Learning to embrace my God-given Filipino looks in a white world.
In 1994, I was on a mission to look like Aaliyah. The problem was, I’m not black. The notion of Asian beauty escaped me, so I was in search of something better.
My caramel skin—sometimes mocha in the summer—is generally considered dark for a Filipino. I didn’t look like my light-skinned sisters, mom nor any other Filipino women I’d ever seen, which was confusing enough. But this was compounded by mixed messages from extended family members and family friends: either they remarked on how gorgeous and unique my tan skin was or called me “egot”—a derogatory term in the Philippines for indigenous people with dark skin. The only thing I understood from all this was that I was different.
In an effort to make myself feel comfortable with my otherness, around the age of 12 I started to deviate from my own culture and avoided the other three or four Asians in my school. I gravitated toward black culture instead because that’s where I thought I’d fit in with my brown skin.
My burgeoning love for hip hop music and the NBA—these were the Jordan years—showed me that being a person of color could be a source of pride, and that resonated with me.
During that time, I showed a hairstylist at Hair Cuttery (a salon chain in the mall) my Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number cassette tape and asked her to give me Aaliyah’s sleek, face-framing layers. I picked up Luster’s Pink Hair Lotion from the “ethnic beauty” section at Walmart and hoped that maybe, just maybe, my new hairstyle would let me pass for a black girl. (Of course, I was extremely young and naive and didn’t realize Aaliyah’s straight perm didn’t actually represent the natural texture of most black women’s hair, but that’s a whole different story.)
Even though my look made me feel a little closer to my black idols, I still didn’t truly feel comfortable in my skin. This was made blatantly obvious to me in middle school, when an older black boy at the bus stop made fun of me for being “Chinese.” Suddenly I realized how inherently different I was from the kids I had been relating to for so many years. I wasn’t black and I never would be. But that wake-up call didn’t change that I loved Mobb Deep and Air Jordans, and I was too self-conscious to change my look.
Meanwhile, I became exposed to more white kids—surfers, skaters and volleyball players who made puberty look so easy and not awkward at all—and just admired them from afar until I could find some common ground with them. Forget about hanging out with the Asians. They all flocked together at lockers and lunch tables. I felt resentful toward them, probably because I didn’t feel I’d be accepted into their clique. I convinced myself that I didn’t want to be lumped into a group of people that anyone could just lazily call “Chinese” anyway. America was supposedly a melting pot and I was determined to assimilate.
In high school, I reinvented myself into a skater punk, with whiteness as my new aspiration. To me, mestiza girls (half Filipino, half Caucasian) had won the genetic lottery. They were beautiful and popular. I never left the house without sunblock on. At one point I even splurged on a $30 Peter Thomas Roth formula because it claimed to prevent tanning ($30 is a fortune for a teenager who worked at Claire’s). I tried skin-lightening soaps and creams from the Asian market. (In case you didn’t know, having porcelain skin is an obsession in many Asian cultures, so these products were common.) When those didn’t work, I wore foundation that was at least a shade or two too light. If I had the money, I would’ve worn blue contact lenses. More and more people commented that I didn’t “look Filipino,” thanks in part to the features I inherited from my colonial Spanish ancestors (bigger eyes and a more narrow nose). This was the highest compliment to me, and I seriously revelled in hearing it.
High school was also the beginning of a long phase of dyeing my hair. My naturally jet-black hair was just way too Asian-looking for me. In fact, most Asian girls in my school seemed to be chasing that mestiza look, too; they all had brassy hair from sun-in or boxed hair dye and the fanciest girls had professional highlights. Once I moved to California after college, I went bright amber with my hair.
It seemed to make me look more racially ambiguous—and somehow that felt like me. In suppressing my God-given looks, I thought I found myself.
There’s nothing wrong at all with changing up your hair color or texture or using makeup to play up or play down certain features. But in my case, there was a thin line between experimentation and self hate. Where do you draw the line?
The fateful year of 2016 forced me to finally draw that proverbial line in the sand. I wasn’t exactly heartbroken by the election—I felt galvanized. My personal journey led me to Standing Rock where I saw indigenous people who continued to live and breathe their ancestral traditions, all the while healing from the generational trauma of colonization.
I realized that trauma is the root of self-hate, whether a person loathes their own skin color because they’ve been made fun of for it, their weight because grandma used to call mom fat or even their innate personality traits they’ve been taught to suppress.
Indigenous people showed me that existence is resistance. That my relatives who called me “egot” may have been masking their own trauma, from our own history of colonization, with misguided humor. It finally clicked in my mind that I needed to heal and really step up and represent people of color, myself and my race. And on a deeper, spiritual level, my pre-colonial ancestors.
Recently, I was at a crossroads. I wanted to correct my hair color from years of processing. I almost regressed and opted for a pro bleach job to whitewash my old beauty mistakes. But my instinct told me to go back to black, so I went with it. In the end, my colorist asked me if I felt like I was home. Yes, I was home.
I have never been so deeply proud to be a person of color. I embrace my tan skin, black hair and Filipino culture. But I’m not perfect, and I still find myself feeling flattered when people tell me I look mixed. I still wear sunscreen religiously, and in all honesty, avoiding wrinkles and melanoma are only part of the reason why. Years of self-loathing still need to be undone. But for once, I can look in the mirror and feel like I wouldn’t change a thing.
*All personal photos provided by the author.