What is colorism?
Some may assume that the term “colorism” refers to discrimination of one race by another based on their skin color, such as the prejudice African Americans have historically experienced from the white majority in the United States. But this would be false. As surprising as it sounds, colorism actually refers to “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.” The term was coined by American novelist Alice Waker, who used it to describe the phenomenon of black Americans sometimes favoring their lighter- than darker-skinned counterparts. Unfortunately, colorism is not unique to black Americans. In the Philippines, for example, colorism is common, owing to the nation’s colonial roots.
Asia Jackson, now known as a Filipino American actress in Hollywood, experienced colorism first-hand when she moved to Baguio, her mom’s province, at the age of 10 for one year. Because her father was black and her mother was Filipino, Jackson had darker skin than most of her classmates in Baguio. They taunted the young Jackson regularly, calling her “negra," the Spanish word for black. On one occasion, a classmate even joked that Jackson had become invisible when the teacher turned off the lights in the classroom to watch a DVD.
The color-based bullying of course affected Jackson’s self-esteem. She couldn’t wrap her head around why her Filipino peers teased her when she was Filipino as well. She also didn’t understand why there were aisles at the grocery full of skin whitening products. Changing something as fundamental as your skin color was evidently big business.
Even when Jackson moved back to the United States, she still experienced colorism in the Pinoy community. When she would be outside with her Filipino friends, their parents would sometimes call them back inside at the risk of getting darker. Whether in the Philippines or in the Filipino diaspora, darker skin was treated like some sort of affliction.
Jackson learned that colorism was not a recent trend, but one that traced its roots to the very beginning of the nation. When Spain ruled the Philippines, there was a strict social hierarchy, with the Peninsulares, the full-blooded Spaniards born in Spain, at the very top. Then came the Americanos, a person of majority Spanish or American descent born in Spain, and the Insulares, an ethnic Spaniard born in the Philippines. At the very bottom were Indios, full-blooded Austronesians, and the Negritos, full-blooded Aetas.
Jackson realized that this color line - of the lightest skinned people at the top of the cultural hierarchy, and getting progressively darker until you reached the bottom - still existed in Filipino culture, even after the races had mixed over many, many generations.
This moment was depicted in Jackson’s feature in Fearless Filipinas: 12 Filipinos Who Dared to Be Different.
“Asia realized now that despite the fact that the Spanish colonization happened nearly 500 years ago, the social hierarchy based on blood and skin color was still deeply embedded in the Filipino cultural belief system. It was evident in the way fair-skinned Filipino are treated with more privilege because of the cultural history of what it meant to be white. Darker skinned Filipinos, like Asia, were looked down on for the same reason,” wrote Monica Padillo, the book's co-author who wrote her story.
Even if Jackson stood in the face of over 500 years of colonial history, she did not sit idly by. During Filipino-American History Month in 2017, she started the hashtag #MagandangMorenx that eventually became viral months later as part of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. People took photos of themselves, proudly showcasing their darker skin as acceptance of the fact that brown is also beautiful.
Though Jackson is a celebrated actress, she was selected for Fearless Filipinas because of how she fought to redefine traditional standards of Filipino beauty.
“While there are many successful Filipinas in entertainment, Jackson started a movement much bigger than herself. The call to embrace #MagandangMorenx does not apply to only women with darker skin. The movement should serve as a reminder that—in a digital era where it’s often difficult to keep up with appearances—we must make it a point to love ourselves,” said Kyle Nate, the deputy editorial director of Bookshelf PH, the publisher behind the book.