From Ebony to Ivory: Colorism in the Philippines

by Jiyang Shin

The ever-expanding skin whitening market in the Philippines seems to have distinctive characteristics compared to the markets of other countries that also value lighter skin tones. In the discourse of colorism, many tend to conclude that the phenomenon of skin whitening obsession is largely due colonization by European conquistadors; however, that is not always the case in the Philippines.

I would like to raise an example of skin whitening advertisement, featuring Jinky Oda, an African American comedian in the Philippines. The advertisement is composed of before-and-after pictures of Oda. On the left hand side is Oda’s torso before she went on the skin whitening pill. She is in a white tank top, wears gold hoop earings, and has her natural curly hair all swept back with bandana like hair band; a casual style of a typical African American woman that we can easily relate to.

On the right hand side is Oda after finishing the pill, in her brand new bleached-up skin. However, that is not the only significant difference that one can tell from the picture. Other noticeable features are that her attire is considerably more dressy than the left side (you can notice it although the ad only shows down to her chest), but even more importantly, the texture of her hair has turned silky and straightened like the East Asian look that a vast number of Filipino women crave.

One can observe sinister motives behind this marketing. In the book Shades of Difference, Joanne L. Rondilla argues that there are generally three major messages that are conveyed in skin whitening advertisement in the Philippines:

1. Darkening can and must be stopped.

Why? Because having dark skin does not make you good enough.

2. Lightness comes from “within”.

This message misleads people into thinking that their natural color is lighter than they expected, thus their desire to turn white is achievable.

3. Lightening can happen instantly.

The advertisement that featured Oda is unethical because it links having darker skin with wrongness by dressing up her in casual attire. In addition, she seems to have more weight in her before picture, implying she was sloppier when she had a darker skin tone (fatness is often linked to laziness). Such indirect messages have the great potential of stirring up or further encourage racism and discriminations against certain groups of people.

As for why many women in the Philippines opt for a Chinese or Korean look, I argue that it is due to racial hierarchy that exists among Asian countries. For example, in South Korea, people of Southeast Asia origin encounter difficulties renting rooms and searching for jobs. Moreover, in Japan, Filipino people are often referred to as “Pina”, which is a derogatory term used against women who perform in sex-related work. Such unequal treatment might have gradually developed a sense of inferiority towards people of lighter skin color in East Asian countries. I argue that people attempt to escape from such discriminations by assimilating into those who discriminate against them.

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5 thoughts on “From Ebony to Ivory: Colorism in the Philippines

  1. Pingback: The trend of Japanese whiteness | JAPANsociology

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