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.”


Tinderp Tale #6: Accidental White Dude

Over the past few years, I have garnered the reputation of being the anti-white bitch on social media. But let’s be clear: I am anti-whiteness, not anti-white people. I take issue with the oppressive structure that upholds whiteness as the superior racialized social construct, not with individual white people. (Why is this so hard to understand?! Oh wait.) Basically, if white supremacy didn’t exist, I wouldn’t have a problem with white people as a whole. Actually if white supremacy didn’t exist at all, white people wouldn’t exist either, come to think of it, but that’s an underdeveloped train of thought for another time/blog post.

Anyway, ever since my women’s college shook me out of my apolitical stupor and opened my eyes to the necessity of a liberatory social justice praxis, I’ve been doing my best to abide by the feminist mantra of the personal being political, and I decided no exception could be made when it came to dating. Well, I decided that no exception could be made when it came to race within the dating realm, which is a pretty huge factor. White supremacy is everywhere; it didn’t have to get all up in my vagina too. Which basically meant I was reverse racial profiling on Tinder. On occasion, I would stumble across a really cute white guy with a semi-interesting, allegedly progressive profile and be sorely tempted to swipe right. But then I’d do a check-in with myself–Are white supremacy and white privilege over with, Learkana? No? Then swipe the fuck left like the decolonized ho you wanna be–and the moment of temptation would pass.

Racial profiling is pretty hard. I’m not sure how racists do it so effortlessly (well, being ignorant hateful fucks kind of explains it). Whenever a racially ambiguous/maybe just white passing dude popped up on my screen, I had to quickly decide whether or not he was white enough to have unconditional racial privilege, and honestly, I erred more often on the side of caution than not in that split second of determination.

But there was this one dude. Let’s call him Antonio. He looked super white: fair skin, light brown hair, blue/green eyes. But! He didn’t have a typical white boy name! And I think he had international flag emojis in his bio! So maybe he was Latino or something and was just really white passing in which case it wouldn’t be fair to swipe left because he wasn’t necessarily like full-blown white or anything and I mean he is pretty cute and seems nice enough okay damnit I’ll swipe right!

You matched with Antonio on 8/23/15


Hey! Good morning!


Good afternoon lol [Was not actually trying to be clever with this comment, I’m just compulsive about taking things literally and by the time I responded it was no longer morning ok]


Hehe! How are you? Rough night yesterday?


I’m a little tired but otherwise doing all right. I stayed up late hanging out with friends *beige OK hand sign emoji* how are you?


I’m good! Sunday off, sunny day! Took a walk around lake merrit [sic] and done a few other stuff! I’m feeling productive:) haha


We made more boring small talk. I learned Antonio was born in Brazil, moved to Italy  with his family when he was young, and came to the U.S. for work, which meant he spoke like 3 languages, which was cool considering I barely spoke 1.5 (I blame Amerikkka). While this conversation was kind of informative, it didn’t really help me figure out whether this dude was white or not, and this became kind of a burning question of sorts for me.

tinderp 6.1

I was pretty well-informed on racial politics in the United States, but shamefully didn’t have much of a clue of how race plays out in other countries and cultures. Well, Antonio was Brazilian, right? I mean I guess he was Italian, but Brazil was his national origin, right? So, Latin American. Right?

“How does race operate in Latin America?” I casually asked my friend Andrea.

“The fucking same,” she replied.

Goddamnit. So I had matched with a white dude. An international, “exotic” brand of white dude, but a white dude nonetheless. Oh well. I wasn’t literally a bigot, so when Antonio asked if I wanted to meet up and get a drink with him, I said yes. He was probably a somewhat decent guy. (Maybe.) When I tested the sociopolitical waters by mentioning to him that I had recently attended a trans rights rally addressing the recent killings of transwomen of color, he took no issue with it and just made a weird joke about transwomen liking karaoke. Maybe his sense of humor didn’t translate very well. (Was that somehow racist? Oh, I give up.)

I remember feeling completely unexcited about this date. The novelty of using Tinder had worn off at this point. I was tired of going on disappointing dates, and my past record was strongly suggesting that this one wasn’t going to be any different. The only thing that stopped me from giving up altogether was this theory my roommate Mackenzie had mentioned to me one night when I was griping to her about my mediocre dating life. “So the theory is, somewhere between the 38th and 100th person you make a connection with will be the one person who is the most suitable for you to end up with.”

“Connection? Like, just messaging with them counts? Or do you have to meet up?” I asked.

“I don’t know, whatever falls under the definition of connection,” she replied, shrugging.

Keep in mind, this was one late night conversation I had a while back, so the details are a bit fuzzy and obviously I just paraphrased what I thought my roommate had said. But my takeaway was that I wasn’t meeting up with enough dudes to find someone to be in mutual like with. It was all just a numbers game. (A point that had been reiterated to me by my former boss–I rant about my mediocre dating life to everyone, okay.) So all I had to do, in spite of my anxiety and impatience and insecurities and uncertainty and judgments, was keep trying. I mean, there are so many fucking assholes in this world who are happily married! Didn’t I deserve the bare minimum of actually dating someone, at the very least?

So far on Tinder, I had met up with 5 dudes. Factoring in my numbers from OKCupid created a combined total of 21 dudes who hadn’t worked out. Which meant I needed to meet up with at least 17 more dudes to hit that window of possibility for meeting Mr. Good Enough. Antonio couldn’t be him, but he was #22 and therefore a necessary stepping stone, which meant I shouldn’t cancel on him even though I was kind of tempted to. (I know, I know, I’m a terrible person. But, like, we’ve already established this! Also Pottermore Sorted me into Slytherin, just FYI.)

Antonio and I met up at Beer Revolution, a divey sort of bar in the Jack London Square neighborhood of Oakland. Damnit. I was less attracted to him in person. He had a really big head on top of a slender body. And unfortunately, his bodily proportions would go on to bother me throughout the rest of the night. “Hi! I’m Antonio,” he said cheerfully. “Is it okay if I kiss you? I’m Italian, it’s how we greet people.”

“Uh–okay,” I said, and let him plant a kiss on each of my cheeks. I didn’t kiss him back. I was wearing lipstick so I didn’t want to leave marks on his face, but even if I wasn’t wearing any lipstick, I wouldn’t have kissed him anyway because ugh, that’s weird. I was even weirded out by him just kissing my cheeks. I hadn’t had a guy’s mouth touch me in over a year because I was too physically awkward for that (among other things).

We sat down, got a couple of beers, and talked. Blah, blah, blah, the usual stuff. He told me he worked at a pizza shop. I tried really hard to remove my internalized classist lens and not make a silent judgment on that, because whatever! It’s not like we were getting married and his income would determine the quality of life for our imaginary children, or something. He also talked about how Bay Area public transit sucked and how Australians were racist (although my guess was that he meant xenophobic in his particular case). I distinctly recall my conversation with him not feeling very datelike. It was almost like we had gone into that bar separately, happened to have sat next to each other, and struck up a conversation just for the hell of it. We were simply two polite, emotionally detached strangers passing time, trying to keep loneliness and awkwardness at bay and failing at it.

After finishing our beers, Antonio asked if I wanted to take a walk. I agreed, mainly because I needed more time to sober up. We left the bar and strolled up and down a few blocks. Some part of me was waiting for him to become attractive to me. Like maybe if the night went on long enough, and he talked long enough, and he smiled and said some of the right things, I would feel something. It never happened. He was still an uninteresting scrawny white dude with a big head to me by the time we called it a night. I wasn’t sure what was going on in his head. He probably felt a similar way, right? Or else he would have made a move by now. Ugh. I hated this so much. The ambiguity and nonchalance, the reification of gender roles. Was this really the only viable channel through which I could get laid? (In my situation, yes.)

tinderp 6.2

Antonio walked me to my car. He respectfully asked to kiss me goodnight. I let his lips touch my cheeks for the last time, got into my car, and drove away feeling empty.

We never hit each other up again. The usual mutual apathy and disinterest, as I suspected.

I inexplicably found myself on a semi-hiatus after this date. I chatted with a few guys, but never met up with any of them. There was one good-looking dude who expressed interest in devirginizing me, but we got into a huge fight about whether or not some John Mayer song was sexist (IT WAS AND IS) and we never talked to each other again. Story of my life. (Much later down the road, I would stumble across his Facebook profile and see a public Valentine’s Day post in which he sweetly referred to his mother as his Valentine and thanked her for raising him. I experienced some weird cognitive dissonance, reading his status. I couldn’t quite reconcile the sentimental mama’s boy on social media with the horny fuckboy who wanted to send me dick pics and got aroused at a picture I sent him of just my bare legs. Yeah I know, people are complex or whatever. But like, do cishet guys not get how hilariously fucked it is to act like fucking saints to the women whose vaginas they exited, then turn around and be fucking dickholes to the women whose vaginas they’re always trying to enter? Like, is this an Oedipal thing where they’re just mad that they can’t return to the safety of the womb because that would mean fucking their mothers and society makes that unacceptable so they displace that pent up sexual frustration and anger onto the hapless women they try to get it in with, whose vaginas don’t and will never compare to their original home? #FREUDIANFUCKBOYTHEORY #LongestParentheticalEver)

Anyway, a few months passed without a single date scheduled in my calendar. I hung out with friends, worked on creative writing endeavors, worried about the state of the world. I holed up in my room, my primary source of freedom and comfort. I went to bed alone, except on the rare occasion when a friend or family member spent the night. Sometimes I’d long for someone to curl up under the covers with. A cuddle buddy who wasn’t my plush Olaf from Frozen. A guy who could just come over on weekend nights and hold me until the ache went away. (You know, like that Sam Smith song, except hopefully like way less needy-sounding.) Why was it so hard to name that desire? To ask for it? To put it out into the universe in some way and wait for someone to answer?

You’re okay, I would tell myself. You are way better at being alone than most people. So what, you might potentially be unlaid and perpetually single for the rest of your life. These aren’t things that take away your self-worth. The ache will come, and it will go. You have learned to live with it. You’re okay. You’re okay. And for the most part, I believed it.

tl;dr Learkana is not racist! Learkana meets up with her first white dude in a while! Learkana survives another cold and bitter virgin winter by hibernating in her premature spinster cave! (Oh, and masturbating)

Now it’s time for…

Venue: Beer Revolution
Rating: **
Review: Too noisy and not enough seating. A good place to kick back with a good friend or two, but definitely not an ideal place to meet up with strange men from Tinder who want to put their penises inside of you.



The F Word

I am in pursuit of meaningfully embodying intersectional feminism, because feminism alone has been coded to mean liberation of white women, and their liberation means nothing for me and fellow women of color. My liberation is bound up with all women of all ages, races, classes, bodies, abilities, sexual orientations, and gender alignments, not just the select few I’ve been conditioned to look up to and revere within the confines of Western white supremacist colonialism. That said, I still choose to identify as a feminist, because I don’t think racist/colorblind white women have the right to push me out of a word that steps so easily on my tongue and gets my heart riled up in a good way. While aware of the implications of what feminism alone may mean, I will make room for myself, and others like me, I will make room in the word feminism and in the concept of feminism until there is a space for all.

I’ve been thinking about how the general definition of feminism has been the “equality of the sexes” but these days I’m not so sure if that phrase, which has been carelessly tossed around a lot in mainstream media, truly captures the meaning of feminism, especially since it seems to me we are more so striving for equity, not equality. Equality implies that I want to be treated the same as a man, which is not true: I want to be treated like a human being, as a woman. You might not understand the distinction, but it’s an important one to me. I don’t want to conform to socially constructed and masculinized ideals of intelligence, knowledge, or power. I don’t want to be made into a man’s image and likeness in order to be respected or liked. While some desire that option, not all of us do, and I believe choice and self-love to be two of most important tenets of an actualized feminism. I want to be acknowledged and respected in my femininity and womanliness, however that is defined–there are no fixed meanings (when will people stop thinking in essentialist boxes??). What is considered feminine to me may mean something different to someone else; what is considered womanly today will mean something different later down the road. Regardless, there should be no guilt or shame or othering for not fitting into the status quo’s expectations for who deserves respect, dignity, and kindness.

“Equality of the sexes” is ultimately a limiting definition of feminism to me. It glosses over the fact that women in all of their variations have disproportionately bore the brunt of violence and oppression at the hands of men, particularly hetero cis white men. It ignores the fact that sex and gender can mean different things. It also ignores the fact that we have yet to implement a true standard of equality for any of the genders that exist–yes, even men, although the conversation has been appropriated and centered around them for far too long. I think we need to overcome this one-dimensional view of feminism that is always contingent on whether or not we hate men: “Feminists hate men.” “I’m not a feminist because I love men.” “Oh my God I just realized I can be feminist and love men.” Feminism at its core is not really about whether or not I love men. It’s about whether or not I love myself. I choose to try loving myself. I don’t see how someone professing an act of self-love and demanding respect for it should be stigmatized or disregarded.

And evidently the words “feminism/feminist” are threatening because what, narrow-minded individuals feel threatened when they see or hear “fem”? Femininity is not exclusive. They make it exclusive, because they are afraid of it and ashamed of it and push it away. Who is really the victim when a man is not allowed to cry, masculinity or femininity? Femininity is laughed off, ridiculed, and even murdered when it slips on another skin. Masculinity in its different guises often triumphs. When you start seeing both ideas and individuals, you start to understand.

No, the idea is not that all men are evil or that women are all good. That is a cartoonish view of feminism. People need to start looking beyond the person and at the bigger picture. There are men, and there are women. Let’s destroy that division. Let’s include the rest of the categories that exist or could exist. Let’s have all of them blend into one, split apart, blend again, however you want and feel and need. Let’s split open our minds into ten different possibilities at once when you see a stranger’s face, instead of pigeonholing them into this flavor or that–how boring and limiting is that, to think you only have a choice on either palm, read to you by others who look to more others to read their palms, when you can simply spread open your own hands and see that there are whole worlds that could be at your fingertips?