‘You look like the help’: the disturbing link between Asian skin color and status

Outside a hotel lobby in Toronto earlier this year, an elderly Asian woman stopped my mother and me to ask what time a tour bus would be arriving. Then, the woman asked in broken English: “Are you Philippine?”

“Yes,” my mom replied.

“Ahh, you look Korean!” the woman exclaimed. My mother graciously thanked her.

I darted my eyes, offended and confused at the implication that looking Korean over Filipino should somehow be taken as a compliment. Later I asked my mother: “Why did you thank her?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted sheepishly.

Throughout the years, strangers have told me how “white” I look. Non-Filipino Asians who were surprised by my heritage told me not to worry because I looked Japanese or Korean or Chinese; I never looked like their version of Filipino. And years ago, I would’ve replied exactly like my mother to that elderly woman. In my own family, the notion that fairer skin was more beautiful was always an unspoken rule. My mother filled the bathroom cupboards with Asian beauty products that promised flawless, whiter skin.

She wasn’t alone. Women—and not just Asians—around the globe are subject to the pressure of having fair skin. Skin bleaching is a 10-billion-dollar-a-year industry. And this obsession with skin color isn’t just about beauty: It has real-life consequences that can stretch to everyday prejudice, class status, and quality of life. Many layers of systematic oppression are hidden behind seemingly innocuous compliments and beautifully-packaged day creams. Filipinos, a population that traditionally has darker skin than other East Asian populations, are hit extra-hard with this reality. In California, “Filipinos are the Mexicans of Asia” is a well-known saying among Filipino and Latino communities—an adage that holds extra weight in the age of Trump.

One quick Google search brings up countless personal anecdotes laying bare these prejudices. But the dynamic of idealizing light skin is far from new. The post-Spanish colonial Philippines looked to none other than the Virgin Mary for beauty inspiration. According to Filipino scholar Nicanor Tiongson, Filipinos wanted to resemble the sculptures of saints found in their Catholic churches during this time period.

But it goes back even further than just worshipping the Catholic saints: Joi Barrios Le-Blanc, a lecturer with the South and Southeast Asian Studies department at The University of California, Berkeley, tells me that Filipino preference for fair skin dates back to the Binukot, a pre-Hispanic practice reminiscent of Japan’s geisha. The Binukot, often a wealthy girl, was chosen for her beauty from a very young age, was not exposed to sun and was raised on a hammock so her feet never touched the ground. Described traditionally as “pale as the moon and incomparably beautiful,” the Binukot retained their fair complexions because they were not allowed to work in the fields. Like the Binukot, who was pale simply because her higher class status forbade outdoor labor, fair-skinned immigrants receive privileges their darker skinned counterparts did not.

This longstanding bias bleeds into an international Asian hierarchy, on which Filipinos are considered the bottom rung. Because of its high unemployment rate, high inflation rate, and widespread income inequality, the Philippines remains one of the poorest countries in Asia. Some Filipino immigrants can’t obtain any other work simply because their qualifications aren’t recognized by host countries. (Often, Filipino doctors become nurses abroad because it is too costly and time-consuming to retrain as a doctor in their host countries. The pay as a nurse is still more lucrative than remaining a doctor in the Philippines.)

Some people in East Asian countries “have a tendency to look down on South East Asian countries, viewing them as poorer countries who have less political power,” Barrios LeBlanc told me.

Unfortunately, this prejudice also occurs among fellow Filipinos, and it seems to stem from skin color. Barrios mentioned that the Aeta people, an indigenous group in the Philippines characterized by their dark skin and curly hair, are often marginalized by their own patriots.

“Many people in the lowlands feel superiority towards other ethno-linguistic groups,” Barrios says. She recounts a story where her Filipino friend, married to an African American man, was jokingly warned by a colleague that her children would be seen as Aeta if she took them to the Philippines.

When Sierra Adkins, a Filipino-American, worked as a teacher in South Korea, she was encouraged to not disclose her Filipino heritage. In a blog post for Pilipino American Unity for Progress’ website in 2013, Adkins wrote that a colleague explained to her that Filipinos are “ranked lower socially” because Filipino immigrants in South Korea commonly take maligned gigs as nannies or prostitutes. “Filipino women were seen as second-class and unfit to teach the uber-rich students at my Hagwon,” she wrote. Adkins left Korea after only four months.

Many Asians of previous generations—both in Asia and North America—strictly adhere to this hierarchy. Courtney*, a close Filipino friend, noticed this bias in her Chinese mother-in-law. She’d matter-of-factly share her thoughts anything from Filipino-specific health conditions to stereotypes of Filipino women’s promiscuity. Her mother-in-law’s antiquated views caused Courtney a lot of grief. Though she married within her race, Courtney still felt like she wasn’t “the right kind of Asian.”

One of only times Courtney felt acceptance from her mother-in-law was when she’d comment on Courtney’s lighter skin. “She asked my husband why I was pale because Filipinos are dark,” Courtney told me. “And then said, ‘Oh, I guess she’s not so bad because she’s not dark like the rest of them.’”

Filipinos aren’t much better; the Tagalog phrase “Mukha kang katulong,” which translates to “You look like the help,” is a fairly common insult within our community. As a teen, I remember it being used to poke fun at an aunt who had gotten a suntan. This attitude even shows up in pop culture. In Singapore, a sketch comedy show called The Noose features a Filipino character named “Leticia Bongnino” whose repeated catchphrase (said in a heavy Filipino accent) is, “My name is Leticia and I am a maid.” Her character speaks broken English and has a Bangladeshi boyfriend who can only say the word “yes.” Leticia’s appearance is frumpy and unfashionable; she wears a children’s clip to pin back her short bob. A Twitter account under Leticia’s name uses bad grammar and has tweets like “BREAKING: Leticia have to clean windows today or no dinner for me.”

This hierarchy has certainly affected the way I’ve been perceived—and even the way I perceive others. In “passing” as half-white, Korean, Japanese, or any other Asian ethnicity that “ranks higher,” I have accepted a certain privilege and social acceptance from the Asian community. I have graciously thanked strangers for insisting that I have mixed heritage and that I don’t look like the typical Filipino. Given the global disdain for our darker skin and our roles as caregivers, it’s no wonder we find comfort in being mistaken for someone we’re not.

But nowadays, I’ll no longer nod politely. And the next time someone compliments me for not looking Filipino, I will say, “Actually, I do.”

*We’ve chosen not to identify Courtney by her real name to avoid more familial strife.