Is she white?

My mom told me that the first thing my aunt asked when I was born was, “Maputi ba siya? (Is she white?)”  My mother said, “Yes,” and this was celebrated as great news. Of course, I’m not white. I’m a Filipino with brown skin, but I’ve been largely considered to be on the fairer side of the spectrum. Somehow, I’ve never fully celebrated my “great fortune of being white,” and nowadays I’ve been thinking about why Filipinos continue to glorify whiteness.

Beauty as Colonial Construct

Filipinos are mostly brown skinned, but there are a variety of shades from mocha light brown, to sunbathed dark brown, to almost black but not enough to look like African ebony. There are even some Filipinos who look almost like fair-skinned foreigners because they have fair-skinned ancestors. Our colonial masters, the Americans, the Spaniards, and the Japanese, are nations where the fairer ones were once, or, in certain respects, still remain, dominant, powerful, and privileged.

As far as I know, when these nations conquered our country, they did not send dark skinned individuals to govern the Philippines. Thus, our colonial history has been marked with interactions with fair-skinned colonial masters. These colonial masters did what colonial masters usually do—they judged our culture and our people as inferior to their own. Our brown skin was one of those things that they looked down upon, and our entire nation developed an inferiority complex.

No Apartheid, No Worries

I always thought the Philippines was better off because at least we never had an apartheid. We never disallowed dark-skinned people from working in certain places except maybe in the entertainment industry. Artistas have to be beautiful, which means they have to be white. There are a few lucky ones who overcome this pigmented obstacle, but that’s the thing about it, they are but a few. Dark ones usually take up roles like the contrabida who makes the bida’s life miserable, or they’re the comedian who is always made fun of for being ugly.

Some turn progressively white as they get more famous like a Michael Jackson without the excuse of vitiligo. Case in point: Regine Velasquez.

Some have a hard time being recognized for their talent just because they are dark. Case in point: Charice. Many said she wasn’t pretty enough to be a singer, which meant she wasn’t white enough to be a singer. In one interview, her mother says, Wala kasi kaming pera para sa pampaganda, pampaputi (We didn’t have money to make her beautiful and white). Ganda (beauty) and puti (whiteness) were lumped in one sentence. I’m not saying her mother is evil and racist, but her words reflect what our society currently believes in—that white is beautiful; black is ugly.

My mom says that the same pressure to be white can be seen in other industries as well. A saleslady needs to be presentable, which means she has to be white, so she has to put on lots of makeup or invest her meager salary on whitening creams.

Where the White Things Are

In other countries, things are a little different. My cousin who lives in the U.S. says everyone envies her brown skin because she doesn’t have to go sunbathing or go to expensive tanning salons just to have that sun-kissed glow. Then again, there are still racists in America, but thanks to the civil rights movement, these people are called out for their beliefs, and there is much discussion about this issue.

In the Philippines, we haven’t developed enough sensitivity to racial issues. Without shame or an inch of guilt, commercials blast off messages and images telling people that if they use this whitening cream, they will get more lovers, or they will finally be beautiful. Like my aunt, most Filipinos do not have any malicious intent when they obsess about whiteness. Many don’t even have the consciousness or awareness about racial sensitivity. Giving into the pressure of being white or making fun of people who are dark is seen as normal.

I remember one commercial for a skin-whitening product. A fair-skinned woman gave birth to a dark baby, and her fair-skinned husband was surprised. Then, the camera zooms in on the woman. She has a playful smile on her face. The voice over says, “What’s her secret?” and goes on to talking about the whitening cream. When I told my cousin from abroad about this, he said it was pretty racist. Of course, just because a foreigner says it is racist, doesn’t mean it is. What are the standards for something to be considered racist anyway? I only know how to judge things by instinct, but I know that’s not enough.

Woman Be White

My mother said that commercial made her remember a short story where a white woman gave birth to a black baby. Furious, the white husband accused his wife of cheating, but she denied it. Unconvinced, he divorced her. Years later, the man discovered that it was he who had an African American ancestor. My mom says issues of racism also intersect with issues of sexism as shown in the short story. She says that accusations of infidelity have greater consequences when they are made against women. She says that it is easier to accuse women of promiscuity, and the unproven accusations often are believed in with much vehemence.

I also noticed that Filipino men are not under the same pressure to become white. Commercials don’t really make them feel like they need to have a rosy white glow or to have a secret beauty transformation. I guess it’s also because men are not under the same pressure to be beautiful. There’s the pressure to go to the gym and get muscles or to use Master sikreto ng mga gwapo, but if we compare that to the pressure to invest in make-up, whitening creams, dresses or skirt and blouse or pants and blouse or tank top and jeans and the like, belts, jewelry, high heeled-shoes, bags, eyebrow plucking, leg waxing, hair-rebonding, weekly manicures and pedicures—it is obvious that the pressure to be beautiful is heavier on women.

Some may say that it’s the women who actually like doing this, so no one’s really pressuring women to be beautiful. I disagree. Although it is true that some women are genuinely interested in these things, others don’t want to go through all that hassle, but they hear it from their friends, their own mothers, their aunts that they’ll never have a boyfriend if they don’t do this.

Savage Beauty Pressures

I actually like clothes and accessories. I enjoy dressing up and choosing which earrings go with this or that dress, but I hate plucking my eyebrows. I’m ok with doing it every once in a while, but I don’t want to waste minutes of my everyday life obsessing about my eyebrows. I used to pluck my eyebrows because it was one of those things I “had to do” to get a boyfriend. Now I’ve stopped. I’m like, no. If my eyebrows are not beautiful enough, I don’t really care. I’m not so fond of makeup either because it feels sticky. Sometimes I get interested in makeup, but most of the time, I’m like, nah, never mind.

I’m not saying that girls who pluck their eyebrows or wear makeup are somehow sexist or something. If those women truly enjoy what they’re doing, then they should continue doing it. What I’m saying is that if there are rules and standards that you have to follow or comply to just because you’re a woman, I’m telling you right now, you can say no. If you think it’s a waste of time and money, then you don’t have to do it. Stop, just stop, and don’t feel guilty about it. I think it’s also equally important that women have the power to say no. Women should be given the freedom to explore and own their beauty, and society should not pressure women to conform to one kind of beauty.

Questions and Reflections

What’s your take on these issues? Do you also disagree with the beauty standards that many subscribe to? Are there other pressures in our society that you disagree with? How important is creating a world that is founded on freedom and not the pressure to conform? How can we make things better? Where do we go from here? What else do we need to learn?

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Note: For some entries in this blog, a few names and details have been deliberately and willingly changed by the author. This is a personal decision made by the author for specific reasons known to her and is not an endorsement for censorship.

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10 thoughts on “Is she white?

  1. Im a bit late for the topic but i wanna tell those filipinas who are obsessed with having a gretchen barreto skin to stop their madness. Our skin color brown that is is beautiful to say the least and any number of westerners would cut their arms and legs to have my brown complexion. You are all getting deceived by the media that having a white colored skin is the real deal, so they can easily dupe you into buying olay, ponds, dove to name a few of whitening products sold in the market. Opt for a product that promotes a healthier skin, and stay away from chin chang su (did i spell it right?) many similar products from xxx offer a whiter skin in just one application but turns out theyre not health-friendly. they have toxic ingredients that can wreak havoc on your skin if used over a long period of time. Media is pulling our legs by promoting a misleading trend to make an “easy prey” out of us- you know what i mean? And did i mention megan young is DROP DEAD GORGEOUS?! And she’s not white! Bottom line is, be proud of your skin color, it makes you the way you are. Take care of it so it looks healthy and young. Have a good day.

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  2. An interesting phenomena here in the States is to hear elder filipinos compliment couples whenever a filipino/filipina (typically a filipina) pairs up with a white person, or someone with very strong caucasian features (sharp, strong nose, squared jaw, etc.) You’ll hear them say “O! Yu will hab byutipul children, ha? Mestisos!” But you won’t hear the same compliments if the significant other is any shade of brown or black. It’s as if anything that “erases” or dilutes the stereotypical pinoy features (almond eyes, flat “volkswagen” noses, brown skin, short stature) is preferred.

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      1. I think you said it best: “…These colonial masters did what colonial masters usually do—they judged our culture and our people as inferior to their own. Our brown skin was one of those things that they looked down upon, and our entire nation developed an inferiority complex.”

        I wonder how much different the filipinos would have been if they just settled on the islands and developed as a nation on their own without any colonial infiltration?

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        1. I also wonder what the Philippines would be like if we weren’t colonized. We can’t turn back time so what we have to do is move forward. We have to move forward by educating people about social issues such as racism. We have to move forward by promoting good values such as tolerance and open mindedness. Through these efforts, I hope someday the wounds of the past will be healed.

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  3. i like our colored skin and i’d never trade it for whiter skin. I think being white in the Philippines is over-rated in my opinion. It sets the mind of a lot of filipinos in a box. it makes me laugh on how they think. Just love what God gave us. :]

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  4. The color of my wife’s skin is light brown and it would not matter to me if her skin color was dark brown. Our son has white skin but it would not matter to me if he had brown skin. I love both of them and both of them are the most important thing in my life, together with God. God is a Spirit, so skin color does not come into play.

    I don’t think anyone should be pressured to have white skin or any certain appearance for the sake of conformity. Many popular actors and actresses on today’s entertainment scene in the Philippines have white or light skin. People seem to like the look.

    My wife does not use skin whiteners but she does not want to be in the sun for long periods of time, which will make her darker. I know many women in the Philippines also have this mind set.

    Many times, people are judged by their outer appearance instead of by their hearts, their character and their soul. I think my wife is very beautiful and so do most others but this is not why I married her but I am very proud of her, of course. She really decorates my life with her beauty and her wonderful heart and soul.

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    1. That’s great that you celebrate your wife’s beauty for what it is. Yes, many still think that having white skin is more beautiful than dark skin. I do agree that everyone should accept themselves for what they are, and people should celebrate all kinds of beauty. You raise an equally good point about how we shouldn’t judge people based on appearances and that we should be more concerned about their heart. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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