I remember a 14 year-old-me sitting on the floor during assembly waiting for it to start. Just like every other student, I turned to my friends and started our conversation. Everything was going well at first, we were having fun talking about anything and everything. That was until one of my friends held my hand and said, “I wished my skin was as pale as yours.”
I was taken aback and could not wrap my head around what she just said. “Is this a compliment?” I thought to myself. As a naive and ignorant teenager, frankly I did not know how to react to her statement and because of this I did something that I regret till this day. I laughed it off. In the back of my head I know I should have done something about it instead of merely laughing it off. However, due to my ignorance, I just brushed it off. It wasn’t my problem that she felt insecure in her own skin. Looking back, I realised that, although I did not ostracise her for her skin colour, my silence was evident of me contributing to the colourist society Malaysia has.
History of Colourism
Colourism by definition means the dislike and unfair treatment of the members of a particular racial group who have a darker skin colour than others. It is a form of discrimination, favouring people of lighter skin tone. Oftentimes racism and colourism goes hand in hand, though colourism can be overshadowed by racism during discussions as it is seen as less severe. However, many fail to see the correlation between them. Racism is the cause of colourism, as the origin of colourism can be linked back to the early days of racism.
Colonialism of the Europeans plays a big part in both racism and colourism. The result of colonisation no doubt is something that should be condemned. Lives were taken away and people were used as slaves while their land was stolen by colonisers, using religion to justify their actions. Although colonialism has ended, the consequences of it still exist after all these years including racism and colourism. The superiority complex the European rulers had over others led them to other places like America where they took over the land of Native Americans. After the genocide of the Native Americans, the Europeans took their conquest to other counties in Africa, Asia and Latin countries.
The most prevalent place of colonisation would probably be in the continent of Africa. African people were exploited and enslaved by colonisers. They were seen as evil and not human. Eventually colourism started and stemmed from the colonisation of the Americas and Africa. It evolved from racism through slavery. Slavery had a system where people were segregated not only between black and white people but also darker skinned and lighter skinned black people. This “system” was started by Willie Lynch, a British slaveowner who spread his philosophy of the easiest way to divide black people was to use the dark skin slaves vs. light skin slaves approach.
Many soon followed Lynch’s idealogy and thus separated the darker skinned from the lighter skinned black people. Light skinned slaves were assigned domestic work and often times they are actually the biracial children of the slaveowners. On the other hand, dark skinned slaves had to work on the field all day and were tortured by their slaveowners. This has caused tension within the African American community where colourism has caused division between the dark skinned and light skinned community even until this day, with the need to compare themselves due to the amount of melanin in their skin.
Colourism across different cultures and communities
Growing up in a predominantly Chinese community, I have heard many offensive statements regarding skin colour and skin tones such as “A girl who is tanned is not beautiful” and “Use this if you want to have lighter skin.” It is not a surprise that colourism is so widespread within the Asian community. Colourism in East Asian countries like China, Japan and Korea has always existed even before the days of colonisation. Lighter skin has always been favoured and is considered superior in many East Asian countries. In many Chinese literary classics attractive women are described to have snow-like skin.
One saying that I have heard within my community is “a white complexion can hide several flaws”. It is undeniable this statement is not only colourist but is also harmful to anyone even outside the community. It perpetuates the idea that only “white skin” is beautiful and acceptable and anything other than that is considered ugly and unattractive.
Skin colour also represents the social status of people back in the days in East Asian countries like China and Korea. Those with tanner skin are commonly associated with working under the sun with labour intensive work, indicating their lower social class, while the elites need not have to work a day in their lives which is why they have lighter complexion. Asian countries which were colonised also struggled with colourism. Colourism in countries like Vietnam and the Philippines is a little different from east asian countries. Colonisers have reinforced the idea of whiteness equating to beauty and intelligence, putting down others who have tanner complexion which is what most skin tone Asians have. Colourism is one of the causes of eurocentric beauty standards in some Asian countries.
It is clear that nations in the continent of Asia too struggle with the issue of colourism. Besides East Asian countries, South Asian countries like India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh have problems dealing with colourism as well. Across many different entertainment media in South Asia, colourism is prevalent in them. One of the biggest film industries in the world, Bollywood, which originated from India, is a great example of how colourism takes over the entire population of South Asia. Villains are often portrayed with darker skin while the protagonists of the film have a lighter skin tone. This is especially prevalent in female protagonists. Bollywood often casts lighter skin actors and actresses with the emphasis on lighter skinned women. Therefore we often see the same actors being casted in different movies. Although Bollywood has provided us with catchy tones and cinematic masterpieces, it cannot be denied that it feeds into the idea that only white is beautiful, setting unrealistic beauty standards to their audiences.
Malaysia is definitely guilty of colourism. The saddest part is there are still many Malaysians who are still unaware of the severity of this issue. They may see it as harmless and is something to joke about. Brownface or blackface is still somehow a problem in Malaysia and many are still ignorant about this whole situation. Such an incident that occured in Malaysia is when Choo Hao Ren, a local musician, had released a problematic video which sparked much criticism and controversy. The video has since been taken down due to the overwhelming amount of criticism by the public. His song “White Doll” has garnered much attention across social media platforms. By the song title alone, there is no doubt how problematic his song and music video was. The music video shows a girl being ridiculed by her peers due to her tan skin and is then given skin whitening products by an admirer. At the end her skin becomes lighter as she uses the products given. The most problematic thing about this music video would have to be casting a light skin actress and giving her “brown skin” to fit into the character. At his grown age, Choo somehow did not find a problem with it at first until the public called him out and has since issued an apology.
However his apology failed to address the main issue. He claimed he had no ill intent and said, “In Malaysia, a country with strong sunlight, is it really inappropriate to do a tanned makeup on [an] actor to present a plot of sunburnt? Even though the story [ended] up [showing] unconditional love from the boy towards the tanned skin girl?” The irony of this is the girl turned lighter-skinned at the end — if it was truly unconditional love, wouldn’t the boy love her for who she is?
Darker skinned people in Malaysia are often the target of jokes about skin colour and are belittled for it. Unfortunately, this is passed off as a fun and harmless joke not to be taken seriously. Many fail to see the effect of these jokes, with insecurities being formed as well as people being targeted for their race and skin colour.
Colourism in the media
The issue with colourism is that it can be subtle and is only criticised once people look deep into the situation. Take for instance: Hollywood. It seems like in a room full of white actors with only a handful are of different ethnicities. Hollywood would cast one or two people of colour (POC) and call it a “diverse” cast while the story surrounds its white protagonists. There are far too many movies which portray the white protagonists with their POC best friend who often gets sidelined by the “more important” issues of the white main character.
Black actors are victims to this, especially black women. Even if it is an all black cast, more often than not the main roles are often lighter-skinned and fit into the Eurocentric beauty standards. While black men seem to have all ranges of different skin tones being represented on screen, this is not the case for all black women. Actresses like Zendaya and Zoe Kravitz are what are known to be “acceptable black women” in Hollywood as they have lighter skin. This results in the harmful message that light skin is more attractive than dark skin. Black women are subjected to many harmful stereotypes such as being too aggressive, being too loud. Only casting light skinned women not only perpetuates the idea that lighter skin equates to being beautiful but also causes further division within the black community.
Many women and men across the world have fallen victim to skin-whitening advertisements and commercials due to many years of being ostracised by others for their skin colour. Skin whitening products are available around the world despite the harmful side effects of it. The infamous brand of ‘Fair & Lovely’ is often the topic of debate when it comes to skin lightening products. The advertisements and commercials often spark controversy as they claim to lighten skin tone just by applying the products. Despite the ridiculous claims it has, many people still fall into its trap as they are desperate to have lighter complexion to fit into this judgemental society.
Colourism in our everyday lives
Colourism has also formed implicit or explicit biases towards people with darker skin tones. For instance, in the workplace where there is inter-racial and intra-racial wage gap. Wage gap caused by colourism is largely found in legal immigrants in the United States. They still experience pay disparity despite already living in the country for years. Multiple academic studies also proves there is a light skin bias when looking for new applicants. One study shows there is a bias towards fair skin applicants as compared to dark skinned applicants when hiring new employees. Another research tells us that skin tone plays a big role when hiring black applicants and could be even more looked into than an individual’s education and background.
Unfortunately, young children are also subjected to biases in schools because of colourism. Studies have shown there is a favorability towards lighter skinned students in places of education. A study that was published in 2013 demonstrates that, among all the students sampled, African American girls who have deeper skin tones are significantly more likely to be suspended than African American girls with lighter skin tones. When we think about it, the fact that colourism already has its seeds sown from when we are young children only goes to show the great extent of how deeply rooted this issue is in our society today.
Colourism has always been a deep rooted issue in many different cultures and communities. Although the issue has slowly improved over time, it still remains a pressing issue in some countries. As a society, we must learn and recognise that all skin tones are beautiful and not one is superior over another. Skin colour represents a person and should not divide us as a community, for we’re all humans after all.
[Written by: Anne Rose. Edited by: Siow Chien Wen.]