Color Me Brown

Colorism: “An attitude, a predisposition to act in a certain manner because of a person’s skin color.” “Subjectively ranking individuals according to the perceived color tones of their skin.”

I grew up using crayons, paints, and pencils that best matched my skin – a scrubbed down version of myself. Oatmeal for the dirt and a loofa for the extra rub. Unintentional and unaware, I filled in the lines with the color America wanted me and my family to be. But now that I think of it, I shouldn’t have filled anything at all since the default is already white. Even with the coloring books that had the tannish papers, I still had the need to draw over it.

I became my own coloring book as I got older, controlling my shades by measuring how long I was in the sun. My Aunties praised me for my “fair” skin, following with Filipino kisses where they sniffed my cheeks. I bet I had the scent of apples. Mama would tease and tell me that I haven’t been to the Philippines because I would be kidnapped and forced to act in TFC’s telenovelas. The cousins and I used to joke about how one of us was so dark that people might think he’s adopted.

Now I realize that the joke was on us. Our laughter echoed hidden shame of being dark. We’ve become parrots on colonial shoulders, repeating everything they told us when since they step foot on our land. My karma today is the inability to tan or even sunburn. I am not worthy of being kissed by the sun so my lightness is seen as a privilege. I am exempt from purchasing whitening products, receiving suspicious looks, or using papaya soap. And in exchange, I am told, “You’re light for a Filipino,” “Are you mixed?” “You’re so puti,” “What are you, really?”

It’s been really strange interacting with people and having them deny my ethnicity. When I tell them I’m Filipina, they try to correct me or ignore my answer. “You look Chinese?” “Are you sure?” If there is one thing I am sure of, it’s the fact that no matter what color you fill my skin, I will still have almond eyes, curly hair, and a tall stature – all characteristics that may or may not fit one’s image of a “Pinay,” but all flags of a foreigner. My skin can pass for many things, but apparently, it’s not enough. I’m not white though I’m not quite brown. I’m “technically” yellow, yet not the kind of yellow the majority thinks of. I’m assumed to be many things, but never affirmed for the truth.

With all of the crayons, paints, and pencils in the world, my outside will never match the way I feel inside. But if I could, I’d color me brown.

Artwork by Kayla Zabala

To learn more about the origins of colorism and why it matters, please click here.



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