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A sociologist has collected essays from Asian-American women about what it means to have their beauty judged according to how white their skin is. Photo: Shutterstock

Review | Skin whitening, the prejudice against dark skin and how class in Asia was associated with pale skin long before white colonialism

  • Asian-American women explore the roots of the Asian preference for lighter skin and describe how this beauty standard affects them in a new anthology
  • One contributor, of Chinese and black heritage, says her biracial background often ‘made Chinese people uncomfortable’
Kristen Yee

Whiter: Asian-American Women on Skin Color and Colorism, edited by Nikki Khanna, NYU Press, 3.5 stars

Pale skin is valued in Asia, where cosmetics to whiten skin are widely advertised. To many Americans, and Asian-Americans, however, the promotion of skin-whitening products appears to be racist and “colourist”.

Whiter is an anthology of essays by Asian-American women on skin colour and “colourism”, edited by Nikki Khanna, a sociologist whose previous work has focused on biracial identity.

She adopts the term colourism from American novelist and social activist Alice Walker, who first used it in 1983 to refer to the “practice of discrimination whereby light skin is privileged over dark – both between and within racial and ethnic communities”.

The cover of Khanna’s book.

Khanna and her contributors also apply it to the centuries-old preference for pale skin in Asia that predates colonialism and was not connected to Western slavery. It originated in part from the association of skin colour with class, with darker skin associated with exposure to the sun during manual labour.

The essays are mostly written by academics from East Asia (China, Japan), Southeast Asia (Cambodia, the Philippines), and South Asia (India, Bangladesh). The focus is on how problematic the preference for lighter skin is for Asian-American women as a beauty standard.

Push back against skin whiteners and unhealthy norms they promote

What interests Khanna is how this preference is further refracted in the United States. The perception of an individual’s colour by an ethnic group can result in that person being excluded.

One contributor of Chinese and black heritage notes: “On shopping trips to Oakland Chinatown, men and women behind counters and cash registers would force my mother to respond to their curiosity – ‘Is this your daughter?’ – before extending her service or allowing her to collect her purchase.

“I realised that their questions were less about understanding how we were related, and more about policing racial boundaries and sexual transgressions – specifically, the interracial relationship of my Chinese mother and my black American father.

Pale skin is valued in Asia, where cosmetics to whiten skin are widely advertised. Photo: Shutterstock

“It was my body that made Chinese people uncomfortable, disrupting their beliefs that Chinese people should choose each other as intimate partners or, if they crossed racial lines, should do so only with white people, whom a history of racist state policies had disproportionately granted excess social authority, political autonomy, the highest property values, and the best financial credit.

“It continues to be my body, and reactions to it, that reveal the pervasiveness of anti-blackness within Asian America and among Asian immigrants, who see blackness as undesirable.”

Skin whitening gone wrong: toxic creams scar women for life

In this age of global beauty culture, where whitening creams are marketed in Asia with Caucasian celebrities and models, however, Chinese blogger Ye Tiantian observed: “I am pretty sure that I and most of the people I know buying these products are not trying to make ourselves look like white people. We don’t want to be white … [but] I cannot tell you for sure it has nothing to do with white privilege”.

The term “white privilege” certainly describes some of the cultural effect of European colonisation, explained by Khanna as “a ‘white is right’ mentality … wherein all things Caucasian and Western (including but not limited to physical appearance) are held up as superior to all things local”.

Khanna references scholars alongside bloggers and observations on internet search results, but a more rigorous approach to delineating the origins and manifestations of the Asian preference for lighter skin – as well as the evolution of beauty ideals from Asian to Eurocentric – would be welcome.

In Manila, the Philippines’ capital, a hoarding advertises skin whitening products. Photo: Ben O'Rourke

This volume adds to the canon of first-person experiences of prejudice and self-discovery, and may inspire some to pen an equivalent to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s pro-feminist Dear Ijeawele – a manifesto for embracing one’s appearance and asserting identity.

As journalist, artist and life coach Betty Ming Liu writes in her contribution: “Painting changed me into a colourist. I took a colour theory class, where we mixed the primary pigments of red, blue, and yellow into subtle shades and tints. The results were unpredictable and exciting. I realised that this is how our complexions should be celebrated too.

“I can’t stop colourism; it’s been here forever. But inhaling and exhaling keeps me in the moment – free of ancestors, the past, the future … we have gone on to recognise our worth in a world that devalues dark skin.”

Asian Review of Books

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: The problematic preference going beyond the pale