Oscar winner, Lupita Nyong’o delivered a speech at the Essence “Black Women in Hollywood Awards” and thanks to the Internet, I saw and heard her inspiration and powerful message about beauty. Her words spoke to me, an Asian Pacific Islander woman who is the mother to a biracial (Filipino and African American) daughter. Ms. Nyong’o reminded me that I have an obligation and responsibility to shape my daughter’s self-esteem and her point of view on beauty. But her speech also reminded me of the mixed messages I received growing up as a child of immigrants and a young person of color in the United States. (You can watch the speech via YouTube link here or read the transcript at the end of this entry.)
Just to reiterate this point, I am not African American. I do not have black skin. However, as a young girl, I often asked myself if my skin was light enough to be considered pretty. I even asked myself if I was White enough to be beautiful. Well, I realized at about age 12 that I wasn’t White, never would be, and somehow that meant that I could never be beautiful.
There is a book entitled, “Is Lighter Better? Skin-tone Discrimination Among Asian Americans” written by Joanne L. Rondilla and Paul R. Spickard. Yes, you read that correctly. “Skin-tone Discrimination Among Asian Americans.” People may find it hard to believe that the color of one’s skin comes with value in the currency known as beauty, even amongst Asian Americans. We also have to fight against the self-hate that leads us to want to have surgery to alter our eyelids, dye our hair auburn or blonde, or to never consider dating an Asian man. Let’s look a little more closely at the concept of “colorism.”
Wikipedia provides this definition for “colorism”: “Discrimination based on skin color, or colorism, is a form of prejudice or discrimination in which human beings are treated differently based on the social meanings attached to skin color.
The abundance of colorism is a result of the global prevalence of “pigmentocracy,” a term recently adopted by social scientists to describe societies in which wealth and social status are determined by skin color. Throughout the numerous pigmentocracies across the world, the lightest-skinned peoples have the highest social status, followed by the brown-skinned, and finally the black-skinned who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. This form of prejudice often results in reduced opportunities for those who are discriminated against on the basis of skin color.”
According to Rondilla and Spickard, “Colorism is defined as discriminatory treatment of individuals falling within the same ‘racial’ group on the basis of skin color. In other words, some people, particularly women, are treated better or worse on account of the color of their skin relative to other people who share their same racial category. Colorism affects Asian Americans from many different backgrounds and who live in different parts of the United States….Do they reflect a desire to look like White people, or is some other motive at work? Including numerous stories about and by people who have faced discrimination in their own lives, this book is an invaluable resource for people interested in colorism among Asian Americans.”
I don’t have to read a book to understand discrimination based on the color of my skin. I don’t need to read a book to know that women are treated differently based on the shade of their skin. I heard these sorts of messages at the tender age of only three, which is as far back as I can remember. One aunty would say that flat noses were not pretty and Filipinos are known to have flat noses or at least to have no bridges. (For my Asian brothers and sisters, have you ever tried to buy stylist plastic framed glasses but you couldn’t because they kept sliding down your nose? The cute frames never come with nose rests, right?) Another aunty would point to a beautiful brown-skinned young woman, she may have even been a cousin of mine and say, “She is very pretty. Too bad she’s so dark.” Or, my most favorite and most confusing messages were around food. Many Asian cultures, especially Filipinos, show their love through cooking food for their families and friends. There is a certain pride in being a good cook and having parties where people enjoyed a dish that you made. But sometimes an aunty would scold you for getting fat, which usually led the poor girl to eat more, out of stress. She would spiral down into the never-ending cycle of eating for comfort and then hating yourself for not being rail thin. Or, that same aunty might shove her index finger into your chest and say that you are getting too skinny. What the hell are we supposed to do with that feedback?
Margaret Cho, award-winning comedian, actress, musician, and LGBT advocate talked about her very specific experience being an Asian woman in Hollywood. She found herself the star of her very own sit-com, “All American Girl,” which was the first primetime TV show centered around an Asian American family. During her one-woman stand-up routine, Margaret recounted the experience of how the producers said she was “too Asian” and then they said that she wasn’t “Asian enough” and finally, the network felt compelled to provide the show and Margaret an “Asian consultant” to help her act more “Asian.” Ironically, there was a great deal of backlash about the show from the Asian American community. Asian Pacific Islander Americans are not one size fits all. We do not fit into a neat little origami folded box. “All American Girl” was touted as the example of what Asian Americans are like in the United States. There is so much diversity within the Asian American community, a blanket statement as such feels extremely marginalizing. So, even the target market who should have been the biggest fans of the show weren’t rushing home to watch “All American Girl.”
Asian Americans are often touted as the Model Minority. The stereotypes that Asians are hard-workers, very good at math, very poor at driving, the subject of sexual fantasies, quiet IT professionals, eaters of stinky food, etc. cannot be changed overnight. And we also do things to our own communities that sabotage our success. For example, we drag down our young people when it comes to standards of beauty. Beauty has a value in this country, particularly for women. What are we doing to our young women when we tell them that they are too fat, too dark, too short, or too Asian-looking? My inner circle of friends from elementary school are all Asian American. We are either first or second generation immigrants. This circle has representation from the Philippines, China, Japan and Vietnam. We definitely had friends who were Latino, African American and White, most of whom we played varsity sports with in high school. However, these women are “my crew.” We hold each other secrets, wrapped with love inside our hearts. We saw each other through first crushes, first loves, first heartbreaks, and those big arguments with our parents over academic endeavors, extracurricular activities and Asian culture clashes with our American experience.
One of my closest friends was always the prettiest one of the group, in my opinion. She was tall, about 5’6,” which may as well be 6’ for an Asian woman. I always thought she was so lucky to be tall and elegant looking. Clothes hung better on her and her limbs were graceful and long, unlike my short, muscular, and stocky legs. We were talking one day in college, probably over a Bartles & Jaymes tropical wine cooler or some classy Andre Cold Duck, about how our parents get so mad that we don’t date Asian men. I remember my friend saying that Asian guys are like her brothers, not like men to date. She couldn’t imagine kissing an Asian guy. Now that I think about it, I’ve never heard my White girlfriends say they couldn’t imagine dating a White guy. It feels like a bit of self-loathing and self-hatred to not want to date men who are our own ethnicity and/or race. But what struck me as a shock was when she said her mom wanted her to have eyelid surgery, or more specifically, surgery to create an upper eyelid with a crease, or a double eyelid. It made me mad to hear that and I told her that she didn’t need to have surgery. She agreed that surgery was an extreme and unnecessary choice to make for the sake of beauty but we both sort of yearned for bigger boobs.
Thankfully, my mom never suggested that I should have surgery. But I do remember her stroking the bridge of my nose and saying that she used to do that to me as a baby so I wouldn’t have a flat one. It makes me giggle now, a bit, but my impressionable young brain internalized that message. Flat nose = unattractive. Add that to dark skin = unattractive. I used to spend my summers playing tennis and swimming so I had lovely dark brown sun-kissed skin throughout my youth. But by the time I cared about boys, I had given up on thinking that I could ever be beautiful so I didn’t think anyone would ever like me. That sure did f*ck me up for a while.
But this issue of colorism isn’t just because of my aunties and my mom making these comments. I rarely saw Asian men or women on television in significant roles. I never saw them in strong, leading roles. Long Duck Dong was in “Sixteen Candles” and that overly stereotyped image of an Asian man did not help with my perspective that Asian men were sexy. Margaret Cho joked that she aspired to be an extra on M*A*S*H* when she was young. At one point in my life, I would go out on commercial and television auditions and the roles represented two different opportunities: trashy hooker or Chinese restaurant waitress. Or, to add to the mix, I might be called to pose with a beer bottle rocking a skimpy bikini for a beer commercial. I had purchased the silicone chicken cutlets to lift my B-cups into full C-cups. My agent sent me out fairly often, I had enough call-backs to know I had talent but I never felt beautiful.
Twenty years later, I work in a corporate position with a mission to create culture change that respects all people and includes diverse insights and backgrounds to add value to the organization’s success. I have had impact at the organizational, group and individual levels. My work provides me validation and joy. I feel like my spirit of feeling like the underdog and the unbeautiful has sparked a drive inside of me to leave the world in a better place. It has taken a lifetime for me to truly feel beautiful. Logically, I realize that the color of my skin may be extremely attractive to some people and it may turn others off completely. The size of my okole may be labelled obscene by someone and been seen as kryptonite by another. When all is said and done, beauty is all about how much we give to the world, not about how much we get.
Borrowed from another website, here is a transcript of Lupita Nyong’o’s speech from the Essence “Black Women in Hollywood Awards” with quotes that particularly struck me highlighted in bold type.
I received a letter from a girl and I’d like to share just a small part of it with you: “Dear Lupita,” it reads, “I think you’re really lucky to be this Black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me.”
My heart bled a little when I read those words. I could never have guessed that my first job out of school would be so powerful in and of itself and that it would propel me to be such an image of hope in the same way that the women of The Color Purple were to me.
I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin, I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of a mirror because I wanted to see my fair face first. And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I had been the day before. I tried to negotiate with God: I told him I would stop stealing sugar cubes at night if he gave me what I wanted; I would listen to my mother’s every word and never lose my school sweater again if he just made me a little lighter. But I guess God was unimpressed with my bargaining chips because He never listened.
And when I was a teenager my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine happens with adolescence. My mother reminded me often that she thought that I was beautiful but that was no consolation: She’s my mother, of course she’s supposed to think I am beautiful. And then Alek Wek came on the international scene. A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was. Even Oprah called her beautiful and that made it a fact. I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me as beautiful. My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome and all of a sudden, Oprah was telling me it wasn’t. It was perplexing and I wanted to reject it because I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy. But a flower couldn’t help but bloom inside of me. When I saw Alek I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself that I could not deny. Now, I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the far away gatekeepers of beauty, but around me the preference for light skin prevailed. To the beholders that I thought mattered, I was still unbeautiful. And my mother again would say to me, “You can’t eat beauty. It doesn’t feed you.” And these words plagued and bothered me; I didn’t really understand them until finally I realized that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume, it was something that I just had to be.
And what my mother meant when she said you can’t eat beauty was that you can’t rely on how you look to sustain you. What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul. It is what got Patsey in so much trouble with her master, but it is also what has kept her story alive to this day. We remember the beauty of her spirit even after the beauty of her body has faded away.
And so I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. That, there is no shade in that beauty.