Colourism in the Philippines
Living in the Philippines has been very interesting, because it has forced me to push the boundaries of my comfort zone almost daily. If I had to explain one of the most challenging aspects of living here, I would have to say it is living in Quezon City as an African-Canadian female. Being a dark skinned foreigner has brought a lot of attention, curiosity and, unfortunately, prejudice my way. Some of the time, people are excited to see someone that looks different than them; and even though it is embarrassing, I understand that it is harmless. The other moments end up forcing me to think about my identity, public perceptions of my identity, and how I can reconcile the arising differences. Based on the colour of my skin, many people here do not assume that I am Canadian and, because of this, I am usually treated differently than the other Canadians I am travelling with. These differences usually take the form of gestures of respect in spaces where perceptions of legitimacy, success and power prevail when an individual is white.
Generally speaking, I’ve found that “being white is right” in the Philippines – meaning, there is an undeniable fair-skin preference among Filipinos; and this notion is perpetuated through advertisements and television programs where there are mestizo/mestiza (Filipinos who are of mixed ancestry, with European features) selling products like skin-bleaching creams and cosmetic surgeries. In the beginning, it didn’t bother me – but as time went by things became harder to ignore and I kept thinking “Wow, people really don’t want to look like me!”. This reality, coupled with feeling neglected when I was with my friends of European descent, got me thinking about colourism in the Philippines.
The Philippines was colonized by the Spanish for over 300 years, followed by American imperialism and Japanese occupation around World War II. Similar to other countries in Asia, as well as other parts of the world, the Philippines is a post-colonial society, where the consequences of colonization are widespread, complex and have left lasting effects on the social fabric of the country.
Within the context of colourism, I’ve found that fair-skin preferences are embedded in notions of legitimacy and power (as well as beauty!), and considered precursors to success. The impact of colourism in my life in the Philippines is exacerbated by people assuming I am not Canadian. When this happens, I can feel that there are implicit biases that allow some, to gauge (knowingly or not) my attributes, which are then translated into corresponding actions (or lack thereof). For me, these experiences have been frustrating largely because they are ongoing; and, as a result, I have caught myself seeking external validation of my legitimacy – especially when I am in the company of other Canadians who seem to be receiving affirmation.
Admittedly, the apex of my struggles with colourism in the Philippines is frustration – but I can only imagine the extent to which colourism effects the average Filipino and, more importantly, how it could create a self-hating complex amongst darker skinned Filipinos. With general public perceptions glorifying people whom are fair-skinned, while having a majority not fair-skinned population – public pressure to seek unnatural ways to lighten skins is unavoidable.
I feel like any conversation about the effects of colourism in the Philippines would be incomplete without acknowledging the people who are born brown skinned, who are not able to avoid long hours in the sun and who do not have access to bleaching agents to alter their complexion. The group I am referring to are largely those who are of a lower socioeconomic status and battle the daily struggles of poverty. Although I am not expert, I still wonder how these people, who are already marginalized, will break the cycle of poverty when matters are exacerbated by colourism prejudices.
Again, I am not an expert on colourism or on the full effects it has had on the Philippines, nor do I hope to speak on behalf of all Filipinos. I also understand that development in the Philippines, as well as many other post-colonial countries, hinges on numerous factors and not just the eradication of colourism. But as a woman who has experienced colourism in this country, I believe a conversation is warranted. I think that it is incredibly important for all people to reflect on the impact of colourism on social progress in their country, particularly regarding how affording privilege to some based on something as arbitrary as skin colour will shape the minds of younger generations and, in turn, the future of their country.