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Racial Justice

“Huwag kang magpa-araw”: Unpacking Colorism in Filipino Culture

"Don't get too much sun. You'll get darker!" This phrase might seem harmless, often said by relatives who mean well, but it carries a strong message. It hints at preferring lighter skin tones over darker ones, sometimes more directly.

From the skin-whitening products stacked on shelves in Filipino stores to the subtle compliments about looking more "mestiza/mestizo" (mixed-race), the message is clear: darker skin is seen as less attractive, while lighter skin is associated with beauty, superiority, and success. This bias, known as "colorism," is deeply rooted in Filipino culture, and it can have damaging effects. It leads to people doubting themselves and believing negative things about their own race, sometimes even resorting to harmful practices like using skin-bleaching products. It also fuels discrimination against darker-skinned Filipinos, Indigenous Filipinos, and Black communities, including Black Filipinos who are multiracial.

So, How Did This Way of Thinking Become So Widespread?

To understand why colorism is such a big deal, we have to look back at history. During the time the Philippines was colonized, especially by the Spanish and Americans, damaging ideas about skin color and superiority were spread to our people.

For over three hundred years, Spanish rule pushed European beauty standards, wherein whiteness was associated with being rich, powerful, and sophisticated. Colonial authorities established a social system in which those with Spanish blood were placed above all others, reinforcing the notion that lighter skin meant higher status. Even the Catholic Church, which was a big part of this Spanish influence, depicted religious figures with lighter skin, linking whiteness with moral virtue. At the same time, the Spanish used degrading terms to describe Indigenous and darker-skinned Filipinos, further ascribing an inferior status onto them.

When the Americans came, they continued this idea of white supremacy (a term used to describe the belief that white people are superior to people of other races) through movies and ads that portrayed lighter skin as better, connecting it to happiness and success. American schools also taught that Western ways were superior, further emphasizing whiteness as more preferable. This is despite evidence finding that only about 1% of Filipinos possess genetic markers of European ancestry, as population geneticists discovered in 2021.

Image description: A newspaper clipping from 1899  racistly depicting a dark-skinned Filipino man within the backdrop of American colonization.

Colorism and Anti-Blackness

Colorism often goes hand in hand with anti-Black attitudes, especially in the Philippines. The widespread marketing of skin-whitening products throughout the 20th century and beyond has normalized the desirability of whiter skin, embedding the message that having dark skin is bad and even promoting the erasure of physical characteristics associated with Blackness within the Filipino community. Studies show that about half of Filipinos use or have used such products, showing how deeply ingrained this belief is. These beliefs not only harm people's self-esteem, but also make them feel like they don't belong in a society where native Filipino features are not desired.

In Philippine media, representation of dark-skinned people is rare, which can further isolate those who do not possess fairer features. Moreover, the Filipino entertainment industry has featured prominent instances of blackface, which is the practice of non-Black performers portraying themselves with stereotypically Black features, a form of mockery with historical roots in anti-Blackness. Additionally, unfair criticism of Black phenotypes is still common in popular discourse, which only adds to the problem.

Image Description: “Nita Negrita, a 2011 Filipino teleserye (teleseries), using blackface. 

Since these beliefs of colorism and anti-Blackness have permeated so many aspects of our culture, many Filipinos still believe that lighter skin is better. In turn, hurtful comments about darker-skinned people are oftentimes normalized without people realizing it. Subtle, seemingly “harmless” comments about skin color, like "Sana hindi ka umitim" (I hope you don't get dark) or "Maganda ka sana kung maputi ka" (You'd be prettier if you were lighter skinned), can have a damaging impact. Not only does colorism influence the way we see others, but it also continues to distort the way we see ourselves. 

Questioning the Myths Behind Our Privileges

White proximity can be described as when people of color are afforded the privileges and status associated with whiteness, particularly through attempts at assimilating into the dominant white culture. It can be tempting for Filipinos in the United States to claim these benefits, especially if their lived experiences have not been marked by the kinds of overt oppression suffered by Black Americans. Related to this phenomenon is the so-called “Model Minority Myth,” which emerged after U.S. laws were relaxed during the 1960s to allow for the entry of Asian immigrants with preferred job qualifications, such as Filipino healthcare workers recruited to fill labor shortages at American medical institutions. While this myth advances purportedly positive stereotypes of Asian Americans as hardworking, prosperous, and obedient, treating these diverse communities as one monolithic category ignores many realities, including the negative mental health effects associated with the pressure to conform to such stereotypes, not to mention the vast socioeconomic differences between Asian immigrant groups. Research on Asian Americans in California during the past decade, for example, showed that Filipinos had the worst health outcomes of the ethnicities surveyed, while data from the Los Angeles area identified Filipinos as having much lower median net worth than Japanese, Indian, and Chinese subgroups. 

Nevertheless, proximity to whiteness is conditional and does not guarantee safety for our communities. Filipinos have not been spared from the racist violence and harassment that has coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic and the anti-Chinese rhetoric irresponsibly deployed by some high profile public officials in response to the very global health crisis that so many of our own community members have been battling head-on as frontline workers. Furthermore, the Model Minority Myth serves to drive a wedge between Asian Americans and other marginalized groups by attributing the former’s economic success to innate cultural values while ignoring other relevant historical factors with respect to the latter, such as the disenfranchisement of Black Americans through centuries of enslavement followed by decades of segregation and ongoing systematic discrimination. This framing is regrettable since history shows numerous examples of Black and Asian solidarity, such as the African American soldiers who took up arms in support of Philippine independence from the United States during the turn of the 20th Century to the various multiracial coalitions that have been a hallmark of later struggles for labor and civil rights, the establishment of ethnic studies, and the Black Lives Matter movement of the present day. Indeed, the fates of our communities are intertwined. The Pew Research Center found that rates of interracial marriage among Asian American newlyweds has held steady at around a quarter during the past three decades. Back in the Philippines, an estimated 25% of “Amerasians” born to U.S. soldiers and local Filipinas during the over 40 years of military presence post-World War II were children of African American fathers. As subsequent generations of Filipinos become more and more multiracial, we must recognize how colorism sows division and only serves to advance white supremacy by allowing colonial ideals to further harm our people and our relationships with others. 

Taking Accountability

In an encouraging development, Black Filipinos have received increased public attention in recent times, from Chelsea Manalo becoming the first Black woman to be crowned Miss Universe Philippines in May 2024, to the emerging plethora of activists, athletes, entertainers, and politicians using their platforms to share their perspectives as Black Filipino Americans. Now more than ever is an opportune time to unpack how our colonial past has played a role in promoting colorism, anti-Blackness, and white supremacy in our society on both the systemic level and in many of our everyday personal interactions. This process involves learning about our history, disrupting toxic beliefs, and listening to Black voices.

Education is key. We need to understand the role of colonialism in shaping views on race and beauty in order to challenge stereotypes and talk to our families about the harm caused by colorism and anti-Blackness within our communities. We hope that this article is a starting point, and recognize that next steps may involve engaging in difficult conversations with our loved ones about sensitive topics. Even though colorism is just one part of the hurt caused by our colonial inheritance, we can start to heal by talking openly across generations and thinking critically about how we act and what we believe. It's not easy, but having these discussions and learning from past mistakes are central to our growth. Celebrating our rich cultural identity should include contributions from Filipinos of all complexions, and building both multi-ethnic and cross-racial coalitions that foster solidarity are important developments in creating a future where our communities can truly thrive.


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This article was written and edited by the Tayo editorial desk and has been reviewed by an independent panel of subject matter experts.

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