Colorism in Asia

The need to be lighter-skinned, have blonde, straight hair, and light eyes is a desire for many people from Asian countries. This ingrained distaste that many Asians have for darker skin and curly hair is derived from years and years of colonialism. This concept of colorism is derived from colonialism’s science such as the concepts of Social Darwinism in the 19th century. It considered dark-skinned people to be inferior to light-skinned people, thereby reinforcing the power gap between the white colonizers and the people they colonized. People with darker skin were seen as lazy, unattractive, and dirty, whereas people with light skin, particularly Europeans, were seen as diligent, intelligent and beautiful.

For example, in the context of India, much of these ideas were brought on by British colonizers. According to the American Sociological Society Paper, the British invaders thought of the native Indians as animals rather than people. Many people with lighter skin were given favors and made alliances with the British. This started the cycle of white excellence in India and shaped the ideology that equates light skin with wealth and power. 

This division within Asian countries over skin color is only further aided by the rise in popularity of beauty products such as skin bleaching creams, hair relaxers, and colored contacts. As explained by Claire Chang, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology, skin bleaching, a dangerous process that can be traced back to the 1500s, is where substances are used to reduce melanin concentration. Many of these products have things like Mercury in them which can peel away layers of your skin, leaving you prone to things like skin cancer and fatal liver and kidney damage. 

Hydroquinone, a component known to cause seizures, has also been found in these products. Skin bleaching is a business that thrives today in many different forms. A World Health Organization report states that half the population of Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines uses some sort of skin lightening product. 

It also says that countries like India have an even higher percentage, with around 60 percent of the population using skin lightening treatments. Even while countries, such as Japan, have banned many bleaching agents, people continue to seek out these products. Brands are even finding ways out of these laws. For example, the brand Unilever is rebranding their previously-named “Fair & Lovely” whitening cream to just “Lovely”. This allows them to not only not be associated with these bleaching products, but also to be legally seen as a product without bleaching agents in them.

If these statistics seem to be some sort of distant thing, you must realize these ideas are closer than you think. Pinewood freshman Sophia Cheng said that her conversations with her family over her tanned skin affected her self worth. Her family would often compare her skin color to her relatives in China, who had much paler skin. She often felt out of place, like an oddity, whenever she would return home to visit. 

“I would just feel like, is there something wrong with me?” Cheng said.

Not only are these products and beliefs dangerous physically, but also psychologically. They distort people’s way of thinking about their natural beauty and make them believe they need to change in order to be more normal and appealing. 

I too have dealt with colorism from my own family being half Indian and half white, especially regarding my curly hair.  I was born in Singapore, with thick curly hair. The humidity of Singapore fluffed up my baby hair into its coily curls, which you can see now in my baby pictures. But before elementary school, we moved to China, where the air is quite dry. I then started having to take care of my unruly hair from a young age; the only problem was that I didn’t know how. My mother never taught me how to take care of my hair. She would tell me to yank a brush through my wet hair, ruining my curls, and to put smoothing serums on it. For years and years, I was under the impression I had lost my baby curls, and I simply had ugly, frizzy hair. Only recently have I discovered that I still have that coily, curly hair. In the past couple months I have discovered that many Indian and South Asian girls have gone through the same thing. It is estimated that around 50-60 percent of the Indian population has curly or wavy hair, even though straight hair is the most popular beauty standard. Many of these South Asian girls go through similar journeys to mine to reach this beauty norm. 

The media further emphasizes Eurocentric beauty standards in Asian countries. Many high profile celebrities across Asia profit off the widespread colorism to gain fame and profit. Two prominent examples include Bollywood stars Priyanka Chopra and Sonam Kapoor, whose careers were not only possible because of colorism in the media industry, but also by being brand ambassadors for different skin-whitening creams. Many singers and dancers in industries like K-pop have been quite open with displaying the whitewashing that occurs in their industry. Many of these celebrities are often performing and seen publicly with layers of white makeup. The photos of these people with their naturally darker skin are often rare and hidden from the public eye. 

Not only are these harmful products and ideas broadcasted by celebrities and pop culture, but they’re also shown in movies and television shows. When watching Korean and Chinese dramas, I was shocked at how blatantly these dangerous products were discussed. Characters meant to be the “good guy” were played by actors with fair skin, whereas characters that were seen as the “bad guy” or unpopular were often portrayed by people with tan skin (sometimes actors with dark makeup on). 

For instance, in the Chinese web series “A Little Thing Called First Love,” the main character goes through a transformation from the “ugly swan” into the beautiful girl. For her original look, the actress wore darker makeup and teased and curled her hair. Later on in the show, skin bleaching creams were brought up many times and the idea of getting a tan was deemed to be dirty and wrong.

This blatant colorism that is demonstrated by the media and by pop culture icons is shown in more ancient art as well. In a majority of the drama/opera plays in China, actors often wear heavy white makeup or white masks. But as Cheng explained, the color of one’s face or mask can also go the other way. 

“The darker you are, if you have a black mask you are the bad guy… If you have a white mask you’re the good guy,” Cheng said.

It is clear that the Asian community as a whole has much to work on in overcoming colorism and its dangerous effects on our societies. We must root out the systemic white supremacy that is ingrained in our cultures and find more appreciation for our natural beauty.