[REVIEW] Whiter, edited by Nikki Khanna

(Buy it HERE).

I think I was 14 or 15 the day a male relative(I honestly don’t even remember who) peered at me and said, “You know, you’re not light enough to be really beautiful, but you’re not too dark, either.”

This is me:

I come in peace.

Now, granted, this is a remarkably good selfie with remarkably good lighting taken while I was remarkably made up for a remarkable party but I post it here to demonstrate one thing: I am a regular everyday brown-skinned Black chick. I describe myself as dark. Nobody has ever asked me what I’m mixed with. (Where I’m really from, yes. But what I’m mixed with? Clearly just Black.) Makeup in my shade is hard to find. But I was also born in the very early 80’s (hello readers of my midlife crisis blog!). Social media wasn’t a thing during my impressionable teen years, although racism was, and I was far more worried about being Black, period than about how acceptable my degree of Blackness was. I also lived a very boring lower-middle-class suburban life and had no aspirations of grandeur–I just wanted to get a job that would let me read books and crack jokes, eventually. (Mission achieved!) My skin tone didn’t render me beautiful or reviled–it made me mostly invisible. Nobody ever remarked on it except to be dismissive or to tell me I was…fine. Not great but not bad. If anything, I wanted to be darker–I was briefly obsessed with Alek Wek and spent a whole summer vacation laying out slathered in coconut oil trying to reach her velvety shade. (It didn’t work.)

I think it also helped that I was often reminded that the great beauties in the family were my cousins, who were darker-skinned than I was but had finer features and longer, bouncin’ and behavin’ hair. My grandmother never hurt my feelings by comparing me to Halle Berry, but she did pinch me in the heart a few times by telling me how sorry she was that I didn’t look more like my more beautiful cousins or aunt, who were all dark and lovely. But ultimately, I grew up, I traveled the world, I studied things, got jobs and real problems that left me little time to worry about my looks. Then I discovered that men are much more interesting when they’re not hung up on your looks. I faced, and still face, continual problems because of racism. But colorism? I knew it existed, but it never really affected me personally in any way that mattered in the long term. It was something I read about more than I felt.

Then I moved to Asia. Korea, to be exact. While most people didn’t have much to say about my skin tone (except for a few old ladies who took it upon themselves one day to tell me that my skin was “disgusting” and I should wash more) it is glaringly obvious how much people here don’t like their own skin unless it’s unnaturally pale. My first job here was at an elementary school. Working with kids makes it obvious that naturally, Korean people come in a variety of skin tones, from porcelain white(rare) to a light cocoa brown(also rare). Most of the kids, though, were sort of a golden tan color that got lighter and darker with the seasons because you know, human skin works that way. Still, it didn’t take me long to realize that although I had a few dark little girls in my class, I couldn’t recall seeing a dark-skinned adult woman in Korea ever. One of my coworkers would chase me around on school trips with a tube of chalky white 100 SPF sunscreen. When I waved her away, she told me she was trying to help me become beautiful. When I told her I thought dark skin was the most beautiful and she would look nice tan, she stared at me, mystified, then poured a dollop of cream on her hands and rubbed fervently.

Big brand beauty billboards here almost exclusively feature European white women. Several skincare brands here employ women who would be stunningly average or outright unattractive in Europe or North America simply because they have very pale skin. If I had a dollar for every time I met a very average white woman here who proudly informed me that she “meets Asia’s beauty standards” I would be able to send every reader of this blog a free library. Beauty salons have photos of fair-skinned, blue-eyed Nordic blondes staring down at their dark-eyed, honey-skinned customers while they get facials. Makeup stores sell two foundation shades–“pale” and “paler”, neither of which seem to match any human skin tone on earth, let alone in Korea. When I began to teach in universities, I noticed that my female students often were three or four shades browner at their hairlines and necks–but their faces were all the same uniform pancake white shade, purchased at the little cosmetics shop at the edge of campus. When I go biking or hiking on high heat days, I’m often the only person out not wearing long sleeves and a giant visor to protect my skin from browning. I do wear sunscreen, but it’s for health reasons–it’s a reasonable SPF 30, with no zinc oxide in it to make me look ashy whiter. I’ve lived here seven years now, and if anything, the fervor for whiter, lighter skin has intensified as Kpop takes over the world and Asian beauty standards are more heavily promoted and appropriated.

I just…don’t get it. Like everyone, I’m sure I have internalized bits of colonial, racist thinking, but skin isn’t one of those bits. I have no particular appreciation for light skin, and if anything I’m slightly more partial to dark. (“You mean, you burn? In the sun? All the time? You’re burning right now? But it’s cloudy! Yeah, we can’t be together.”) Yet I know that colorism exists, and it is a source of great pain and insecurity for a lot of women globally, in my own culture and across the melanin-bearing world. If anything, I find the obsession with skin tone over everything, and the stranglehold that whiteness has over femininity a little distasteful. I get a little judgy about it, to be frank–I think it’s really gross that perfectly beautiful women with normal skin use bleach and ashy looking products to look aesthetically worse but socially more acceptable. I can’t be complicit with it at all, but there are millions of folks who really don’t care what I think, so…I guess whiter is righter is the (aesthetic) law of the land.

It is with all of that in mind that I read the essay collection Whiter: Asian-American Women On Skin Color and Colorism, edited by sociology professor Nikki Khanna.

Look at all my lovely makeup in multi-season shades of brown…

This is one of those works that I appreciate and see the importance of without necessarily enjoying much. I read it to gain greater empathy and understanding of Asian(-American) attitudes towards skin color and cultural understandings of colorism. I got that, to some extent, but I also noticed a lot of complicity with white supremacy and anti-Blackness that bothered me, although I did appreciate the honesty of the feelings shared(and there is a very introspective section of the book about anti-Blackness’s role in Asian-American colorism.)

I applaud Khanna for the diversity of the women she’s included–she has women of Southeastern, Northeastern and mixed-race Asian descent all included, and it’s interesting to see where the differences and similarities in their experiences lie. (By default this favors groups of people that have high migration to the US so there’s not much from Central Asian women here at all, which would be interesting because many of them read as visually “white”. ) There are essays from Indian women with lighter skin who understand that it confers privilege and from dark-skinned Filipinas who struggle with feeling fat and dark even though in the US the metrics shift and they’re small and fashionably tanned. There’s a particularly gloomy essay from a mixed-race white and Korean woman entitled “The Abominable Honhyeol” that expresses the loneliness of being seen as other due to your ancestry, even if your skin is considered exceptionally pale and beautiful. There’s an Indian woman with albinism who expresses much of the same predicament, being 100% culturally and ethnically Indian but often mistaken for white by other Indians due to her pigment-free hair and skin. There’s a letter from a Vietnamese woman to her half-white baby daughter, describing the things she might have to deal with in America as an Asian, but also the things she won’t, due to her lighter skin and more European features. There’s a piece by a Black and Chinese woman which held the potential to be interesting but unfortunately takes the “I am Blaaaaaack because of the sun my Black husband loves me my mocha chocolate skin so much darker than my mother and sister but I love myself because I am strong and Black and WoMan. snapsnapsnapsnap” performative self-love route–I felt a little cold at the end, realizing that she simply shifted her lack of acceptance as a dark-skinned Asian woman into privilege as a light-skinned mixed woman in Black American culture. While she’s aware of this and advocates for her darker sisters, something about that essay didn’t sit right with me. The experience of gaining privilege by shifting communities is a recurring theme in many of the essays and while I can’t judge–after all, what am I doing, as an American in Asia?–the bald way in which this was acknowledged and embraced never really sat well with me in any of the essays that expressed this.

Overall, while all of the essays were interesting, there was only one that I really loved–“Teeth” by Betty Ming Liu, a 62-year old dark-skinned Chinese woman with a Black and Chinese daughter. Liu’s essay is the only one out of the collection that left me with a smile on my face–while most of the essays seem to be written out of a sense of insecurity and sadness, Mama Betty has embraced herself, her daughter, her daughter’s Black father and the idea of reshaping the world to be fairer rather than being complicit with harmful norms so thoroughly that I wanted to cheer a little bit at the end of her essay. She gets what no-one else in the collection, including the editor, seems to–we shape the world just as much as it shapes us, and stepping to the side of an expectation meant to flatten you is better than laying down in a puddle of bleaching cream and crying. Betty is my kind of people, and I think her blog is one of my new favorite things on the internet.

So, do I have a greater empathy for Asian and Asian American people who believe in and practice colorism? No, not really. It still grosses me out, and now it makes me a little angry, too. I understand it marginally more but I don’t think colorism, whether Asian, Latinx or Black, is something I’ll ever feel any better than “sick” about when it’s openly expressed and accepted. But I still found these women interesting, and I could see some of the essays resonating with other women as strongly as Betty Ming Liu’s did with me. I may keep a copy on the student borrow shelf in my office and see if anyone takes the bait.

Four stars and a day in the sun with no protection but a big smile to Whiter.

(Thanks for reading! If you want to read this book, consider purchasing it HERE from Bookshop, the online portal for indie bookstores. I am an affiliate of Bookshop and will earn a commission if you click and purchase from any links on this site. )

3 thoughts on “[REVIEW] Whiter, edited by Nikki Khanna

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