“Whiter: Asian American Women on Skin Color and Colorism”, edited by Nikki Khanna

(photo: Adam Jones) (photo: Adam Jones)

Pale skin is valued in Asia: cosmetics to whiten skin such as “White Perfect” and “Fair & Lovely” are widely advertised. To Americans, and Asian-Americans, however, promotion of skin-whitening products appears to be racist and “colorist”, as people of color in the US have suffered from discrimination by the white majority. Whiter is a new anthology of essays by Asian-American women on skin color and “colorism”, edited by Nikki Khanna, a sociologist whose previous work has focused on biracial identity. She adopts the term colorism from Alice Walker, who first used it in 1983 to refer to the


practice of discrimination whereby light skin is privileged over dark—both between and within racial and ethnic communities.


Whiter: Asian American Women on Skin Color and Colorism, Nikki Khanna (ed) (NYU Press, March 2020)
Whiter: Asian American Women on Skin Color and Colorism, Nikki Khanna (ed) (NYU Press, March 2020)

Khanna and her contributors, however, also apply it to the centuries-old preference for pale skin in Asia that predates colonialism, was not connected to Western slavery, and originated in part from the association of skin color with class, with darker skin being associated with sun exposure from manual labor.


The essays are mostly written by academics with origins in East Asia (China, Japan), Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Philippines), and South Asia (India, Bangladesh). The focus of the book is how problematic the Asian preference for lighter skin is for Asian-American women as a beauty standard, and to a lesser extent identity; it is not an overt political issue as racism is, possibly due to it being exercised mainly within minority groups. What also interests Khanna is how this preference is further refracted in the multicultural environment of the US. Perception of an individual’s color by an ethnic group can result in that person’s not being included, particularly in women who are of partial Asian and African-American descent. One contributor of Chinese and black heritage notes:


On shopping trips to Oakland Chinatown, men and women behind counters and cash registers would force my mother to respond to their curiosity—”Is this your daughter?”—before extending her service or allowing her to collect her purchase… I realized that their questions were less about understanding how we were related and more about policing racial boundaries and sexual transgressions—specifically, the interracial relationship of my Chinese mother and my black American father…  It was my body that made Chinese people uncomfortable, disrupting their beliefs that Chinese people should other choose each other as intimate partners or, if they crossed racial lines, should do so only with white people, whom a history of racist state policies had disproportionately granted excess social authority, political autonomy, the highest property values, and the best financial credit. It continues to be my body, and reactions to it, that reveal the pervasiveness of anti-blackness within Asian America and among Asian immigrants who see blackness as undesirable.


In this age of global beauty culture where whitening creams are marketed in Asia with images of  Caucasian celebrities and models, however, Chinese blogger Ye Tiantian observed


I am pretty sure that I and most of the people I know buying these products are not trying to make ourselves look like white people. We don’t want to be white… [but] I cannot tell you for sure it has nothing to do with white privilege”


—a term mainly used in an American context, but certainly describes some of the cultural effect of European colonization, described by Khanna as a


‘white is right’ mentality … wherein all things Caucasian and Western (including but not limited to physical appearance) are held up as superior to all things local.


Khanna references scholars of race and gender alongside quotes from bloggers or observations on Internet search results; a more rigorous approach to delineating the origins and manifestations of the contemporary Asian preference for lighter skin, as well as the evolution of beauty ideals from Asian to more Eurocentric would be welcome.


This volume adds to the canon of first-person experiences of prejudice and self-discovery, may interest the layperson in addition to scholars of gender and race, and might perhaps even inspire someone to pen an equivalent to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s pro-feminist Dear Ijeawele—as a manifesto to embracing one’s appearance and asserting identity. As Betty Ming Liu writes in her contribution,


Painting changed me into a colorist. I took a color theory class, where we mixed the primary pigments of red, blue, and yellow into subtle shades and tints. The results were unpredictable and exciting. I realized that this is how our complexions should be celebrated too… I can’t stop colorism; it’s been here forever. But inhaling and exhaling keeps me in the moment—free of ancestors, the past, the future … we have gone on to recognize our worth in a world that devalues dark skin.

Kristen Yee is an American writer of Chinese and Portuguese-Jamaican descent.