I grew up darker than most Filipinos. I do not think it is genetic, because my mother has a lighter skin color and my father has a very light skin color. I had big curly hair and was a head taller than my playmates. I was a big child.
We live near the seashore, so I grew up loving the ocean. I would go and swim under the scorching sun for hours, many times until sunset. I would go home with drenched clothes, salty skin, and of course a darker skin tone. I would go to class the next day, but it would be with a heavy heart. Not because I hated learning, but because the humiliation would start. The moment I sat on my chair, a girl as old as me would shout, “Negrita!” It was like something out of the movie “Mean Girls,” except my experience was very much real.
My classmates called me Negra, baboy (pig), itim na higante (black giant), among other terrible insults. There were times I walked down the street and the kids called me Bob Marley while laughing. There wasn’t a day when I did not cry in school. Once, my older classmates asked everyone in the class not to talk to me and called me a black cat, which is believed to bring bad omen or bad fortune.
My parents are founders of a non-government organization. When they were invited to go to Canada for some partnership-related business, the host company wanted my parents to bring me and my sister with them. We started the process of getting the required papers, and we were interviewed by an employee in a government agency. She looked at me and asked my parents if I was adopted. My parents were surprised and replied that I was their biological child. The government employee looked at me and asked, “Why are you so dark?”
That was the first time I was made to answer a question about my skin color. It felt like I had committed a crime. The question made me feel like my parents wouldn’t be able to get the documents needed because they had a very dark child.
I hadn’t understood the insult of it, because it had been the norm for me all this time. I was conditioned to feel shame because I was darker than most kids in class. The teachers were not bothered by it, the parents of my classmates were not bothered by it. Don’t get me wrong, I love my parents and I know they love me very much, but they also acted like it was normal to be bullied if you had a dark skin tone. I asked myself why I felt hurt by this when this seemed normal to others. I wanted to be accepted by my society, but it seemed like my curly hair and dark skin tone was a hindrance to that acceptance. That was when I started actively changing my physical appearance.
In third grade, I asked my mother to take me to a hair salon. I wanted to have my hair straightened so that I could look like the girls in school. My mother and father were against it, but I insisted. I even used tears as my convincing factor. So they agreed. My mother went with me and I had my hair straightened. I went to school the next day, but I still got laughed at. I guess my straight hair was not enough to convince them that I was normal, or that it made my skin lighter.
In the Philippines, skin lightener is available everywhere. My aunt sold a very good skin-lightening soap and gave us a bunch. I was very happy to use it, and I did get a fairer skin tone. I thought maybe I would be considered normal now, with straight hair and fairer skin. To my disbelief, it was still not enough, because in my peers’ eyes, if you were born dark, you were pretty much a second-class citizen, and nothing could change that.
I hated myself before. I thought that if I was born white, all would be better. I developed a severe inferiority complex. Whenever I saw a white person, I would run and hide. It took a while for me to accept myself. The irony was that I had to go out of my own country to feel accepted by a community. I was walking down the streets of Saigon when a Western tourist came to me. She was in her early 20s, had blond hair, almost gray eyes, and white skin. She said, “Excuse me miss, can I ask where you got your tan?” I did not know how to answer. She said, “I like how brown your skin is, and I really want to have that tone.” I almost cried. A stranger who had a skin tone that I revered and coveted wanted to have my own skin color. When I told her that this was my natural skin color, she said, “You’re lucky, you have really beautiful skin.” I was enlightened by this statement.
I am telling this story because I want my countrymen to know that our normal conduct toward people who have darker skin tone encourages internalized racism, or the act of stereotyping another person in her own race. This prejudice breaks people apart and diminishes self-confidence and self-respect. Filipinos have different skin tones. Having a darker skin color does not make you a lesser human being. The majority of Filipinos have beautiful brown skin, and it is something to be proud of.
There are thousands of Filipino children out there who are being measured by their skin color, eaten by society’s misconception of beauty standards, degraded because of their darker skin tone. The effect of these actions is terrifying, because it shatters human dignity. Racism exists in the Philippines, and the sad part is, most Filipinos are not even aware of it.