A Guest Post by Kimberley Africa
This is for all those who once wished, or still wish, to be someone they are not.
“Huwag ka magpapa-araw. Iitim ka.“ “Don’t go into the sun; you’ll get dark.” For years, I heard this phrase again and again, urging me to protect my skin. It was white, like the inside of a coconut, they told me.
By the time I was five, I knew exactly why. I held my daddy’s hand as we waited in line for a ride at an amusement park. Two men standing next us turned to the couple on our other side and commented that their little girl was beautiful. It was then that I realized that I, too, had to have light skin—in addition to blonde hair and blue eyes—so that strangers wouldn’t skip us in the line, and would tell my dad that I also was beautiful. I didn’t know how I was going to get the blonde hair and blue eyes, but I knew that I was definitely not going to go into the sun. I could at least have one of the three attributes.
This was not an isolated event in my childhood. When I was seven and preparing for field trip, I asked my mom to buy me a Lunchable instead of packing me a Tupperware with rice like she did for my dad. I was embarrassed to bring a spoon and fork and eat food that smelled bad.
I was eleven, beginning seventh grade, and actually seeing more than one Filipino face around campus. They told me that I was a coconut—brown on the outside and white on the inside.
I was sixteen, still internalizing my coconut identity, and describing myself as “American Filipino” because I was not authentic enough to put “Filipino” first.
I was eighteen, trying to find a space in the Asian Pacific Islander community at college because I struggled to feel comfortable in the predominantly white community that I found myself in.
My best friend tells me that I am not really Asian because all I really do is eat food and understand a different tongue, but I do not possess it.
“Well, look at you. Who taught you to hate yourself?”
Malcolm X once said, “to teach a man to hate himself is much more criminal than teaching him to hate someone else.” In addition to the invisibility of racism, classism, sexism, and all those other –isms, the internalization of them perpetuates white domination. We marginalized people are tricked into hating ourselves. Racism doesn’t just unfairly enrich white people and impoverish marginalized communities, as sociologist Joe Feagin says. It frames white people as normal while and gives them privileges, while making the issues surrounding other communities invisible, or criminal.
Racism shapes the experiences and beliefs of marginalized people—like how it was important for me to not have stinky food, and to not get too dark. A racist social system teaches people to hate who they are without even realizing they are doing it. Narratives of the oppressed are erased from history, and the injustices that shape the everyday experiences of marginalized communities are often ignored or made invisible.
Invisibility of the experiences of racial minorities is perpetuated through culture, language, education, and ideology, all controlled by the dominant group. Thus, society is constantly being exposed to the dominant ideals that, in turn, shape individual’s beliefs, experiences, and perceptions of self. This manifests in various ways.
Ever since I was a kid, the majority of what I saw where fair skinned people on television, in movies, and on magazine ads. These people were beautiful. It was uncommon to see someone with a darker skin tone. The dominant narratives, including that light skin is beautiful, harms many as we internalize racism, classism, and sexism. All the while, untold histories and the beauty of other communities remains in the dark, forgotten and unimportant.
Consequently, many individuals in marginalized communities do not learn of their histories, or in my case, of the beauty of dark skin. Instead, they unconsciously learn the superiority of the white community relative to others. As a result, many unconsciously learn to be ashamed of their community, or feel the need to assume the social expectations of the white community—from physical attributes to cultural values—in order to reach success and belonging. When I was five, I wanted and I felt that I needed my light skin. By reaching for this ideal of beauty, belonging, and success, I internalized the oppressive nature of the norm.
In American society, success is defined as the “American dream”; the idea that anyone could have a rags-to-riches story by just working hard and fitting in. It is the idea that no matter where an individual starts socioeconomically, they can make it to the top with hard work and persistence. Films like The Pursuit of Happyness, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Blind Side tell these kinds of rags-to-riches stories. These movies–two based on true stories–express the fulfillment of the dream to be successful, and suggest that when you are in trouble, there’s always a way to get back up, and that anyone can do it. They are the type of movies that make people cry, and feel the potential of passion and love from others.
Critical theorist Herbert Marcuse would argue that these heartfelt movies contribute to a “happy consciousness,” which leads us to accept the “misdeeds of society” by blinding us with positive tales of goodness. The negativity and injustices of society are glossed over by moments of triumph, because these are the kind of stories that people want to hear.
However, these wonderful stories, about how a father, struggling to take care of his child, finds wealth, or how a kid from the slums can win fortune and the girl he always loved, or how an at-risk black kid finds a family and football, are the not the stories of most people living in American society. These stories are strategically placed in the mainstream to keep people dreaming that it could one day be them, and in doing so, they hide the systemic nature of wealth inequality, racism, and gender discrimination.
Many people on the global stage think of the U.S. as a place of equality and opportunities. This is an inaccurate interpretation of American society, and of a dream that so many wish to partake in. The reality is that the dream is based on a faulty premise of equality. There is no true equality when a select few people have privileges that are not available to all. White privilege, for example, comes from being in charge of what is considered normal in society. Thus, people who do not have these privileges are disadvantaged in various ways with respect to social mobility and access to cultural and economic capital.
The façade of equality diminishes the experiences of many who struggle to navigate American society. Peggy Macintosh created a list of different forms of white privilege. While some of the items on the list seem rather trivial to white people, they are far from trivial for racially marginalized groups. Being able to go shopping with no fear of being followed or harassed changes the everyday experience of a person. Being able to buy make-up with no worries that there will not be tones and colors that match your skin color is a privilege. Perhaps more significantly, being able to read textbooks that contain and celebrate the histories of people who look like you is a privilege that mostly only white students have. We know about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. They say that we learn about César Chavez and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but we would be lucky to have more than two paragraphs dedicated to them. But, who is Dolores Huerta? Who is Philip Vera Cruz? Who are the Black Panthers? What is Yellow Power?
“He tells him about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln…all these white heroes.”
The mainstream narrative has destroyed the histories of many marginalized people. The dominant have written everything—but their narrative—out of the textbook, and have erased the pain and tragedy that they have inflicted on peoples past, so we find it difficult to understand how it can be that so many struggle economically, socially, and internally. What results is only one valid perspective and one “true” history. People hear only one narrative.
According to Chicana feminist scholar Gloria Anzaldúa, “dominant paradigms, predefined concepts that exist as unquestionable, unchallengeable, are transmitted to us through culture.” What people learn in the textbooks, see on the television, hear on the radio, flip through in the magazines, experience in everyday interactions teaches us about who we should be and what we should believe. So, I ask two questions. Who writes the textbook? Who controls the media? I quickly answer, white domination, both through education—as Malcolm X noted—and through our culture, as the invisible continue to remain invisible.
We are ever steeped in popular culture today, as a result of our reliance on digital technology. Via social media we are omnivores of ideology. We consume the most popular trends and the dominant ideas that support a materialistic and supposedly meritocratic culture. This dominant narrative is, essentially, as critical theorists Horkheimer and Adorno would put it, “infecting everything with sameness.” Culture creates an ideologically homogenous society in which we consent to and reproduce norms because they are what we know. We see them, and we learn from them. We read the dominant narrative in textbooks, and we commit it to memory. Experiences and happenings that are not widely seen or read about in the mainstream come to seem irrelevant and unimportant to the “American” experience. Marcuse asserts that culture, in essence, massages domination within our system by priming us to accept what the system offers. Ultimately, this form of acceptance is harmful for the people who do not see their identities and experiences represented in the dominant narrative.
We buy into the myth of meritocracy, and believe that all it really takes is persistence and hard work to be successful. We thus come to believe that the unearned privileges enjoyed by white people are in fact earned, and that we too can have them, if we just try, and try again. According to Antonio Gramsci, this internal force shapes the ethics and motivations of individuals and communities; this force has material form as it harms the individuals who don’t see themselves represented in the mainstream and thus, are made invisible.
In order to be desirable and consequently, consumed, one needs to invest in their own social membership—this translates to what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman coins as “saleability.” We are all essentially selling ourselves. We “want to obtain qualities for which there is already a market demand,” and what is high in demand is whiteness, in looks, in attitudes, in values, and various other characteristics. We consume different cultures in order to have a sense of belonging. We change ourselves in order to be consumed, and we consume to be consumed.
To be consumed the most—in other words to be considered appealing—requires abiding norms. Thus, if media and education and everyday interactions are constantly sending us messages about our invisibility in the history textbooks, on the silver screen, in government, and other aspects of society, then we, beginning as children, are pushed to both continue the invisibility of some of our communities, while simultaneously seeking ways to be visible in the current system. Being visible often translates to “being white.” This is internalized in broader society, in our communities, and within us. This is why, as a small child, I found myself wishing that I had blonde hair and blue eyes.
However, the true question is, who is blame? Immediately my finger points to our white oppressors. Who can blame me? I am angry about all the hate I had funneled into myself as a child, making me hate what I looked like. I am disappointed about how much shame and embarrassment I felt about who I was, or things that my parents did. Most of all, I am sad for all the others who have had the same experiences. They say:
Sometimes I daydreamed that I was white.
I’m so embarrassed to take the rice cooker to the park.
Do you want me to straighten your hair?
One time my dad told my mom not to put chopsticks with my lunch because that’s not something that you want at school.
When I first got contacts, I asked if I could get colored contacts, but they didn’t let me because they thought I would use them too often.
In junior high, this girl and I really liked each other, but she didn’t want to date me because she wanted kids with blonde hair and blue eyes.
I told my parents to not talk so loudly. What I really was saying was, “Please talk English instead.”
But, these experiences are not our fault. It is the systems of oppression—and privilege—that cause people to criminalize their own identity and experience, and that cause those living with privilege to perpetuate it, be oblivious to it, ignore it, and make it invisible to those who are oppressed by it. It is the constant bombardment of messages that we see in mainstream culture, education, and interaction that causes us to not be who we are, because we are not who we see in the mainstream. We are invisible and constantly made invisible. This invisibility pushes us to continue to make our narratives and histories even more invisible as we buy into the dominant ideology and internalize this invisibility. You see, all I wanted at five years old was to be seen.
By internalizing oppression we perpetuate white domination. We distract ourselves from looking for the unspoken words that are between the lines of our history textbooks and are hidden behind the scenes of the television shows.
This is to the little girl who wished that she had blonde hair and blue eyes, and all those who have wished they were someone they are not.
We are seen. We are seen by the members of our communities that understand our struggles and our sense of unbelonging. We are seen by the allies who recognize our histories and narratives. We have experienced oppression institutionally, interpersonally, and internally, and our experiences are powerful. Our stories demonstrate the realities of white domination. Our experiences make a narrative that must be shared. We need to talk about internalized oppression within our communities so that we can begin to make what was once invisible, visible. In the words of Malcolm X, “Wake up, clean up, and stand up”.
I went into the sun. I got dark. I didn’t need to be white, just like the inside of a coconut anymore. I needed to hear the untold within the dark pages of history, and I am ready to resist. This is my move.
Kimberley Africa is a dual mathematics and sociology major about to begin her senior year at Pomona College in Claremont, CA. She is interested in social justice work and will pursue a career that involves issues of educational access. A California native, she enjoys watching movies and television, eating, going to the beach, and playing volleyball.
Kimberley is also the author of “Unpacking the Balikbayan Box: Transnational Pilipino Families in Global Perspective,” and director of the short documentary film that accompanies it.