shade itself.

Disclaimer: All opinion pieces are my opinion and mine alone, and do not represent the views or the organisations I have worked for or am working for.

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