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The Blemishes of Internalized Colorism

One of our YIP interns, Wendy, looks back at the internalized colorism she was forced to swallow and how it contaminated the way she perceived her own sense of beauty throughout her entire childhood.

At my core lies impulsivity and a satisfaction with riding the flow of the universe. Living under a Filipino roof has conditioned me to appreciate the full capacity of the present moment and cherish my loved ones with the utmost respect and joy. From endearing jokes about who’s most likely to finish the banana chips first after shopping at Serramonte to peaceful moments at the dinner table as we thank the universe or God for always providing us with enough food at the table. I was a free spirit for most of my childhood, and all I really wanted out of life was to smile and laugh with the people I cared for.

C’mon, don’t take things too seriously. 

I was also raised to be tough, to have resilience as an excuse to cover up the blemishes of my own internalized colorism. Staying strong and choosing to ignore the hurtful garbage certain people tossed at me seemed like the only viable option. As early as elementary school, I was bombarded with statements from my inner circle that gaslighted my painful experiences. 

Why can’t you just take a joke? That’s just who they are, so why do you care so much? People are always going to say crap about other people, just forget about it. 

My friends and my family all taught me how to not let anyone get to me, which, in retrospect, is only healthy if the way you filter those negative energies come from a place of self-love. I honestly didn’t really know what that was. For me, the filter was rooted in fear and denial. 

In second grade, I was part of a vibrant group of friends, all of whom were Filipino except for this one girl (there were quite a lot of Filipinos at that school). We would all eat Popeyes together on the colorful benches of the upper yard playground and play hide and seek tag with “the boys” because apparently, that’s how you flirted as a seven-year-old. 

One day, the girl who was not Filipino initiated a verbal attack on me. Up until this point, I’d considered her a close friend. It was an incredibly clear, beautiful day and we were all happily eating our chicken when she suddenly asked me, “Why are you so dark?”

What’s wrong with that huh? 

Your skin looks like Obama’s! 

Why is that so bad?!

You’re too dark from playing in the sun too much!

Well, I guess I have the same skin color as the president, then.

I didn’t handle that too well. I called them “dumb and stupid,” (truly the cruelest of all curse words) and then they snarked at my reputation as a “smarty pants.” I ran away to the lower yard. I felt like my hands were tied. I needed help, but I also didn’t want to rat my closest friends out, especially my bestie. 

What actually hurt me was when my other close friends started laughing with her and proceeded to make fun of how dark I was in comparison to all of them. Seeing my best friend side with her hurt more than the words themselves.

I told myself that I shouldn’t let such obscene statements lower my self-esteem, but truthfully, I just buried the pain because I didn’t know how to handle it properly. From that day forward, I was nothing but my darker skin to those so-called “friends” of mine.

My best friend came to my house everyday after school, so after seeing her tease me at the playground, I didn’t know what to feel. 

I was sensing some lingering animosity, but we didn’t address it. It was like it never really happened. Then one day, she admitted she didn’t believe any of those painful remarks she had said to me. I believed her. She cut herself off from the girl who started it all. I understood that those hurtful comments she’d made didn’t come from a place of truth; they came from the fear that she’d also be made fun of if she didn’t take a side.

That girl was a bully. She was two-faced and manipulative. A lot of the internalized colorism that I juggle with today is rooted in the light-skin superiority that she was perpetuating. I was always an easy target for her, but of course I never let her truly see the way she exacerbated my insecurities. 

Now, reconnecting with what I felt during the heat of that moment has led me to examine the colorist lens that has tainted my perception of what is considered beautiful. From using the notorious Likas papaya soap to harmful, whitening exfoliating scrubs, I subconsciously accepted a truth that I was forced to swallow at such a young age. 

Whiter is better. To become more beautiful and radiant, I had to lighten my skin.

I had to scrub the darkness off. 

I was told that the more they stung, the more effective these products were at getting rid of “the dirt.” I washed my face every night with the “magical” papaya soap. It felt like erasure. A fruitless attempt to become more white. Then I pondered: Why did I need to tailor my desires to fit standards I never really wanted to reach in the first place?

I no longer use those heinous whitening products, but there is definitely a wonderful lesson I learned that now aligns with the person I’m actively trying to become. The foundation of colorism is white supremacy and racism. It trickles down from the institutional level and infects our interpersonal relationships with extremely distorted views of who or what is better. It glorifies Euro-centric beauty standards and generates products that capitalize on its power. I found that actively practicing unconditional self-love is a direct protest to this system that aims to stifle our self-confidence. 

Holistically accepting every dimension, every broken piece of your identity initiates the process of healing. It has brought me a sense of peace and stability within myself. This internal harmony has changed the type of energy I put out into the universe. The capacity of love I have for my friends, family, and community has expanded tremendously, knowing that I no longer chain myself or others to such detestable expectations of what we need to be.

Wendy is a high school senior, first-gen Filipino immigrant, joyful dancer, and music lover.

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