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

“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, Black Filipinos, Indigenous Filipinos, and Black communities.

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 forced upon 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 where 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 imposing 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 published, racistly depicting a dark-skinned Filipino man in relation to the 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 since the 20th century promoted the idea that it is normal to want lighter skin. These products subtly tell people that having dark skin is bad and even erase features related to Blackness within the Filipino community. Studies show that about half of Filipinos use or have used these 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 natural Filipino features are not desired.

In Filipino media, you rarely see representation of dark-skinned people, which can even more isolate those who are. Moreover, instances of blackface—a practice where individuals pretend to be Black—have been used publicly. This practice is often utilized as a form of mockery and signifies a direct action of anti-Blackness. Additionally, Filipino media has also rendered commonplace the unfair criticism of Black features, 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 are so ingrained in 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 significant impact. Not only does colorism continue to influence the way we see others, but it also continues to harm the way we see ourselves. 

Recognizing Our Privileges

White proximity can be described as when people are afforded the privileges and status associated with whiteness, even if they are not white. As Filipinos, we are claimed to hold proximity to whiteness that allows us a certain degree of privilege, such as social acceptance at the expense of darker-skinned individuals. This is a complicated link given that as Filipinos, we are typically darker-skinned and discriminated against for that darkness – both within and outside our community. These attitudes between darker and lighter skin tones within the Filipino community will only further divide us, an example of how anti-Blackness not only deeply harms Black communities but seeps into our own as well. In addition to damaging our own perception of beauty and identity, anti-Blackness directly harms multiracial Filipinos, including Black and Afro-Filipinos. An estimated 25% of the approximately 52,000 “Amerasians” —mixed-race children of American soldiers with Filipinas—have African American fathers, further proving that the narratives of Black Filipinos are just as important to highlight.

As Filipinos, we must recognize how these are tools and strategies of a white supremacist system that ultimately limits our progress as individuals and as a community.

Taking Accountability

As February, a month dedicated to Black History, has recently come to a close, we invite our community to reflect on our identities as Filipinos and 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 involves learning about our history, disrupting harmful beliefs, and listening to Black voices.

Education is key. We need to understand our history of colonialism on our views of race and beauty. We should challenge stereotypes in the media and talk to our families about the harm caused by colorism. We hope that this article is a starting point for many.

More importantly, we must actively challenge and confront instances of anti-Blackness within our own families and communities. This may involve engaging in difficult conversations with our loved ones about the harmful effects of colorism and anti-Blackness. Even though colorism is just one part of the hurt caused by our colonial past, we can start to heal by talking openly across generations and thinking about how we act and what we believe. It's not easy, but by having these conversations and learning from our mistakes, we can heal and build a better future for everyone.

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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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