Complexions

In “Black Skin, White Masks,” Frantz Fanon writes a very poignant vignette of the consequences of race:

To speak pidgin to a Negro makes him angry, because he himself is a pidgin-nigger-talker. But, I will be told, there is no wish, no intention to anger him. I grant this; but it is just this absence of wish, this lack of interest, this indifference, this automatic manner of classifying him, imprisoning him, primitivizing him, decivilizing him, that makes him angry.

I believe that race is an antiquated, simplistic, and naive concept. Race has no scientific significance; we all belong to the same genus, the same species, and the color of our skin is a consequence of genetic variation. Yet as a social construct, race is very powerful: it classifies us qualitatively and subjectively. It creates a context within a whole set of contexts, forcing us to act and behave and achieve according to the expectations of dominant, discriminating forces. In a way, we become nothing more than the color of our skin.

All this, of course, should pertain to a particular men’s magazine cover, but I’d like to deep into it a little further. Maybe overthink it a bit, and snap a few branches from the learning tree along the way.

I think that a critique to the cover should extend itself to every social construct and artifact that has to do with bleaching the “brown Filipino skin;” or for that matter, having that discourse around anyway. There’s this legend that says that we were baked in the heavenly oven by God to come up with a golden-brown tan, as opposed to an undercooked Caucasian and a burnt Negro. Some of us have been taught how to classify people as “Caucasoid,” “Negroid,” and “Mongoloid.” It reeks, to me, of indifference because the stereotypes used to classify people physically extend to the stereotypes used to classify people in the social realm. You have Hitler’s “Aryan Race,” you have the justification of slavery in America, and even medical diagnosis finding firm footing in race.

But this isn’t just a question of colonial mentality: this is a question rooted at the very foundations of class conflict and class struggle, where the concept of race breeds and thrives. To go back to Fanon, the very notion that we can simplify our humanity on the basis of complexion, and simplify the products of our humanity on the basis of skin color, should be an oxymoron into how “modern” we really are. Take the simplicity of associations between skin color and human value: white, clear, flawless, blemish-free skin is kutis-mayaman, and that the toiling masses, the atsay of Nora Aunor movies, are depicted in hues of sunburned brown skin. Or commercials: how affordable glutathione is, or how papaya soap can be used all over the body to get “perfect” skin, or “before” and “after” pictures.

But what is “race” here, anyway? Our experience of racism, while we share in the empathy and struggle for civil rights, is radically different from the experience of racism by blacks (if that is the point of comparison). We were colonized, in our own land, losing our sense of cultural uniqueness and adopting the colonizers’ cultural views as our own. That they are white, so we must be white. That they have white women in their magazines and advertisements, so should we. It is our experience that colonizes our thinking and feeling, because we are engendered to become subjects to – and subjects of – this idea of race.

The ideology of pale skin is not just about “white supremacy” or “colonial mentality,” but that white skin is one of wealth, of material things, of the control of the lives of people with skin colors other than white or skin tones other than fair, of ownership of discourse and the monopoly on the means of production. Again, it’s the simplicity of our binary oppositions at work: that to have white skin means to be wealthy, that the fair-skinned shouldn’t toil in the field or scrub floors, or of maid’s uniforms and sidekicks and extras. For us to reach the same wealth, the same status, the same achievements, the same spots in the social ladder, we must bleach and be seen bleaching.

This is not an attack on a magazine cover – heaven knows how many of those exist in so many other magazines and publications – but an attack on the talk that validates and reinforces race as something true, factual, and empirical. This is an attack on our subjection, our subordination, our colonization, and most of all, our classification. Race attacks our humanity, to the point that something so elementary as soap can promise to change our race by making us whiter.

It is this essentialism – this reduction of our being, and for that matter, the being of a woman (and a Filipina for that matter) – as a hue and a color and a complexion where our humanity is severely distorted by just one characteristic we are not in control of. Whitewashed, so to speak, and imprisons us for lack of understanding of just how diverse we really are. That in the conversation about complexion, we do betray our own prejudices in the process.

Again, our “modern” and “liberated” society is hinged on a contradiction of fuzzy logic. And I can speak for it on the basis of personal experience: surely, with my complexion, my non-use of whitening products, and the occasional purchase of a lad mag, I couldn’t have been one of those golden-brown pieces of dough that God plucked out from the oven, breathed life into, and called a “Filipino.”

The question – and the solution – is how to elevate the discussion beyond race.

Complexions

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