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Confronting Colourism in Asian Communities

Colourism is an issue that Asian communities are familiar with. This is not only from our experiences as minorities in the west but from irrational, long-standing beliefs held within our communities. Most Asians agree that colourism is common within Asian communities, particularly amongst older generations. Asians with lighter skin tones are often wrongly perceived as more educated, attractive, and capable than those with darker skin tones. Despite the strides our global community has made towards removing all forms of discrimination, these dated attitudes on skin colour seem to linger amongst Asian communities.

What is Colourism, and How is it Different from Racism?

Racism is discrimination based upon racial identity, whereas colourism is discrimination based specifically upon the colour of one’s skin. People of different races can have the same skin tone, while people of the same race can have different skin tones. This means that colourist attitudes and behaviours can be present not only among people of different races but between people of the same race.

Why does Colourism Exist?

Many modern views on skin colour stem from colonization, and the historic relationship between white-skinned colonizers and those that they colonized. Skin colour was commonly used by colonizers to stress the divide between themselves and those they had colonized, preserving the idea that ‘whiter’ meant better. Under British rule, lighter-skinned Indians were given preferential treatment over darker-skinned Indians, with many kept as allies by the British and even given favourable jobs. Similarly, as mentioned by Professor Robert L Reece of the University of Texas at Austin in a study on the origins of colourism in the US, lighter-skinned slaves in America received better treatment and opportunities than those with darker skin. These examples provide an insight into where current attitudes around skin colour and social hierarchy amongst minorities have come from.

Colourism and Social Class

In many parts of Asia, skin tone serves as a proxy for one’s socioeconomic status. In the nineteenth century, upper-class Japanese men and women covered their faces in white-lead powder as a way of signifying their privileged position. Many practices and beliefs like this come from the idea that darker skin suggests an individual has spent long hours labouring in the sun. Contrastingly, lighter skin is believed to suggest that one spends less time tirelessly working outdoors and has the liberty of living a sheltered life indoors.

Many people from these communities try to minimize any exposure to sunlight out of fear of looking like a ‘labourer’. As a practice that has been passed through generations with little resistance, the act of Asian kids being encouraged by parents to shield their faces from the sun is common. Teaching children that darker skin is less favourable and that they should be almost fearful of their skin getting darker can negatively impact the way they view themselves and the people around them. Children may develop feelings of shame, self-hatred, and internalized racism.

We should look to break this cycle, instead teaching children that there is nothing inherently good or bad about the colour of one’s skin and that it shouldn’t have an influence on their position in society.

What is Skin-Lightening?

Skin-lightening is the act of using products and chemicals to lighten skin. Across Asia, skin-lightening is a huge industry. According to Jefferies financial analysts, Unilever’s Fair & Lovely skin-lightening brand earns the company more than $500 million in yearly revenue from India alone! Many people – often young women and girls – turn to products and procedures like this in a bid to appear more attractive.

To make matters worse, many whitening products contain toxic ingredients like lead, arsenic, and mercury. According to the World Health Organisation, the use of mercury on the skin can have several adverse health effects including kidney damage, scarring, skin discolouration and even anxiety and depression!

Why are Skin-Lightening Products Popular?

Many use lightening products in response to insecurities triggered by Eurocentric beauty standards. People have been wrongly conditioned to believe that European physical features like small noses, high cheekbones and light skin are the most attractive. The popularity and ease of access to skin-lightening products do not help and only make these issues worse. Cosmetic companies are starting to move away from language like ‘fair’ and ‘light’ in a bid to make their products more inclusive, but more needs to be done.

We need to shift what we perceive as ‘attractive’. This should be pursued across all industries, from fashion and cosmetics to arts and media. We should encourage open discussions regarding self-worth, to decouple negative perceptions of appearance from skin colour. Young people shouldn’t feel pressured to look a certain type of way and should instead be encouraged to embrace their natural appearance.

How can we Confront Colourism?

There are several things we can do to confront colourism. Something as simple as acknowledging the existence of colourism can help with knocking down skin-tone prejudice and can also aid in the healing process for those who have dealt with or are dealing with colourism. We should similarly strive to continuously educate ourselves and our children on colourism and how presents itself in our day-to-day lives. There are plenty of excellent resources available online that can help with this, like this article on teaching kids about colourism by Dr Sarah L. Webb. Whilst resources like this are great for educating young people on colourism, they also offer an opportunity for us to challenge our own subconscious biases.

We should also avoid using language that demeans those with darker skin. Backhanded compliments like, “You’re pretty for someone with dark skin” should be called out and questioned, as remaining silent in these situations suggests that such language isn’t problematic.

Representation in Media & Toys

Younger children, especially those from underrepresented minority groups, also need to see people that look like them in a positive light. Representation in something as simple as books and toys is incredibly important and can greatly impact how a child begins to perceive themselves. According to Dr Jeff Bowersox of University College London, toys have the power to reinforce or challenge existing interpretations of the world. They can therefore play a vital role in nurturing positive feelings and emotions surrounding skin tone.

Joeydolls produces Asian toy dolls that allow Asian children to feel the same joy and excitement as their friends who may be more used to seeing toys that look like them. Our toy dolls come dressed in a range of traditional Asian clothing that celebrates different cultures, making them the perfect soft and cuddly companion for any child.

At Joeydolls we believe that no child should feel ashamed of their skin tone. They should feel happy and confident in their bodies and should be allowed to celebrate their differences without fear of judgement.

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