Episode 88 – Colorism in the Filipino Community

Don’t play out in the sun.  You’ll get too dark!”

Most Filipinos have heard this phrase from parents or elders numerous times when they were children.  For Filipino Americans, this phrase might strike a chord as an example of Filipinos’ preference for lighter skin.  For some, it may conjure up memories of being bullied, traumatized, and socially excluded for having darker skin.  For others, the phrase may simply be a reminder of how to maintain a certain privilege for having lighter skin.  Regardless of one’s memory of that phrase, skin tone has unfortunately shaped all of our lives.

Colorism, the prejudice and discrimination based on skin tone, is a centuries-old practice of class stratification in many societies.  In the Philippines, light-skinned folks have a tremendous amount of social privilege compared to those who are dark-skinned.  Filipino celebrities, for example, go to great lengths to maintain the light-skin tone in contradistinction to their largely dark-skinned audience.  As such, colorism has fueled a multi-billion dollar world-wide industry based on skin-lightening products.  But where and how did it originate?

Colorism predates European colonialism and has been prevalent in many complex societies all over the world where field and domestic labor under the sun is not valued highly.  The practice of binukot among the Panay Bukidnon, for example, where young women were shielded from the sun in order to attract higher suitors, predates Spanish arrival in the Philippines. Nonetheless, three centuries of colonialism has solidified and exacerbated colorism in Philippine society.  Colorism is a sad reality and it affects many people, including Filipino Americans.

However, folks like Asia Jackson and her #MagandangMorenx movement and the backlash from colorist ad campaigns from skin lightening products have made inroads into trying to change the cultural perception that light-skinned is better.  Many Filipino and Filipino Americans have been slowly changing the discourse around skin tone with phrases like “Brown is Beautiful” and owning the term, kayumanggi.  It’s an uphill, yet necessary battle.


Joanne Rondilla, SJSU Professor

In this episode, we talk about our experiences with colorism and where we’ve seen it manifest.  Then, we speak to Joanne Rondilla, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Interdisciplinary Social Sciences at San Jose State University, who has done extensive research on colorism in the Philippines and in the United States.  Listen as she discusses the history of colorism in Philippine society, the “secret” of the skin-lightening industry, the limitations of “colonial mentality” as the sole explanation for colorism, and suggestions on how to deal with colorism in your family.  It was a tremendous privilege to have Joanne on TFAL and we hope you enjoy the episode as much as we did.

Listen through the embedded player below, download directly here, or subscribe to us on iTunes here.

What are you experiences with colorism?  Do people tell you that you’re “too dark.” Let us know by leaving a voicemail at (805) 394-TFAL (8325) or email us at thisfilipinoamericanlife@gmail.com.

Finally, a special shout out to our TPALs who emailed us some of their comments and questions.  Here’s a picture of TPAL, Toni Geurts, and her beautiful mother:


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