I Dare To Change Conversations About Colourism

It’s a long-winding process

“You would’ve been so much prettier if you weren’t dark-skinned.” It’s a common backhanded compliment in the Philippines (and probably in other Asian countries).

“Colourism in Asian countries and worldwide is a relic of the past that somehow managed to make its way to 2021,” said Juro Ongkiko, who started the Moreno Morena* Photography Project. His vision for the project is to “depict dark skin in the best light without the usual heavy-handed messaging that you would find in similar inclusivity campaigns.”

Complementing this project is his other initiative, Moreno Morena Presents, a podcast/series of videos featuring tan and dark-skinned personalities. The aim is to drive discussions on “what it means to be a dark-skinned Filipino” through the use of photographs and anecdotes from real people.

Spending his childhood and adolescent years in a Filipino-Chinese school, he stood out as someone with a deeper skin tone than the rest of the community. And while he wouldn’t say the teasing related to his colour was harsh enough to affect his confidence as he got older, he still felt “slight jabs” on his self-esteem.

Colonialism and colourism

In one episode of Moreno Morena Presents, Juro and courtside reporter Rain Matienzo got into a discussion about “how there might be opportunities people forego because they don’t think they’re capable [because of their skin colour]”. This is after Rain revealed that she almost didn’t sign up as a courtside reporter because she felt like as a morena, she didn’t “fit the look” they were looking for.

She also shared that in a separate incident, she was mocked by a fellow Filipina for having dark skin. It didn’t make her think of herself as “ugly” but it did make her wonder why treating someone a certain way because of their skin colour is still common.

Philippine culture has long championed fairer skin because of our colonial history. Viewing lighter-skinned people as more superior traces back from class hierarchies and positions of power. It may have been watered down over the years but centuries of being told that dark skin is not as good as fair skin do leave lingering effects. Whitening products continue to dominate the market (and vanities), with marketing that perpetuates the idea that ‘light skin is better.’

Addressing bias against (and for) dark skin

Juro thinks that we’re still far from having dark-skin representation everywhere, but that there are already movements changing the narrative on a bigger scale.

“[Some] brands are now more careful with the content they put out because people nowadays aren’t at all shy to give their reactions and scrutinise their every move,” he said. There are some negative sides to it, he noted, especially with cancel culture sometimes being over-the-top and outshining the actual issue at hand. But he believes “it’s nice to see that people are more aware of these things and that it keeps brands on their toes.”

Now, he says what has to be done is this: abolish the mindset that lighter skin is better, especially among dark-skinned people themselves.

“I think the biggest hurdle you have to overcome is unlearning what you were told about dark skin not being beautiful. If that’s something you were told or taught your whole life, of course, it’ll be hard to uproot it from your head and replace it with a healthier outlook,” he explained.

One way to do so, he advised, is to cut off other factors that contribute to this mindset and learn to appreciate the beauty of dark-skinned people even in the smallest of ways.

“Simply following more moreno or morena people on social media [is a start],” he said.

The quest for dark skin representation is still far from over

Model Angela Martinez, who also participated in another one of Juro’s Moreno podcast episodes, told him that “we’re still a long way from normalising dark skin” because “people are so not used to seeing dark skin on their feeds that whenever someone with dark skin does post a photo of themselves, it’s automatically an advocacy post.”

One way to help correct this is to have better dark skin representation on mainstream media and social media. But how do you do so with authenticity and empathy for the underrepresented?

There have been attempts but they sadly didn’t hit the mark. One example is when a brand allegedly had a model do blackface instead of hiring an actual morena model for their advertisement. The ad’s message was supposedly about love for all skin colours but the execution negated that.

In another instance, the issue of representation was also questioned when a movie about ‘an Aeta girl who aspires to be a beauty queen’ was released in the Philippines. A light-skinned actress was cast for the lead role despite the supporting cast being indigenous Aetas. Her skin was darkened using makeup and she wore a wig.

This made us ask: When will proper representation for dark-skinned people — as well as diversity in mainstream media — be met? And when will opportunities for people who fit the roles to represent the minority open if what is shown is a “reflection of reality” instead of “representation of reality”?

The existence of these arguments proves that conversations about our skin colour should continue to happen. And yes, meeting in the middle is still a long way to go but projects like Morena Moreno are there to help us reach a vision similar to Juro’s: the day when having dark skin is normalised and well-represented.

(*Moreno/Morena refers to having tan/dark-skinned colour in Filipino, which is rooted in the same Spanish term meaning “having dark hair and a swarthy complexion”.)

Next, these women also share their thoughts on inclusivity in beauty in Southeast Asia here.

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