When people I meet find out that I’m half Indian, they often say,
‘Oh but you don’t look Indian!’, as if it’s a compliment, and that I deserve to be congratulated for having light skin.
The one thing that I have had to face growing up at the intersection of having mixed Asian heritage is this: colourism. This colourism doesn’t only need to occur from strangers, it can come from within our own communities and even from our relatives.
Being mixed-race with light-skinned and dark-skinned parents is essentially a genetic lottery – no one could ever predict whose genes would determine the skin colour I would end up having. And that the skin colour that I would be born with, would decide how I am treated in many situations.
No one ever encouraged me to have lighter-skin (because I was already born with it), but I know that this is the reality for many of my dark-skin Asian friends. I have been privileged to not be discriminated against for my skin tone. And I did nothing to have this advantage.
The fact that whitening creams and treatments like ‘Fair and Lovely’ and ‘Fair and Handsome’ even exist is an issue. The name of the product itself promotes the notion that being dark is equivalent to not being ‘lovely’ or ‘handsome’, and that it is therefore undesirable.
This idea is embedded in the microaggressions relatives would utter at family gatherings, especially in the scorching Australian summer. Jokingly, a relative would say to my cousin who spent their summer in the sun,
‘You look so black!’ when their skin tone had naturally become tanner. And I would always think – what’s so terrible about that?
Anti-blackness is so prevalent in Asian culture. In the Philippines for example, beauty pageants, which are especially popular in the country, are a prime example of the issue of colourism. Eurocentric beauty ideals are so idealised in the Philippines that light-skin Filipinos, mixed race Filipino people and especially ‘Eurasians’, get much more opportunities in modelling and show business than their dark-skin Filipino counterparts.
Despite mixed-race Filipinos creating a small percentage of the population, they create a large percentage of media personalities in the nation. They are so desired that they don’t have to work hard to get booked– by default, they are the perfect celebrity.
Likewise, in India, the vast majority of celebrities on-screen are so light that they come across as European to foreigners. Often the celebrities themselves are promoting skin whitening and skin bleaching to the public. Skin whitening creams are regularly used in Asia, and are a widely normalised beauty product.
Products including steroid creams, that are only supposed to be prescribed for anti-inflammatory effects, are often used for skin whitening. These however, have several adverse effects including acne, itching, rashes and hyperpigmentation. A recent study also revealed that some skin whitening creams have dangerous levels of mercury in them.
The way that Asian media carefully chooses and praises light-skin people creates a false perception of the Asian population to the public. It creates insecurities for people who are not born with naturally lighter skin, to the extent that they spend hundreds of dollars to reach an unrealistic societal expectation. It is a booming, lucrative business.
But when it comes to Australian culture, tanning and having a ‘sun-kissed’ look is the beauty standard. Frequent sunbathing on the beach, and spending money on self-tanning products is common.
In Western countries, tanning signifies wealth. It shows that you have time to enjoy the sun, or money to spend on artificial tans. Whereas in Asia, it’s a totally different story. Historically, having darker skin meant that you spent more time labouring in the fields. The higher social class had paler skin because they had the financial means to stay inside all day.
Why is it fair that brown people in this country get persecuted for their melanin, but white people can put it on and take it off without enduring any maltreatment? Why are certain skin tones acceptable only if they’re deemed ‘trendy’?
So where does this put us, Asian-Australians, existing in two completely contradicting ideologies?
Tanning, whether it be done naturally or artificially, can be a way for Asian-Australians to embrace and enhance their natural melanin. Using proper skincare and sunscreen helps preserve and protect our skin from the sun, and helps to keep it healthy and nourished.
Asia has such diversity when it comes to the many skin tones we present with. There is so much more to being Asian than the colour of our skin. There is no one way, or one look, to be ‘Asian’, and that’s what makes being Asian so beautiful and unique.