The upcoming teleserye “Bagani” and its casting of celebrities deemed “too foreign” for their roles has once again raised the thorny issue of colorism — or discrimination based on skin color — in our country.
Framed constructively, this controversy is welcome. From jokes about regional accents and racial physiques to tropes about the lowly janitor and the comical bakla, our show biz industry can rightfully be critiqued for its representational practices that have not only reflected but also reinforced racial, class, and gender stereotypes.
I worry, however, that the terms of this debate can quickly devolve into personal attacks. Poor Liza Soberano had to defend her Filipino-ness by invoking her Filipino father and (what else!) her love for sinigang. It is easy to see Liza and other celebrities as “privileged,” but they are not beyond hurt, and neither are many “half-Filipinos” who find aspersions on their ethnic legitimacy particularly painful.
I worry, moreover, that by going against the whiteness of the artista and the artistahin, and pitting it against the brown-ness of the “typical Filipino,” we are reifying skin color as a marker of difference and national identity.
One way to add complexity to the debate is to remind ourselves that associating certain ethnicities with corresponding physical characteristics is historically contingent. While tropical peoples tend to have darker skin, the early Spanish chroniclers described a variety of complexions among the Indios they met: “white,” “light,” “like stewed quinces,” “tawny,” “black.” Eventually, however, we were all lumped together as a “brown” race, and despite the multiplicity of skin colors and statures in the country, we were all labeled “little brown brothers.”
Colonial mentality, then, is not just about seeing white as preferable and, like Rizal’s Donya Victorina, emulating the looks of Euro-Americans. It is about seeing ourselves as typologically brown, seeing brown as inferior, and making this inferiority a source of insecurity. In protest, we tried to assert the equality between the foreign puti and we the kayumanggi. But can we not also reject the idea that we can be defined in terms of skin color?
Another crucial point is the fact that colonialism alone does not account for our beauty standards. Associated with purity and wealth (i.e., people who can afford not having to go out to the fields), whiteness has been preferred by Asians—including Filipinos—since time immemorial; some of our own epics describe heroes as fair and “shining.” While colonialism and contemporary consumerism may have intensified the preference for fair(er) skin, we cannot romanticize the precolonial as a time of social and aesthetic egalitarianism.
These interpellations can point us to some ways forward. By showing that our “brownness” is itself a tenuous concept, the challenge is not to fight white with brown, but with a beauty standard that embraces a diversity of colors. In this long-overdue call for “affirmative inclusivity,” the show biz industry should play a leading role. Liza Soberano is certainly 100-percent Filipino, but what about the 99 percent who do not look like her? Can we not also promote other genres of beauty, other role models, with which people can identify?
Beyond show biz, moreover, colorism requires a wider national conversation, given the ever-increasing drive for whiteness, mediated by whitening products and advertisements that make whiteness a metonym for wealth, beauty, and success. In my ethnographic work about this topic, I occasionally encounter young people who do wish to share the same skin color as their celebrity idols. But others have far more practical concerns. “I want to be whiter because that’s what the employers are looking for,” says Athena, 21, a call center agent, adding that she sees her religious application of whitening creams as puhunan—an investment that will help her “stand out” in the job market.
“I don’t want to be white. I just want to be less dark, so I won’t be bullied,” says Bryan, 17, a senior high school student, admitting that despite the brave and smiling face he puts on, the jokes hurt.
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