Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I was lucky enough to spend a few days with family, enjoying food, company and a momentary break from the chaos and deadlines that characterize the final weeks of a semester.
Another perk of the short break was the luxury to indulge in unabashed, mindless TV consumption. In my uncle’s home, the raucous game shows and overblown dramas of The Filipino Channel (TFC) were a fixture.
As I sipped a mug of tea at the kitchen table, enjoying the calm of the crisp November afternoon, my eyes wandered to the TV. A series I’d never seen before was playing. I later learned that the series in question was a comedy romance entitled “My Korean Jagiya,” a relatively new show that had met with moderate success and played to the growing Korean drama fan base in the Philippines. A dramatic scene was playing out between two women, one of whom appeared to be accusing the other of faking a chronic illness. Incriminating medical documents in hand, the accuser, irate and incredulous at her friend’s cruel deception, burst out, “Your skin may be white, but your heart is evil!”
This brief bit of dialogue was met with a few chuckles from friends and family around me and was easily lost amidst the melodrama playing out on screen. But the uninspired line, which seemed to equate fair skin with virtue, was disturbing and representative of a larger, more insidious issue.
I was reminded of a recent article I’d read which described the tirade of a Filipino Twitter user against what she identified as the Eurocentrism of Filipino beauty standards. Many of the Philippines’ most popular actors and musicians are mixed race. Pia Wurtzbach, for instance, who was crowned Miss Universe 2015 after host Steve Harvey’s notorious flub, is German-Filipino. As a Filipino-American of mixed race myself, I am in no way suggesting that people of mixed race do not constitute full-fledged members of the groups with which they identify. Simply, I don’t believe that people should be celebrated or hold advantages because of their angular features or light skin. These individuals are not to blame, however, but rather the damaging messages that have been internalized and perpetuated both consciously and unconsciously by the greater society.
Of course, over 300 years of Spanish colonial rule followed directly by U.S. annexation and territorial claim until 1946 have indubitably contributed to the Eurocentric beauty standard in the Philippines. Doubtless, this is a legacy of colonialism which has reached every corner of the world. Colorism is an issue in societies across the globe including our own. A plethora of skin-whitening products is available not only in the Philippines but across much of Asia and much of the rest of the world, for that matter. My concerns are ones shared by countless others and are related to much broader and more serious issues including racism inside and outside of the Philippines.
Every so often, I come across posts on Facebook celebrating the good looks of a Filipino-Spanish actor or a Filipino-Australian actress, always courtesy of a close family friend.
She is one of the kindest, most generous and warmhearted people I know. But I can’t help but wonder what kind of message she is sending to her own children, friends and family when she repeatedly celebrates Filipinos with “Eurocentric” features whose appearances don’t reflect most of the Filipinos in her life. Are her actions perpetuating social structures that devalue herself and her loved ones?
I’ve found that my concerns of how to address these issues effectively with friends and family have been only complicated since my time at Wellesley. Now that I’m away from home and see many of my loved ones only once or twice a year, how can I broach uncomfortable topics without ruining the few moments I am able to share with them? When I first read about the Filipino Twitter user who attacked the Eurocentrism of Filipino beauty standards, I was surprised and relieved because, for the first time, I was reading the words of another Filipino who was outraged by these harmful standards and their implications for society. Though she is by no means the first to recognize these issues, she reminded me of the importance of remaining vigilant and of speaking out even against small moments like the line in “My Korean Jagiya” which, left unchecked, allow for the insidious perpetuation of a cycle which devalues non-white individuals and their bodies.
In the age of Trump—and Duterte—it’s more important than ever to hold one another accountable for our thoughts, words and actions. We must continue to confront every perpetuation of structures of oppression, even when they are single lines in television comedies.