Whiter: Asian American Women on Skin Color and Colorism, edited by Nikki Khanna, exposes the shame of colorist cultural tendencies, explores the solidarity of Asian American women across ethnic identities and ages, and embraces the beauty of being brown.
As Khanna defines it, “colorism refers to the practice of discrimination whereby light skin is privileged over dark—both between and within racial and ethnic communities.” In cultures all over the world, colorism runs rampant, no thanks in part to the imagined, but harmful, conceptions of race and skin color. Colorism is nothing new, as illustrated by the many traditional proverbs and idioms heralding white skin and the numerous practices maintaining light skin or even bleaching skin. But in the United States, skin color is even more burdened with societal privileges and oppressions. While colorism is often discussed in other communities of color, particularly Black and Latinx communities, it’s still a comparatively under-researched and neglected, if not relatively new, topic in the Asian American community.
Nikki Khanna draws valuable connections between the experiences painted by the 30 Asian American women whose personal essays share hardship and hope in their respective skin color and community. This anthology features personal essays by Asian American women from different ethnic backgrounds, including Filipina, Indian, Chinese, Pakistani, Vietnamese, Cambodian (one Cham, one Khmer), Japanese, Bangladeshi and Pacific Islander. In addition, the collection includes several authors of multiethnic backgrounds, including Chinese/Filipino and Taiwanese/Chinese; and those of multiracial backgrounds, including Japanese/White, Japanese/Black, Chinese/Black, and Korean/White.
The book begins with a compelling and well-researched introduction by Nikki Khanna that provides insight on how prevalent colorism is in the world, how it looks across nations and cultures, and how it affects women, notably Asian American women, today. Officially opening the book with her own experience of colorism, Khanna familiarizes the reader with the lived experiences and impacts of colorism.
Khanna also includes grounding introductions to each of the six parts of the book, threading each essay and weaving them into a broader conversation about contemporary and persisting events and phenomena. Even better, she focuses on progressing the narrative of colorism in the Asian American community. She moves first from essays that define colorism to essays that express not only pride in natural skin colors but also efforts to make new meanings of skin. And each section reveals another layer of colorism in the Asian American community: its deep-rooted existence, its privileges, its aspirations for whiteness, its anti-blackness, its disruption of belonging, and how Asian American women resist colorism.
I especially enjoy the sections about belonging and redefining skin color. The personal essays here emphasize the unstable facade of skin color narratives and skin color’s unreliability as a marker of racial, ethnic, and cultural belonging. And we can, to borrow from featured author Daniela Pila, “reprogram” ourselves in both big and small ways to resist and redefine what our skin color means to us.
Khanna makes a point of specifying women authors for the collection: the ties between class, labor, femininity, beauty, and marriageability exaggerate perceptions of skin color onto the “fairer” sex. The personal narratives these 30 women provide touch upon both similar and distinct realities most Asian American women may experience, while the diverse range of voices simultaneously offers complexity to the generalizing label of “Asian American.”
However, despite the range of ages, backgrounds, and experiences of the writers, most are heterosexual and able-bodied. Khanna acknowledges this lack of further diversity as an expected symptom of colorism’s relationship to the woman’s “purpose” of “finding a man to marry” and “making babies.” Still, the inclusion of more LGBTQ+ and disabled writers would be wonderful to see in future collections.
Whiter is a refreshing, informative and moving collection. It sheds light (literally), shifts values, and shares pride in our natural selves. In the ongoing struggle for racial equality and justice in America—especially after the outbreak of COVID-19 escalating anti-Chinese and anti-Asian rhetoric, discrimination, and attacks; the persisting and devastating deaths of Black people like Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd and the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests; and the recent 2020 election of America’s first multiracial, Black/South Asian American woman vice-president, Kamala Harris—it is important now more than ever to continue the conversation on race, skin color, and colorism, especially in the Asian American community.
And Whiter is an excellent place to continue—if not start—that conversation.