How Colorism Erases Brown Asians (& Why The Hurt Runs So Much Deeper Than We Realize)

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How Colorism & Racism In Hollywood Hurts Asian Women Of Color, And Why Representation Matters

When you hear the term “Asian,” what image comes to mind?

More often than not, the image is of people with fair skin, almond-shaped eyes or monolid eyes, and thin lips. The reason for this is that most people’s idea of Asians is limited to what they see in anime, on Koreanovelas, in K-pop, or stereotypes from Western media.

The image of an Asian that they so easily recognize is actually that of East Asians: Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Taiwanese. Because of this, “Asian,” as a term, has become exclusively used to refer to East Asians. Even some people who are Asian are sometimes hesitant to refer to themselves as such because they feel they aren’t “Asian enough.”

A reason for this can be colorism, a relative to standard racism defined as “prejudice or discrimination especially within a racial or ethnic group favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin.”

In other words, colorism is discrimination based on skin color, and those who have a lighter complexion are privileged and seen to be more beautiful than those who are brown.

The preference for fair skin is highly influenced by Western, primarily Anglo, standards of beauty, but is solidified by how widely-accepted East Asians are compared to brown Asians. Colorism doesn't necessarily have to be a comparison between races, because it can happen even to people of the same race — even the same nationality.

For brown Asians, like myself, the preference for fair skin is so embedded in society that we grow up thinking there's something intrinsically wrong about us.

Advertisements always portray those with a lighter complexion to be richer and more successful. This helps sells whitening products because it reinforces the idea that having brown skin is no good. In fact, the global market for skin whitening products is projected to reach $32 billion (US) by the year 2024 — proof that colorism serves as a highly effective marking tool for a beauty industry that is highly invested in promoting this type of discrimination.

It is important to remember (and to remind others) that the media’s limited portrayal of Asian people does not, and cannot, encapsulate Asian culture.

East Asia alone cannot be representative of Asian culture as they are just from one region of the continent and therefore cannot even capture the entirety of diverse Asian cultures.

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East Asians aren’t the only Asians.

Brown Asians such as Filipinos, Indians, Thai, and Malaysians usually come as an afterthought and are sometimes even totally forgotten. The fact is, Central, South, Southeast, and Western Asians are just as valid being called “Asians” as the East Asians are. They aren’t just "Asian enough", they are Asian, and their stories, culture, and lifestyle deserve to be heard, too, instead of being sidelined.

In Hollywood, hiring Asian actors to be supporting characters is too often just tokenism — the same in any other workplace. Most recently, news has sparked about Crazy Rich Asians co-writer Adele Lim leaving the project because of the extreme pay gap between herself and other (non-Asian) writers.

With a film about Asians, the pay gap (reportedly she was being paid one-eighth the salary of the others) indicates that she was hired only to justify the project's cultural authenticity. This, on a film about Asians, starring Asians, set primarily in Asian countries!

It is also worth mentioning that most films aren't like Crazy Rich Asians when it comes to on-screen representation.

The standard for claiming "representation" in the media is very low. Having a one-dimensional background minority character with a white lead character is considered representation. A white-washed film under the guise of budget constraints with an inherently Asian plot is still also considered representation.

Setting aside the fact that most producers only bring Asians to the table to advertise their diversity, when they do hire or cast Asians, they are almost always only East Asians, and the roles are often canned and stereotypical.

Yes, Asian representation has no doubt been rising over the years, but there’s still a long way to go. It feels as if Asians are being given scraps and are supposed to be grateful for them. Western media’s efforts to appear diverse should be directed towards being genuinely inclusive, instead.

Too often, Asian characters are boxed within the stereotypes of being poor English-speakers, child prodigies, or martial arts experts. Asians shouldn’t have to conform to common stereotypes just to get acceptance and inclusion, but that seems to be the way it is in Hollywood these days.

We, brown Asians, still celebrate that the call for representation is getting more traction now, but of course, we still can’t see ourselves in the few Asian characters in the Western media. Our cultures are often highly different, and we cannot relate to the few representations of Asians that currently exist.

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Out of the many countries with brown Asians, Indian cinema gets the most attention with their Bollywood films.

Bollywood, centered in Mumbai, is a fully independent film production industry that actually out-paces Hollywood in the sheer quantity of films released each year.

According to Wikipedia, "Indian cinema is the world's largest film industry in film production, with an annual output of 1,986 feature films in 2017... In 2001 ticket sales, Indian cinema (including Bollywood) reportedly sold an estimated 3.6 billion tickets worldwide, compared to Hollywood's 2.6 billion tickets sold."

Aside from the distinct visual style, acting approach, and inclusion of songs and dances, Bollywood films fully retain the Indian standards and lifestyle. They feature distinct romantic tropes and great familial relations because they remain true in reflecting their society.

This is precisely why Hollywood finds it difficult to try to beat Bollywood at its own game — they aren't as oriented to that audience's interests and cultural themes. Bollywood studios do not sacrifice their own style, staying strong in retaining their identity within the global film industry.

Hollywood really should take a lesson from Bollywood and be more accurate in representing a diverse array of Asian cultures and people, if they want to sell more to their international audiences. After all, there are millions of brown Asians in the world who would love to buy tickets to films and support shows featuring other brown Asians.

Another reason true, accurate Asian representation in mainstream entertainment is so important is the degree to which Western media influences the global narrative. Hollywood remains the gatekeeper. If they keep brown Asians out, the world will follow.

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As a kid, I found it easy to just keep consuming mainstream media without finding fault with it. But growing up, it has become clearer and clearer that this shouldn’t be what the public is used to.

In a world where pop culture and media are towered over by the West, white people don’t have to think much about representation as they are predominantly in it. For everybody else, though, of course, there is the craving to see a character they can resonate with, someone who looks like them and holds the same values as them.

It gets tiring to see the same cliché tropes over and over and being the one to adjust to the media instead of the other way around. Children can learn any of these cultural concepts from many different sources, but there is no doubt that media, as a whole, can greatly influence and shape their ideas.

A study from SAGE Journals concluded that television consumption does, in fact, significantly affect kids’ self-esteem, determining that "television exposure predicted a decrease in self-esteem for White and Black girls and Black boys, and an increase in self-esteem among White boys," related to social identity.

As the highly respected critic known as Angry Asian Man noted about this, "watching TV is pretty awesome ... for white boys."

Even child-friendly movies like popular Disney animated films have racial and cultural stereotypes, according to research published in the Journal of Feminist Family Therapy in 2008. "Few examples of positive portrayals emerged but were increasingly common in later films. Marginalized groups were portrayed negatively, rarely, or not at all.”

Of course, this is changing with Disney's newer directives toward inclusion, as evidenced by films like Coco (which featured a moving and authentic story co-written and co-directed by a Latino man, and about a Latino family).

This is wonderful for diversity as a whole, but there are still extremely limited options for brown Asian kids to see realistic representations of themselves.

Some Filipinos are ridiculed for having so much sense of "Pinoy Pride," celebrating and praising anything in popular Western culture that has even the smallest connection with the Philippines.

We don't like it either, but this is rooted in the fact that we're just simply not represented enough in the Western industry.

We cling to those slightest associations, like the fact that Vanessa Hudgens and Shay Mitchell are both half-Filipino because we can’t project ourselves to anyone else.

What people see in the media becomes standard — including skin color. Their interests, their image, and their culture became what is acceptable.

Countries with brown Asians are especially affected by this, and issues caused by colorism grow worse. White people have fair skin, and (East) Asians that are the most famous Asian actors in Western media also have fair skin, which makes a growing child think that there’s something inherently wrong with their brown skin.

This monochromatic representation also raises a lot of questions about what it means to be Asian. This has a major impact not only on viewers who don’t fit that mold but also furthers the lack of brown Asian representation.

Having discussed all this and bringing light to the matter at hand, what exactly should be done?

If we look to areas in which Hollywood has been successful at creating diversity, with television series such as “The Good Place” or even Pixar’s upcoming short “Float,” we can see those producers, casting directors, and directors need to become more aware of the near-total lack of brown Asian representation in entertainment — and they must decide to make that change.

In various television series and films, there should be more Asian characters that are more than just one-dimensional stereotypes. They should have more depth to their characters, and their inherent “Asian-ness” shouldn’t be the main point of their involvement in the story. These characters shouldn’t be white-washed, but they should be written and acted so as to bring more to the screen than just “Asian man” or “Asian woman” type of roles.

The call for representation (an accurate one at that) isn’t limited to the plot and the actors but the producers, directors, and writers as well. It is good sense to hire these people on the other side of the camera that knows about the culture they’re talking about and pay them right.

Most of all, the people who call the shots should also keep in mind that Asian culture is diverse, so, when a character is described as “Asian,” there are five different regions of the continent to choose from, not just the four countries that may be at the front of their minds, due to the ongoing lack of representation.

Asians aren’t just a trend. We are a group of people who deserve representation. We buy tickets, too.

We live in a multicultural world and it is only right that the media we consume and create are reflective of this. There’s still a long way to go for Western media to honestly and truthfully represent Asians, but we can (and we must) be critical, while still maintaining our optimism at the same time.

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Carla M. Delgado is a Filipino writer who often writes personal essays and opinion pieces about the fear, pressure, and loneliness that she feels. She also works in the local theatre scene as a stage manager and is a regular contributing writer for BroadwayWorld. Visit her Wordpress to see more of her work.

Editor's Note: This article was originally posted in November 2019.