Colorism in Asia: Blinded by Color

colorism in asia

While I was at the morning market with friends the other day, an incident occurred that really disturbed me. With my family were two other families, one of which have two adopted children —one from Vietnam and one from Ethiopia. We were strolling along, minding our own business, when, suddenly, an older woman came pushing through our group, mumbling. She then stood in front of me staring at something and talking to herself.

When I followed her gaze, I realized she was staring at my friend’s very-dark-skinned, Ethiopian-American son. What she was mumbling, in Taiwanese, was, “That skin is so black.” When she noticed me watching her, she directed her questions and comments at me, pointing at my friend’s child. She even reached out to touch his kinky hair, asking if it had been permed. She ignored my polite requests for her to stop and continued to treat my friend’s son as some kind of freak. She even waved a friend over, and together, the two of them pointed and stared and whispered. I positioned myself between my friend’s son and the two women to keep them from bothering him even more.

This incident, followed shortly by the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the United States, jarred me to the core. Together, these incidents reminded me that skin color always has been, and always will be, an issue within many cultures around the world, where one’s skin color plays a significant role in how one is perceived and received by the world.

Throughout my life, I also have heard comments about the color of my skin, mostly from my own family. Because my skin darkens easily when I’m in the sun, even for short periods of time, my parents would make comments about my “black skin” and joke that I was from Africa. Compared to my light-skinned cousin (whose appearance and mine were otherwise so similar that we had been mistaken for twins on multiple occasions), I was the less attractive one because of my skin color.

While living in Thailand and after our return to the United States, I also had gotten remarks on the darkness of my skin and had been schooled on how to keep my skin from darkening further. And everywhere we’ve visited in Asia, there is always a noticeable preference for the light-skinned westerners, not to mention the ubiquitous presence of skin-lightening products. I got to thinking about the role and effects of colorism—the difference in treatment of people based on societal meanings attached to skin color—in Asian societies.

Colorism in Asia

It is well-known the United States has a long and laden history of skin color and tone playing a major role in racial classification and differentiation within racial categories. Skin tone also is frequently and unfairly associated with positive and negative stereotypes—light skin tones equated with positive traits (intelligence, industry, and beauty, to name a few) and dark skin tones associated with negative traits (lack of intelligence, poverty, and laziness, for example)—with oftentimes heartbreaking and tragic consequences of self-fulfilling prophecies and promising futures cut short.

In comparison, the color and tone of one’s skin is valued in a different, if not a similarly harmful, way in Asia. In this region of the world, fair skin historically has been viewed as a sign of beauty, implying higher social and economic status. Because those who worked outdoors, such as manual laborers and farmers, had darker skin, dark skin has come to be identified with being in a lower socioeconomic class. Conversely, fair skin became an indicator of a privileged life spent indoors. In other words, to be light-skinned is to be rich, while to be dark-skinned is to be from the working class.

While this belief may have been based on reality once upon a time, it is meaningless in our modern world. This outdated and stereotypical view of skin color not only has spawned a multi-million-dollar beauty industry shilling skin-lightening products to women, but it also can have real, harmful consequences— discriminatory acts when it comes to employment, education and marital prospects; inflation or deflation of a person’s self-worth; and negative views of, and interactions between, people of different ethnicities and skin tones.

Negative Effects of Colorism

I have witnessed the negative effects of colorism play out many times during my time in Asia: Blond-haired and blued-eyed children refusing to acknowledge and interact with, even expressing a strong dislike of, the locals, after having been repeatedly mobbed, photographed, pawed and gawked at, and generally treated as objects while living in Asia; the children who are fair-skinned receiving more attention and even gifts, while others like my friend’s son are ignored and neglected; and those who are fair-skinned growing up with an unjustified sense of self-worth and air of arrogance.

As for my friend’s son, he is, luckily, very good-natured and able to ignore such rude comments and behaviors. Nevertheless, he is aware of, and affected by, how he is perceived and treated. In the few weeks I’ve known him, he has already commented to me several times, “This is what I hate about living in Taiwan.” I’m angered and saddened to think that this child, who’s funny, charming, and intelligent, will always be judged by his skin color first and his character and virtues second (or third…or never).

My son also has noticed this behavior (he, being half-Asian, looks more like the locals with darker skin). He doesn’t relish the spotlight cast upon his fellow light-skinned friends simply because of their skin color, but he is envious that they (and sometimes their parents) receive what he perceives as privileges—special treats, discounts, etc.—that he doesn’t. The few times he has been treated in the same way were when he was with my husband, who is Caucasian, without me.

Taking Action against Colorism

Having been in classes or situations in which he was the only non-Caucasian person, my son is well-aware of the differences between him and other American kids. As a preschooler, he remarked that he was the only Asian in his preschool class. We have discussed many times how one’s skin color and appearance can affect the way one is treated. He is aware of, and understands, the superficiality of these measures of an individual. It is my hope that these discussions stay with him as he grows and experiences more instances of colorism and know that his value as a person is unrelated to his appearance or skin color.

Unfortunately, most people, especially those with fair skin, don’t have these types of discussions with their children. Many people who receive special attention due to their appearance or skin color enjoy it or play to the locals’ views of them, while many on the other end of the spectrum become insecure or doubtful of their own significance, further promoting the stereotypes associated with skin color.

For this reason, I urge everyone living in countries where they are different in appearance from the locals—regardless of their ethnicity, social status, or skin color—to be mindful of such unequal and unfair treatment from and by anyone; to educate themselves, their children, their colleagues, their neighbors, and their friends; and to take the time to learn about each other as human beings, so these myths surrounding skin color may be dispelled, making way for more equal treatment throughout the world.



Author: Ann Kreske

As a Third Culture Kid, I was born in Taiwan, but raised in the United States, and have lived in over ten cities and towns in three different countries in my lifetime. In 2013, my husband and I decided to fulfill our lifelong dream of living abroad, and, together with our son, moved to and lived in Thailand for two years. I felt I had arrived “home” living abroad, and we were all bitten by the travel bug. Formally trained as an educator and lawyer, I have worked in the fields of education, editing, special education and disability rights advocacy, and veterans law.

Comments 4

  1. I’m a white American woman who lived and worked in Singapore for a few years. As a white person who grew up with white privilege, it was a strange experience to be both admired for my pale skin, but also discriminated against because of it. There’s lot of racism against minorities in Singapore — anyone who’s not of Chinese Singaporean descent. I would get weird comments about my big round eyes, strange blonde hair, etc. At work, all the white expats (British, French, American, Dutch, etc) were left out of social events, lunch outings, etc. I’m not sure how much of the segregation was racial and how much was cultural, but it was clear that many Singaporeans made assumptions about me and others based on their race. There’s even a Singaporean term for white people: “ang mo” — it’s used commonly and people call you that to your face, but it’s really quite rude and derogatory, as the full translation actually means “red-haired monkey” (“ang mo kow”) or “red-haired devil” (“ang mo kui”). I’m certainly not equating the racism I experienced in Singapore to that of African-Americans in the US, for example, but the experience did give me some perspective on what it’s like to be singled out due to your race.

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      I know what you mean, Anne. Seems people tend to focus on the differences, and it is only when they push through the surface and get to know each other better that they realize there are more similarities than differences. I’m sorry for what you went through. It would do the world a lot of good if everyone could experience being different and member of a minority at least once in their lifetimes.

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