The Brown Immigrant In The Mirror

When someone tells me they “don’t see color”, I always remember my mother facing me with a lesson.  I was eight years old, barely speaking in a passing American accent. I had asked my mother why they were so mean to me, and so she took me by my shoulders and told me: “Anak,” she said in the sweetest voice, “It’s because you’re so dark.  If you stop playing in the sun, you’ll stop being dark.”  

Reality suddenly became technicolor to me. I noticed the blond and brunette girls playing around with each other’s hair, wearing pretty pastel colors that complimented their perfectly Crayola-peach skin. My hair was just black. Their eyes were hazel or gray or green or blue, and mine was just brown. I started recognizing that the skin tone in my colored pencils was peach, and that the only color for me was “poop” (as my peers called it). If I was Superman, my kryptonite was the sunlight and, god, did I need to keep myself from getting any darker.  

If you don’t see color, it’s because you’ve probably never been told that you’re ugly because of your color. Sure, tanning has become a trend nowadays, but only on whites. I, and many others like me, were born in all shades of brown or Black, but we’re not trendy. We’re told we’re “too pretty to be dark-skinned”—that is, if they see our features as pretty at all. But why should I complain? Every person drowns under the weight of Western beauty standards. I’m not any different than any other person.  

Except this is uniquely something we see as people of color. It is not something I could be blind to, even if I wanted to. The reality of the skin I cannot remove and must live within every day is subject to more (scrutiny? of anything, really) simply because it’s naturally “darker”. No, it doesn’t make me special. Instead, it makes me undesirable.  

There is an import from the Philippines known as Likas. It is a cream that lightens skin. It’s a fairly common product and incredibly marketable in Asian nations: Indonesia’s most popular cosmetic product is skin-lightening creams; India’s skin-lightening industry makes a growing profit, and recent estimates show that it is worth $200 million. It’s a tradition in these countries, much like many others in Asia, to dislike darkened skin.  Even though most people in many Asian nations cannot control their skin color at birth, lighter skin tones are found to be more beautiful, while dark skin is unattractive, and dirty.  

But that’s just in those savage, uncivilized places far, far away from home, right?  

Immigrants from all corners of the world to Western nations will find it impossible to escape the beauty standards from our mother nations. And yet there’s an overlapping of beauty standards--East and West--that becomes even more impossible to navigate for these millions of immigrants. Instead of adding other points-of-beauty to obsess over, there’s instead a tug-of-war with beauty standards. While “back home”, everyone wants to be lighter, in the West, white people want to be “tan” (but not too much!).

The difference in what color the general populace of a nation “wants” is telling of who that nation is—or, rather, was. It’s a remnant of colonialism, the child of slavery and racism’s roots in anti-Blackness. In fact, the hyper-obsession over skin-color in societies all over the world and the debate over darker skin’s aesthetic worth is a direct descendant of how the world viewed Black bodies and colonialism. White Europeans quite literally brought their skin-color-specific ideals to Black and brown nations via colonialism. This has shaped every culture’s standards of beauty, regardless of individual want or intent, and it’s something that is inescapable. The technicolor world of light versus dark skin, tanning, and skin brightening pervades beauty standards everywhere.  

Straddling the fence between wanting to be tan and wanting to be lighter skinned has its nuances, though, in a western white-centric world. Tanning booths only ever show whites in brown skin, but still with their bleach blond, product-infused hair, and their photoshopped blue eyes. Big-name magazines, on the other hand, make Rihanna and Beyonce look much lighter, thus more appealing, showing the juxtaposition of Black women’s place on the “what-color-is-pretty” scale. In the middle, Filipinx stores in Portland, Oregon still carry skin-lightening creams for less than a dollar for a 16-ounce jar. There are apparently fifty shades of “pale-skin” foundation, but only three shades of brown or one shade of “tan” available. The spectrum of beauty in a hyper-colored world becomes exponentially larger in this point of view. Yet, the number of ways to find beauty in dark-skin alone grows smaller.  

We are told we are “pretty for [dark girls]”.  We are shown by our mother countries that we must not be too dark, but in our new homes, whites can be as dark as they want simply because it’s trendy if they do it. Then we are told by our families that they don’t like us because of the color of our skin, even though supposedly, they want our skin color.  

How can we be color blind when color is what we are all taught to seek?


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