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.”


The P Word

Is it ‘patriarchy’?

Is it ‘problematic’?

Is it ‘praxis’?

Okay, your mind probably jumped to ‘penis’ or ‘poop’ before it jumped to any of the above words, but whatever. This is my intersectional feminist blog goddamnit, so either way, you, dear hypothetical reader, are imaginarily incorrect–the ‘P’ word I’m talking about is PRIVILEGE.

What is privilege?

I am not going to do the dumb dictionary thing again. (And seriously, if you find yourself frequently resorting to simple, straightforward, and superficial textbook/dictionary definitions for conceptually complicated words and you’re actually SERIOUS when you’re doing it–I’m not when I do it, fyi–you really need to polish up your critical thinking skills, bro.)

So, no textbook or dictionary to be seen (I promise), this is my not-so-great-but-mostly-straightforward definition:

Privilege is an advantage given to you not by way of individual choice; rather, it is through the systematic oppression of others that you are awarded this benefit, whatever it may be–and it can be a LOT of things, really, things you probably didn’t even stop to think about because yenno, you’re all privileged and shit.

Hey, don’t get all OFFENDED because I’m telling “you” off. I really mean “we,” because EVERYONE has some amalgamation of privilege! (Funny how we social justice people are stereotyped as “overly sensitive/easily offended,” when it’s so clearly a two-way street. And how is you taking offense at my offense any less take offense-y than me taking offense to begin with? I mean I would think that you taking offense at my taking of offense is way more of an offense, because you are simply offended by my offense, whereas I am offended by things like racism and sexism aka things that are actually detrimentally impacting the world, kthnx, and so actually you’re the easily offended one otherwise you wouldn’t be so defensive, I mean why would you be so defensive if you claim that you weren’t being offensive to begin with? Anyway. Back to the overall rant here.)

So people who haven’t really thought about the P word or don’t really think much at all, automatically think that privilege means class privilege.


But yeah, these people are like, “I’m not rich, so I don’t have any privilege!”


Yes, class privilege exists, but that’s just one of many privileges that exist in the world!


I think the fact that so many people default to class privilege when they think of/about the P word just goes to show how deeply our minds are entrenched in a capitalistic framework–which, FYI, is BAD, becasue it’s limiting and also quite frankly dehumanizing–for yourself and others. Like, do you actually think that money is the ONLY thing that can benefit a human being? Get your head out of your materialistic a-hole. There are plenty of the other things. You just haven’t thought about them because you’ve taken them for granted because…ding ding ding! You are privileged, in some way or another.

(Don’t worry, all this vague ranting will yield some concrete examples soon.)

So what I’m trying to get at is, privilege isn’t as simple as, “Jane has one billion dollars. Dick has zero dollars. Jane is privileged. Dick is not.” It’s more like this: “Jane has one billion dollars because in this hypothetical scenario she can easily be described as magically having a shitload of money, whereas in actuality, her gender makes it less likely that she will obtain this much given the pay gap between women and men and the fact that men tend to occupy more lucrative job positions due to socially valued traits such as dominance, aggression, and confidence which are traditionally coded as masculine across different cultures, but even if Jane was super wealthy and Dick was not he’d still have male privilege ok.”

Privilege doesn’t have to be fancy, glamorous elaborate shit–the fact that you think that really just showcases your privilege, actually, and yenno, your total ignorance. Seriously though, privilege oftentimes manifests in the simple, little things you don’t even notice because those things have been normalized for you–you don’t see them as advantages. You see them as just the way things are, the way things should be. Hello! That’s your privilege talking. That’s your privilege showing.

Okay, I shall now cite a few examples of some of my own privileges so you can get a better sense of what I mean. I know there’s this trend where everyone likes to cling to their marginalized identities (yes, I am guilty of doing it), but since we’re talking about the hated P word, this is the blog entry where I will (guiltily and shamefacedly) talk about how I got it pretty damn good (in these particular facets of my identity).

I have cis privilege. ‘Cis’ is short for ‘cisgendered.’ It means that the gender I personally identify with aligns with the gender I was assigned at birth. Because I am cis,

  • Something as simple as deciding what bathroom to use isn’t a potentially life-threatening situation for me.
  • My gender is always an option I can comfortably check off on whatever form/application I need to fill out.
  • People won’t usually ask me personal, invasive questions about my genitalia.

I didn’t CHOOSE to be cis, the same way trans and genderqueer people don’t CHOOSE to be trans/genderqueer. It’s just the way things happened. Unfortunately, it just so happens that whereas being cis is a societal benefit to me, being trans/genderqueer is a societal detriment to others. Yes, it’s not *my* fault that cis people are favored in society, but it is also not trans/genderqueer people’s faults that they get shitted on by society. So, I have no right to start shitting on them for shitting on me about not getting shitted on because while here I am not getting shitted on, there they are getting shitted on, and I am just adding to the shit that is being shitted on them while lookie me I’m shit-free and guess what, that’s just shitty of me.

But here’s where I’m asking you to kind of try exercising your brain a bit more. Isolating the different types of privileges and oppressions is helpful when discussing them in theory, but reality is not so straightforward, because we’re all human beings with complicated, intersectional identities, right? (Well, most of us, I can’t really speak for wealthy cishet able-bodied neurotypical white dudes.) So by “shit-free” in the above paragraph, I mean I’m shit-free in the gender alignment department. I’m not quite so shit-free in the gender identification department or the race department or the class department.


Bringing those other oppressions into a space focused on the marginalized experiences of trans/queer people is being an AWKWARD ASSHOLE.

It’s kind of like doing this:

Person A: My parents were murdered by some weird alien man without a nose who keeps calling himself the Dark Lord.

Person B: That’s not that bad. My parents had to raise a bunch of ginger-haired kids and we’re all poor and shit, at least your parents left you some money and now you’re all famous and shit.

^^Person B is an AWKWARD ASSHOLE. You don’t want to be Person B (aka Ron Weasley).


There’s a time and a place to talk about your shitty experiences, and it’s NOT when someone else is talking about theirs. Besides, you know what they say–there’s no point in playing the Oppression Olympics, because everybody loses. What’s the sense in arguing about who is worse off, when no one ends up better off?

While the Oppression Olympics aren’t something you should actively participate in, looking at privilege/oppression as a multifaceted interlocking system of shittiness (aka kyriarchy) is an important and necessary social tool that will guide you on how to avoid being an awkward asshole. This means that although I identify as a woman and women are systematically oppressed, it would be awkward and assholish of me to complain about how bad I have it to a transwoman, because transwomen have to suffer the double marginalization of being trans and being a woman. This also means that if you identify as a white dude and you complain to ME about how I’m so bigoted for thinking you’re privileged and whatever Asian people are totally just as privileged as white people, then YOU are the one being awkward and assholish and totally ignoring my marginalization as an Asian woman while apparently having no conception of what race is whatsoever. (Yes, this example is oddly specific because it actually happened.)

It’s not that you aren’t allowed to complain. It’s just that you should complain to people who have the same privileges as you! Otherwise, yep, you’re just an awkward asshole.

So moving on to more privileges I have:

I have straight privilege. This means that

  •  Nearly all of the media I consume (be it movies, books, TV shows, magazines, etc.) caters to my sexual orientation.
  • I don’t need to worry about my loved ones ostracizing me because of my sexual orientation
  • People won’t undermine my [totally imaginary] romantic/sexual relationships as something trivial or deviant

Okay, so I guess now we’re at the point of, “All right I admit I have privilege. What do I do now?” Congrats, you are on your way to becoming an AWESOME ALLY and no longer being an AWKWARD ASSHOLE~~!!

And okay, before you’re like “UGH QUIT JUDGING ME MISS I-THINK-I’M-PERFECT” let me just add a fucking disclaimer here: look, I am far from perfect. I fuck up and make mistakes and shit, I’ll own up to that. But there’s one thing I’ve come to learn in trying to be an ally and it is to stop making X experience about me. The best thing to do as an ally is to LISTEN, UNDERSTAND, and SUPPORT–NOT to talk, demand, or offend. It’s about decentering yourself from the issue and strategically using your privilege to amplify marginalized voices without monopolizing those voices or appropriating their ideas.

You think being an ally would be a pretty simple concept to follow.

1. Acknowledge your privilege.

2. Listen.

3. Understand.

4. Support.

BUT NOPE! Few people can barely do #1, and that’s the foundation on which you would build the other pillars of solidarity. Sad. Actually, more like disgusting. Yes, it’s disgusting when a person can’t do something as simple as recognizing that they have certain advantages in society, when other people who DON’T have those advantages are forced to recognize and realize that every day through their LACK of advantages.

By the way, being aware of your privilege in an effort to minimize its collateral damage does NOT mean you can no longer have a sense of humor, which is yet another stupid stereotype about social justice-oriented individuals. As a matter of fact, the funniest people I know are fellow intersectional feminists who don’t need to rely on a one-dimensional gay joke in order to produce a laugh–because they’re smarter and better than that. If your sense of humor is contingent upon the oppression of others, you should probably reevaluate your life choices (and your life in general, cuz, no offense, you sound like a total asshole).


Being an ally isn’t about being perfect. No one is. Being an ally is about trying. You’re going to fuck up. I’m going to fuck up. But as long as we keep holding each other accountable, we can foster an environment where everyone feels a little safer in their identities.

Here’s a final example of privileges I have: (Final for this blog post I mean. This should go without saying, but none of these lists are exhaustive–are lists ever exhaustive??)

I have thin privilege, meaning

  •  People automatically assume I’m healthy and don’t need to work out (shit I’m probably going to die early what with all the junk I eat although my friend Nicole doesn’t like me half-joking about that so shhh don’t tell her I made another morbid joke)
  • I don’t have trouble finding my size when I go clothes shopping
  • People find me attractive because my body type is closer to the socially constructed, fat-shaming ideal of beauty that is completely arbitrary and narrow-minded

Having a certain privilege and being aware of it, particularly in a situation where you’re surrounded by people who don’t have it, is certainly awkward. But your awkwardness about facing your privilege is nothing compared to the kind of challenges a person without that privilege has to face on a daily basis, whether through systematic/legislated discrimination or de facto social policing via microaggressions or street harassment. So your best bet as an ally is to shut up and push through that uncomfortableness in order to do some good.

Let me just add, you don’t get a trophy or anything for being an ally, which is really just a synonym for being a decent human being in social-justice speak. What you do get is feelings of lukewarm semi-satisfaction that you aren’t a total piece of shit human being. Yay!

Seriously though–being an ally isn’t about you, it’s about other people and how you should support them if you actually believe in practicing equality. Call people out if they make racist jokes about black people. Refrain from using gay as a synonym for shitty. Support your female friend when she confides in you about being sexually assaulted and DON’T ask what she was wearing. And when YOU’RE the one being called out, take a step back, reconsider your perspective, mentally remove yourself from your privilege, and say, “Hey. I’m sorry I came off like a __-ist. I didn’t mean to. I know actions are just as if not more important than intentions, so I will stop doing x in the future.”



(Semi-) joking aside, being aware of your privilege is an outlook you (and I) must continually cultivate in order to avoid exploiting and hurting others. But it’s not like this privilege/oppression stuff has to be your all-encompassing, energy-draining life’s work, necessarily. I know it may sound like that, but actually, there are many social justice-oriented individuals (like myself) who spend a lot of their time watching TV shows that are bad for them or working 9-5 jobs that involve more mindless data entry than mindful sociopolitical change (to clarify, my organization effects mindful sociopolitical change–my specific job within the organization, not so much). Being an ally and a decent human being is simply a matter of being considerate as a conscious individual interacting with others, engaging in different forms of media, and navigating a world that is undeniably pluralistic. You can choose to shut your eyes to what’s really going on, but then you’d be missing out on the transformative beauty and wonder of human empathy and understanding. And trust me, that’s way more soul-crushing than owning up to your privileges.

 tl;dr I’m privileged,  you’re privileged, we’re all privileged! Is it really that fucking hard to admit? Goddamn goddamn goddamn