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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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Aw Hell Yes: Why Fresh Off The Boat is Fresher Than Youuu

The Huang family on their way to Orlando.

The Huang family on their way to Orlando.

[5/8/15 update: I wrote this blog post before the Eddie Huang Twitter debacle occurred. As of now I am no longer a fan of Eddie Huang. Any expression of admiration and awe displayed below was during a brief, blissfully unaware time.]

The long awaited ABC sitcom starring the first Asian American family in 20 years has finally arrived, and it’s so cool yeah, it’s totally awesome~! I will admit, I had my doubts when I first heard about it via social media. The name itself made me wary: Fresh Off The Boat. F.O.B. This particular racial slur has been somewhat triggering for me. It never meant anything good as I was growing up–just a harsh reminder that in other people’s eyes, I was just a chinky-eyed outsider who talked funny. At some point it became my personal goal to put some distance between me and the F.O.B. label, so much so that the possibility of reclaiming it is personally unfathomable to me. I projected that shame onto those in my family who spoke accented English: my mother, my cousin, my aunt. They were the ones who talked funny, not me, I thought rather defensively. I was an American born citizen, and knew how to speak proper English, goddamnit. This anxiety around being perceived as a F.O.B. is still something I struggle with today. So learning that this show would be named after a word I associate with my childhood trauma didn’t exactly leave me brimming with enthusiasm and hope.

But watching the promo did. It was a bit cheesy, but showed a lot of promise–in large part because of the mom, Jessica, played by the talented and gorgeous Constance Wu. More than once, a joke that had been perfectly delivered made me laugh out loud. At last! I was finally, finally, finally going to see a show starring Asian people on mainstream television. (Yeah yeah, there was All American Girl, but I was 3 years old when it aired and it looked pretty mediocre anyway from what I watched of it on Youtube–I blame white supremacy.) But would the white gaze fuck this shit up too?

According to Eddie Huang, author of the memoir from which the TV show was adapted, it was all sorts of fucked up. My friend Laura wasn’t particularly enthused by the upcoming premiere of the show, either, given Huang’s criticisms. But the complexity of Huang’s article intrigued me further. He refused to say “America is great,” swore a lot, and used phrases like “reverse-yellowface” and “monoculture.” His article conveyed someone who was way more fucking awesome than I had initially imagined. Clearly Huang is too awesome for network TV, but instead of making me cynical it made me optimistic for the show. In my eyes, even a diluted version of his radical racial politics would make for great, conciousness-raising TV.

Seven episodes into the season, and I’m already a huge fan. In the first episode alone, white people/white supremacy are the butt of at least five different jokes. I loved it! While I can’t relate to every single instance of the Huang family’s shenanigans (which is fine), a lot resonated with me: being raised by a mother who is the epitome of frugality, expressing love through actions and not words, being perceived as an outsider, navigating white culture with caution and confusion. Through the specificity of Eddie Huang’s experiences on the show, I connected to something universal that isn’t coded as white. And it’s not just me: I’ve seen people of all races, ages, and genders commenting online that they love the show, think it’s hilarious, and could relate to it in all sorts of ways–proof that whiteness doesn’t and shouldn’t have to be our sociocultural default, our only reference point in American culture.

There are questions raised around authenticity–for example, that Eddie’s parents speak in accents that don’t sound quite right. While I understand those critiques, I would say poorly done Taiwanese accents don’t detract from the overall quality of the show. (I, personally, haven’t noticed anything wrong with the accents, but that’s because I grew up Cambodian American. We don’t all talk the same or know the particular nuances of other Asians’ fobbiness, okay.) I actually think the show is pretty subversive for a family sitcom on network television. What I especially enjoy about the show is how it challenges the Model Minority Myth: the idea that Asians have it just as good as (if not better than) white people. That is not true to my lived experience as an Asian American, and I know it’s not true for many other fellow Asian Americans. If it really needs to be racialized within the black-white binary, I would say that, just like Eddie’s, my childhood can be more readily associated with black culture than white culture. “If you were an outsider, hip hop was your anthem,” the real Eddie Huang narrates in the pilot. I grew up with the sounds of (admittedly mainstream) rap, hip hop, and R&B, never became close friends with anyone white until after college, and developed a no BS attitude and potty mouth that white people are generally uncomfortable with. So I appreciate that Fresh Off The Boat explores one Asian boy’s family and their exploration within this racial binary in America, and how it’s not as simple as, “Oh, Asian people and white people are one and the same.” When you’re not white and you’re not black, how do you fit into America’s cultural landscape? This is a question that I wrestle with all the time, and it’s refreshing to see it being reflected in mainstream media for once.

Eddie’s father, Louis, believes in the American Dream (TM), yet his race and class become obstacles in his path to fulfill it. In the very first episode, he comes to the tragically funny conclusion that his business isn’t doing well because there isn’t a white host to greet customers, leading him to propose to a skeptical Jessica that they hire one: “Instead of people coming in and seeing a Chinese face and saying, ‘Huh? I thought this was an Old West steakhouse,’ they see a white face and say, ‘Oh! Hello white friend, I am comfortable.'” Louis ends up hiring a predominantly white staff. The business starts generating a lot of buzz and income. Then in the most recent episode (Episode 7, “Showdown at the Golden Saddle”), we see a flashback to how Eddie’s father comes up with the idea of the restaurant in the first place: he stole the manual for the Golden Saddle franchise to create a similarly-themed steakhouse of his own. The most pivotal moment as I see it is when Louis is told by the owner that he must pay $50,000 up front in order to buy a Golden Saddle.

Louis finds out the franchise fee is $50k. Oh fuck.

Louis finds out the franchise fee is $50k. Oh fuck.

The look on his face is heartbreaking, especially as the others (notably, two white men) come up and fork up the cash they have, and he doesn’t. Louis’s struggles with running a successful business is a great example of how there are many minorities in America whose dreams are hindered by racial and class barriers (both of which are not mutually exclusive, of course).

Eddie, our protagonist, has his own battle with white America. He is one of only two kids of color at his new school. In the pilot episode and on his first day at school, the white kids make fun of him for his “nasty-smelling” noodles, which propels him to beg his mom for “white people lunch.” Here, we see that the desire to fit in is rooted in a desire to not be ostracized, which complicates the idea that Asians want to be like white people: Eddie isn’t so much embracing whiteness as he is trying to use it as a cover to hide his otherness. The flawless Jessica tells her son, “Well those kids, they just don’t know, that’s all. It just takes time to get used to something different,” but he refuses to listen. He ends up getting his socially acceptable Lunchable, but butts heads with the only other kid of color, Edgar, who is black. Edgar shoves him aside in line for the microwave, telling Eddie, “Get used to it! You’re the one at the bottom now!”

“No, I’m not!” cries Eddie.

“Yeah, you are! My turn, chink!”

This is a moment that makes me cringe, but also one I can appreciate: a heated exchange between two kids that is complicated by their races. We often center our discussions of racism on white people vs. one minority, which is incredibly important, but racial prejudices exist between minorities as well, and this scene is a perfect example of that. A black kid and an Asian kid, duking it out in front of staring white kids: the perfect allegorical Hallmark card for American racism.

The allegorical Hallmark card of American racism

The allegorical Hallmark card of American racism

The minorities can senselessly hate each other all they want, but in the end, it’s white people and white supremacy who benefit from the clash between them. This all just goes to show that racial prejudice transcends race. Black people can be prejudiced against Asians, and vice versa. Black people can be prejudiced against themselves, and so can Asian people–otherwise known as internalized racism. As depicted in this moment–Edgar’s argument that Eddie is “at the bottom now” presupposes he was already at the bottom, a deeply sad and implicit admission of being inferior on the basis of race.

Here’s the one thing about the show I’ve been disappointed by: way before the fight occurs between Eddie and Edgar, Eddie asks if he can sit with him at lunch, only to turn around and jump at the chance to sit with the white kids (another fine allegory for American racism). This is precisely where I am concerned: Eddie idolizes all of these black male rappers, yet he’s going to diss the one black boy in favor of the honkies who made fun of his mom’s food? Oh hell no. It seems the irony is not lost on the show, however. “A white dude and an Asian dude bonding over a black dude?” Edgar says aloud to himself before scoffing. “This cafeteria is ridiculous!” While I appreciate some level of awareness on part of the show of the racial politics at play, I’m hoping that Eddie and Edgar will ultimately become best friends and fellow underdogs at a school that’s blindingly white. But several episodes have gone by and it seems Eddie’s social circle has only gotten whiter and more male, so I’m feeling cynical about the prospects. Damn. I can’t deny this dynamic parallels the reality of racism however. It’s true that many non-black people parodoxically have a love for black culture, yet a total disregard for black people. It’s true that anti-blackness/colorism is a thing in many Asian cultures. And it’s true that white people see Asians as more ethnically palatable than black people (which is NOT the same thing as saying whites see us as equals–to use a racial hierarchy/gross metaphor, whites see us as the lapdogs and blacks as the yard dogs). Although I can appreciate the realistic portrayal, I still would prefer the happy ending.

Focusing on the brighter side: what definitely makes the show is the one and only Jessica, the mother of the family, who is an all-around badass and breakout star. She praises her son for physiologically rejecting white culture, takes all the free samples at the overly excited grocery store, blames douchey white teenage boys for hitting her car with their bodies, and knows when a song she’s beautifully singing is NOT a duet. Better yet, the actress who plays her is also pretty kickass. Jessica is fearless, fierce, funny, and shamelessly herself. She was made even more perfect in Episode 5, “Persistent Romeo,” in which she teaches Eddie about consent and date rape by attacking him with a plush bunny.

Jessica:

Jessica: “LIKE THAT? YOU LIKE THAT?! NO? WELL GIRLS DON’T EITHER! NO MEANS NO! RESPECT GIRLS!”

YAAAAASSS. Not only is her character inherently feminist, but so is the dynamic she has with her family: they may fear and resent her at times, but through that is a deep respect for her as the matriarch. In Episode 6, “Shaq Fu,” Louis tells his family, “My father, your Ye-Ye [sp?], made me work hard for every penny. And that work ethic is how I’m able to keep the lights on.”

“But not the AC!” retorts Evan.

“That’s your mother’s thing, she runs the house, don’t pull me into that,” Louis quickly responds before returning to his lecture on work ethic–a one-liner that says a lot about the power and influence of Jessica as a stay-at-home mother and wife, power that everyone else in the household recognizes and acknowledges (okay, not too sure about the grandmother, but it’s significant that in a house primarily full of males, Jessica is the goddamn boss). Too often, the sitcom mother is portrayed as an uptight, controlling fun-sucker whose domestic labor and role in the house is often exploited, scorned, or taken for granted. Jessica subverts that trope through everyone’s deference to her, and of course, through unapologetically being herself. “That woman was tough. She could handle anything,” narrates Huang over the scene in Episode 6 where little Eddie ceases and desists with “phantom-flickering” Evan when Jessica threatens him by saying, “I could get by with only two sons. Think about that.” Through Jessica’s toughness, her dismissal of white culture, and her deep love for her family (and karaoke!), we are gifted with the opportunity to embrace an Asian American female character in all of her glorious complexity.

Fresh Off The Boat isn’t perfect. Huang’s concerns of course are completely valid. As the show progresses, there is the danger of reinforcing the status quo, of promoting white supremacy through assimilation, of giving up authenticity in favor of universality (white people love their binaries). I sincerely hope the show doesn’t go in that direction, even as the Huang family become upwardly mobile. The show will probably never reach the level of radicalness Huang envisioned, but I would be incredibly happy if it continues the way it has: questioning white culture, making jokes at the expense of white people, exploring race relations and API identity in America, challenging notions of gender within an API context, deepening and complicating its cast of well-rounded Asian American characters. The show is the first of its kind in two decades, which explains the pressure of it to be well received and successful, by both white and Asian audiences alike. That pressure is the age-old burden of representation that befalls all marginalized groups who can’t afford to be mediocre the way privileged groups can be. While this is unfair, the cast of Fresh Off The Boat is game. As Randall Park, who plays Louis, puts it perfectly in an interview with DisneyExaminer: “The hope is that, you know, the success of our show can lead to more doors being opened for Asian Americans to tell their stories.”

Picture perfect: The Huang Family

Picture perfect: The Huang Family