I was 9 when I received my first—and last—skin-lightening product. It was a black bar of soap gifted to me by an aunt who was visiting from the Philippines at the time. On the label, it promised to exfoliate dead skin, fade away dark spots, and lighten my skin. “You’re so dark,” she said. “This will help.” I was confused, but as a dutiful Asian child who always respects her elders, I smiled back and thanked her. After my aunt’s visit, I found the soap in my shower, which I took as a not-so-subtle hint that I should start using it. I remember the soap’s black suds lathering and smelling nicely, but matter how much or hard I scrubbed, using it every day proved futile: I didn’t get any lighter.
I’ve told friends about the skin whitening soap incident without much thought about how shocking it might come across. My non-white friends understood, some even offering their own stories about skin bleaching, while my white friends couldn’t comprehend why lightening soaps even exist. Of course, they haven’t experienced what systemic racism has created within ethnic communities: colorism. Rondilla defines colorism as the discriminatory treatment of people who fall within the same ethnic and racial background. “[It] does differ within different ethnic communities for various reasons,” she says. “It really comes down to colonial history as well as how each community understands and power and privilege.”
I recently asked my mom about the whitening soap. While she admits that she should’ve thrown it away, she insists my aunt was coming only from a good place. “Your skin shouldn’t be a barrier, but you know how things are,” she said. “Family will always want to do everything to even out the playing field for you.”
Extracts from a Vogue article (original). Published 9 August 2019.