Shedding Light: Reflections on Deconstructing Light-Skinned Privilege from Within

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when colorism began to seep into my consciousness. But one childhood memory stands out, in grainy detail: I am young, elementary school age, sitting in the living room with my mother and watching a Khmer karaoke video of a woman singing to her lover. My mother tries to explain to me what the song is about. The language barrier between us likely eclipses any complete and nuanced understanding, but I am left with the impression that the woman is singing about her dark complexion, and how she remains worthy of his love in spite of the color of her skin.

“But she’s not even dark,” I point out.

My mother shakes her head. “They wouldn’t cast an actual dark-skinned girl for the video.”

Something uneasily clicked into place at that moment for me. It stirred whenever my mother made self-deprecating comments about her own brown skin. It stirred when she fussed over putting on powder 5 shades lighter than her actual skin tone before we took any pictures, or when strangers who knew my mother saw me and said to her (in Khmer), “Your daughter has such fair skin. She’s pretty, like a Japanese girl.” Sometimes Korean would be offered instead of Japanese, but never Cambodian, where my cultural roots lie.

“She takes after her dad,” my mother would usually reply to comments like this. When I was younger, these compliments about my skin were bearable, even flattering to me. I would smile and say thank you with ease, up until my early twenties, when the discomfort broke through the surface and revealed its true colors with the help of an increasing social and political consciousness, provided to me by a rewarding albeit pricey women’s college education. This discomfort hardened into an unsettling truth: I have light-skinned privilege, and every time I allow someone to uphold it, I am rejecting my heritage and the woman who brought me into this world.

The funny thing is, I had never been fully sold on the belief that light skin is more beautiful or desirable than dark skin, even though I was raised by a mother who had internalized it to her own detriment. Perhaps I hadn’t completely bought into the lie of colorism because I was raised by a dark-skinned mother. Why would I forsake my own mother and her beauty? I thought the color of one’s skin played an arbitrary role in determining someone’s attractiveness or worth. I found people of all hues beautiful. Ironically enough, this rationale may have enabled me to downplay my own complicity and culpability in an existing hierarchy of skin color. Once when I was in high school, my mother told me a Cambodian girl in my grade had won the beauty pageant at the local temple. “You could tell she couldn’t speak any Khmer, but she has fair skin. The other two girls were dark-skinned and had no chance,” she said.

I was frustrated by the news. Shamefully, it was less about the colorism than it was knowing that this Cambodian girl who had won on the technicality of her skin tone was more Americanized than I was. She can’t even speak Khmer, I thought bitterly. I’m more connected to my roots than her. I should win. Never minding the fact that I rarely went to the temple, had no idea this pageant existed until my mother had told me about it, and would have won on the technicality of my skin tone as well.

Perhaps my lack of self-awareness stemmed from the shade of my complexion sometimes being relative to the person perceiving it. Among my mother’s Cambodian friends, I am a light-skinned East Asian girl. Among my biracial white and Asian friends, I am tan, brown, dark. With the former, I am put on a pedestal within the colorism spectrum. With the latter, I am knocked down from it.

Two years ago, I visited Cambodia for the first time with my mother, who hadn’t been to her homeland since she left over thirty years ago as a refugee fleeing the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.  It was heartwarming to meet villagers who had grown up with my mother; these were people who had known her before the trauma of war and death had sunk into her soul. But whenever my mother introduced me as her daughter, some of the women would compliment me on my light skin and in response, I would smile awkwardly and mumble a thanks, guilt twisting my insides. My Khmer is limited, and I didn’t have the words or wit to tackle the colorism that occurred in those moments. Once, I looked at my mother’s still expression during one of these exchanges, and briefly wondered if each compliment directed at her daughter’s skin meant a tiny cut etched into her heart.

This inner turmoil rose up again when we visited the big fancy mall in the capital. White and light-skinned models stared at me from every advertisement, in direct contrast to a majority of the people who were shopping there. It rose up again when we stopped by a convenience store, its hygiene care aisle lined with whitening products. Witnessing all of this made me angry, sick. Witnessing this and silently struggling in my light-skinned body, with my colonized tongue, made me even more angry and sick.

I have seen debates over whether or not colorism is derived from white supremacy and colonialism. Some say it came before, and has more to do with classism than racism. I think these debates are mostly unproductive, especially if they begin and end there. In my mind, whether or not one came before the other, and whether one is more like another, is besides the point. Systems of oppression don’t operate in silos. White supremacy/colonialism/racism, colorism, and classism/capitalism work in tandem. They intersect and overlap to cast a wider net of dehumanization, one that has historically and consistently harmed poor, dark-skinned people of color the most. This is evident by who we see represented on the screen, on magazine covers, at proverbial tables—and who is not. People of color who can manifest an approximation of whiteness, whether through lighter skin, speaking Standard American English, possessing physical features classified as European, or having “good” hair (read: hair like a white person’s), are more likely to be provided with platforms where we can be seen and heard, which in turn can provide us with easier access to social and monetary capital. This is a triangulation of colorism, racism, and classism at work. For women and femmes of color, whose perceived value is primarily rooted in the colonization and objectification of our bodies due to white supremacist patriarchy, this becomes an even more complicated configuration of oppression.

I think a more useful question is: How can people who bear less or zero of societal burdens leverage their privileges to dismantle these systems of oppression? How do I, as a Southeast Asian woman with light-skinned privilege, use this privilege to combat the colorism that undermines the day-to-day lives of my dark-skinned family, friends, and community members?

I am still exploring these questions, but I know it starts with me. Me, unlearning the toxic notion that my light skin is inherently more desirable or valuable than comparably darker skin. Me, resisting narratives that uplift Eurocentric standards of beauty. Me, decentering myself when it comes to narratives that uplift the multifaceted beauty of API women. Me, learning to love and celebrate myself without throwing my dark-skinned sisters and femmes under the bus. Me, embracing the beauty of dark skin without fetishizing it.

I ask that my fellow light-skinned API sisters and femmes practice the same critical consciousness by taking a deep and honest look at who we choose to engage with in relation to skin color. What are the primary skin complexions of our role models, possibility models, and models for beauty? What are the primary skin complexions of our celebrity crushes, our sexual partners, our romantic partners, and our friends? If the answers to these questions reveal an implicit preference for lighter skin, we must ask ourselves why, and unlearn this harmful mode of being. Are we calling people in/out for perpetrating colorism, including ourselves? Are we pushing back on the person who tries to compliment us because we are light-skinned, or the person who disses our dark-skinned sisters and femmes in a misguided attempt to bond over deeply entrenched colorism?  Are we checking ourselves every time we post pictures in the name of self-love and making sure our beauty praxis isn’t centered on how closely we can mirror whiteness?

How can we do more to uplift the beauty and talents of our dark-skinned sisters and femmes? How can we appreciate our beauty as women of color without relying on controlling images and narratives that privilege light skin over dark skin? These are questions worth reflecting on as API women with lighter skin. If we truly believe in solidarity with and liberation from the struggles we face because of racism and sexism, then we must be able to confront ourselves and use our privilege to banish colorism, both outside and within.

Every time I think back to those moments when I was told I was beautiful because of my lighter skin, I cringe. Next time, I want to be prepared. I want to say, “Thank you, but I’m not beautiful because of my skin color. I’m beautiful because of the woman who made me.”

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