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.”


OKBye Story #14: Friends with No Benefits

After the whole fiasco with Colin, I decided I needed to up the levels of sociopolitical awareness in my OKCupid profile so that the sea of blissfully ignorant white boys would stop crashing against my shores and messaging me. Under one of the prompts (probably either “I spend a lot of time thinking about…” or “The most private thing I’m willing to admit”), I wrote a long rambling paragraph about how it would be kind of cool to meet the love of my life or even just like a throwaway boyfriend at a protest but also it would be kind of awkward and inappropriate given the context.

Hmm. I guess I should talk a little bit about the methodology behind my dating profile. You know how the goal is to make yourself sound as appealing and desirable as possible? I do the exact opposite of that. To me, writing a profile is just a creative writing exercise in which I try to display myself not in the best possible light, but in the most interesting possible light. That usually means lots of self-deprecating humor, feminist rants, and an oversharing of personal details.

It kind of works. I get the attention of some dudes. I pique their interest, but there’s no guarantee of sustaining it–especially because they think I’m joking in my profile but no, I really am just a neurotic, awkward individual who talks about boner shrinking topics. Sorry dudes.

Anyway. A dude I shall henceforth call Andy messaged me in response to the above profile update. Our conversation went exactly like this:

RandomDude14 i actually think it’d be awesome to meet someone at a protest. at least you’d have a better chance of having your values aligning if you’re down for the same cause haha. unawkward and romantic ways of meeting people are overrated and idealized anyways
Sent Dec 12, 2014 Block them Report

CrumpleHSnorkack Well it would be awesome BUT then I’d feel super sleazy for hitting on someone when everyone’s main purpose is to fight for justice not dates you know?
Sent from the OkCupid app Dec 12, 2014

RandomDude14 you’re absolutely right, but i don’t [think] it’s too sleazy as long as you remember the main reason why you’re there. as long as those priorities don’t get mixed up. i actually haven’t done this btw if you’re wondering, i’m just open to the idea haha
Sent Dec 12, 2014

CrumpleHSnorkack Hmm maybe, but that’s easier said [than] done. Like if a guy came up to me and started talking to me while we were marching, I’d just think he was being an inappropriate doucheface lol . I guess there’s a certain way it would have to be done, although what way that is I would not know
Sent Dec 12, 2014

RandomDude14 i suppose now really imagining it, it would be pretty difficult. i wouldn’t approach it with the intent of hitting on someone primarily, so much as trying to get to know the people you’re marching with. which is important, because not everyone who joins a protest knows the politics or the issues behind it, even the organizers unfortunately
Sent Dec 13, 2014

CrumpleHSnorkack That’s a good point. I’ve always wondered about all the other individuals I’ve marched with in the past. Demonstrations have always left me with conflicted feelings. While I support the idea of a protest, in execution it sometimes feels like a reinforcement of mob mentality
Sent Dec 13, 2014

RandomDude14 yea, i feel you on that. i went to a protest recently for mike brown and eric garner in oakland, and the group was divided on what the real goal/destination of the march was. you always run into the possbility of having the (most of the time, white) anarchists join your protest, which will fuck up the real intent of your cause because all they want to do is break shit. which is exhausting, because you have white people fucking up something that’s supposed to be in support of the black community, which is caused by white people in the first place. but then again, what else is new
Sent Dec 13, 2014

I liked that Andy was actually demonstrating his sociopolitical awareness to me in our conversation instead of me just scrambling to read between the lines in the answers he gave to profile questions. We were maybe like an 80% match. I checked out his profile. He sounded like he probably wasn’t a sociopath, and he looked cute in his pictures. Plus he was a socially conscious man of color who possessed critical thinking skills and didn’t mind talking about boner shrinking topics with me! This was great!


But then I noticed that his relationship status read, “In an open relationship.”

Wait, what??? Andy was polyamorous?

Ah, shit.

While I’ve often felt conflicted about my sexual orientation (more in terms of am I heterosexual/demisexual/asexual than anything else), my monogamous nature is something I’ve never really questioned. That’s because I already know I’m petty and possessive and easily jealous and insecure about everything from my female friends to who gets the most “likes” on a shared Facebook article (if I post it first, “like” mine before sharing goddamnit!). So while polyamory makes way more sense to me in theory and sounds a lot better than being stuck with just one person for allegedly the rest of my life, in reality I could never be in a polyamorous relationship without losing my shit. Also, I hate dating enough as it is, why would I want do even more of it, assuming I find a dude who can accept me as the eccentric obnoxious argumentative awkward hardcore intersectional feminist that I am?

But Andy seemed so cool! Damnit. I had never encountered this problem before. Most guys I met on OKC were your standard-issue boring vanilla monogamous types.

Well. It couldn’t hurt to meet up, I reasoned. We had both stated in our profiles that in addition to dating we were looking for friends (although I’ve always thought that was just a bullshit option you chose so you didn’t seem too sleazy or desperate).

So when Andy eventually asked me if I wanted to get drinks with him, I said yes, and proceeded to mentally “friendzone” him. Ugh. Given the sexist origins of this word, maybe I should rephrase…okay, here goes: I said yes to drinks with Andy, and proceeded to mentally friendcast him.

Andy had suggested we meet up in some dive bar in downtown Oakland I had never been to, which was fine with me because dive bars usually meant less people and cheaper drinks. I was horribly late to this “date.” That’s because at the last minute I was still debating whether to BART or to drive my car. I ended up taking BART (which I had to drive to anyway) and forgetting my phone in the car. Fuck. There was no way for me to let Andy know that I was running late. What did people do before cell phones?! I just hoped that he would be understanding. Or maybe he would curse my name and leave before I showed up! That would solve everything, actually.

I arrived, roughly 20-30 minutes late. Shit shit shit. A bouncer at the door told me there was a cover charge for the band playing that night, which I had not known about. What the hell, Andy? I reluctantly gave the bouncer a few bucks and went inside. Spotted someone who vaguely looked like the Andy I had surmised from the handful of pictures in his profile. He looked better in his pictures, I was somewhat disappointed to find out. It only served to solidify his friendcast status with me. (Yes yes I’m shallow you should already know that by now.)

“Hey!” I called out. “I am so so sorry I’m late.”

“Oh, no worries, I was running late too,” he replied, much to my relief. “I wasn’t waiting that long.”

Did we hug? I don’t remember.

We ordered our drinks. The bar was very empty, save for maybe one other person. It was a little weird, not having to shout at him like I was used to doing with other dates. (Maybe I was shouting anyway. According to some people, I talk at a slightly higher volume than the average person.)

We dove into social justice right away. Topics ranged from API identity (he talked about being Filipino) to male privilege (not only did he acknowledge having it, he also provided insightful commentary on how he tried to minimize its harmful effects). Andy was as sweet and thoughtful as his OKC messages had suggested. Talking to him was practically effortless. There was no (sexual/romantic) chemistry as far as I could tell, but I totally wanted to be his friend. I hope that it showed. I was never someone who had been good at making friends easily, but maybe tonight I would finally make a decent first impression. 


After the appropriate amount of conversation had ensued, Andy suggested we go to a different bar. I told him I had paid the cover fee and hadn’t realized it was optional. Thankfully, he was willing to stick around for the show and paid the bouncer. We moved to the lounge where some kind of punk/screamo duo started playing. They were decent, except they kept making unfunny, shitty jokes in between songs. The main vocalist was really hot, but sadly he had a girlfriend, who was basically the only other person in the audience besides us (and yes, the fact that I was checking out one of the band members while on an alleged date speaks volumes about my interest–or lack thereof–in Andy).

This really isn’t bad at all, I thought. Now that I’ve…friendcasted Andy there’s absolutely no pressure or stress in coming off as sexually/romantically desirable to him, and no reason at all to freak out. I should do this more often!

Over the loud music, I yelled at/asked Andy about his girlfriend, to show him I was totally cool with him having one and that I wasn’t trying to win him over with my imaginary feminine wiles or anything. They had been together for over a year, he told me. She was the one who suggested that they try being in an open relationship. I briefly wondered about this girl I would probably never meet. Was she also a cutesy petite Asian chick? (Although I would like to clarify and say that I’m more of a pseudo-cutesy scrawny Asian chick with a lot of grit and stuff. BIG difference, okay.)

The band stopped playing, or maybe we grew tired of hearing them. Either way, we ended up outside.

“You want to walk around or go to another bar?” Andy asked.

“Actually…I’m pretty tired,” I said. “I think I’m gonna take BART home.”

“I can give you a ride,” he offered.

Well, since he’s offering… “Actually…can you drop me off at the Coliseum station? That’s where I parked my car.”

He agreed. We got in his car, talked a little more. Nothing too heavy, since we had gotten most of that out of the way. I started wondering how Andy felt about me. Could he tell I had friendcasted him? Had he friendcasted me too? Or had he found my awkward blabbering somehow charming and sexually appealing and was waiting to make a move?

I found out soon enough after he dropped me off: the answer was none of the above. I was the one who had initiated a hug, thanked him for the ride, and cheerily told him to add me on Facebook. Andy smiled and nodded, but he never did.

I mentally retraced my steps. What had gone wrong? Maybe he wasn’t looking for a friend. Or maybe I wasn’t friendship material to him. But why? I had been way more friendly to him than almost any other dude I had gone on a date with!

Or had I? I thought harder. Okay, so maybe a couple of times throughout that night, Andy had expressed interest in doing other things with me, and in hanging out with me for a longer period of time, and maybe I had politely declined or outright rejected each suggestion he made that would result in us spending even more time together than was necessary, but…did that really make me a disinterested and somewhat tactless bitch?

Well, duh Learkana.

Goddamnit. I had friendzoned Andy, but he had strangerzoned me. And I had wholeheartedly deserved it–confirming that not only was I terrible at dating, I was also still terrible at making friends.

Oh, well. Time to get a cat. (Or five.)

tl;dr Boy messages girl, girl and boy meet up at a bar, girl wants to be friends, boy does not want to be anything, girl and boy never see or hear from each other again