Racism in Asia: White skin and the Suntan

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Coming back from the Philippines to Shanghai, I felt refreshed, renewed, reanimated and ready to take on the world.  I’m eternally grateful to the Palawan island for that! I was also sunkissed, bronzed and had a bit of colour on those pale white bird legs of mine. Sure, I went diving and island hopping, so I used sunscreen a lot. But naturally, I eventually got a suntan. Little did I know upon my return to China, that this would open a whole can of worms with racism in Asia.

Racism in Asia

Returning to my first day back at work, my Chinese colleague turned round to me and exclaimed ‘You used to be so beautiful but then you went to the Philippines. Look at you. You’re so dark‘.


The worst part is that I’d deep down been waiting for her to say it. I’m so used to the common perception in this part of Asia. I just knew it was coming, and my other freshly tanned colleagues got exactly the same treatment. Which led me to basically exclaim when I got back home, ‘What the hell?!’

Why is white so beautiful in China?

Put simply, white is more beautiful in China because it signifies a higher economical status. Haven’t got a lot of money? You must be working in the fields…peasant…and that makes your skin brown and dirty. Sad but true.

I had exactly the same experience in South Korea and I can’t see this idea of ‘white = the best’ changing any time soon. As I think more and more about how important being white is around here, the examples of its prominence just keep coming up:

The number of skin whitening TV commercials going on here is significant. The foundation and make-up choices here are white as white. Black skin doesn’t even seem to be acknowledged here. My friends are being turned down for jobs – only when the employer finally saw them face-to-face: ‘You sounded white on the phone. Sorry you’re not what we’re looking for’. And as for the Asian ladies on the beach, I rarely seem them with a bikini on. They really don’t want that tan. They’re dressed up in their scarves and hats and covering themselves with floral umbrellas.

The white Western world plays its part too

Over in the Western world, we’re riding the same weird wave of skin colour preference: we just like it the other way. To us, brown and ‘sun-kissed’ is sexy. It makes us look thinner. We believe it makes us look more healthy and beautiful. Yeah that’s right; your white skin sucks.

Some people have even got to the point of tanorexia. Take Tan Mom for example. She really loves the orange look.  I can’t quite say we take it as far as our Asian friends, but we’re definitely buying into the idea that a certain skin colour is better.  I used to buy fake tan when I was younger, rubbing it into my dried elbows and knees.  We all know how that biscuit streaky bacon look turned out (I was a Willy Wonka Oompa Loompa).

I’ll leave you with a fantastic music video from local Shanghai expat band Round Eye. Their track ‘suntan’ rounds up this subject very nicely.

28 thoughts on “Racism in Asia: White skin and the Suntan”

  1. I’ve noticed the same thing in Taiwan. Whitening creams are everywhere. One of the convenience stores here has a long term deal on lotion with a whitening agent in it where if you buy enough products from the store they’ll give you a buy one get one free coupon for the lotion.

    Oh, and tangentially related but your post reminds me a little of Michelle Lee’s video “Without you”. From my perspective it’s shows us a little bit of her experience growing up in South Korea as a half-Korean, half-black person. There’s one scene where a girl meant to be the younger version of Lee attempts to cover her face in white powder. To me it was a really powerful video, especially after I read a bit more about her.

    • Wow thank you for sharing. I will definitely take a look at the video! You’re right, whitening lotions are everywhere. In fact, it’s hard to buy most products without whitening in it!

  2. I second the comment about Taiwan. I actually have no problem with the Chinese and Taiwanese notions of beauty of whiter is beautiful (I like big butts, and I cannot lie). It’s when that notion dictates other cultural beliefs. “White is beautiful, dark is ugly” morphs into “white is desirable, dark is undesirable,” which morphs into “White is good, dark is bad.” I agree with you. This isn’t going to change anytime soon. Nice post.

  3. This may not be a phenomenon just in Asia, as my ex-wife who was from Gambia had tried, with some of her friends, whitening creams. I am sad at the thought that some people, especially women, need to change their appearance to conform to the expectations of others.

    • Mmm it can turn into a viscious circle – people start to do it to look like others, then more people do it to ‘fit in’, whereas if no one had started in the first place, people would just be who they truly are

  4. Wow, I had no idea that white skin was treated favorably in China and you’d get such a strong reaction for a tan. I’m hoping to get to the Philippines in a couple of months though and intend on getting a nice tan myself :)

  5. Wow, I had no idea about this, but then again I never went to China :-) In Western Europe we always try to be “politically correct”, but it doesn’t even look like they are trying to hide it in China! A bit worrying…

  6. How very interesting. We noticed this too when we lived in Japan. And at any outing, our fair skinned children were mobbed by locals who wanted pictures with them.

    • You will definitely get asked to take a lot of photos on The Bund in Shanghai too ^^ When I got my university job in Korea, people were surprised as I had less experience and qualifications than others who had succeeded before. I’m an intelligent and educated women but I made the joke that it was because of my skin and blonde hair. I hate to admit it but maybe there really was some truth in that, regardless of how well I taught.

  7. It is the same way in Japan. Whitening creams, powders in every drug store. I live in Okinawa and always get strange looks from Japanese people when I am in a bikini on the beach and they are covered head to toe under and umbrella in 95 degree weather with a 100% humidity.

  8. When I went to Hong Kong for some courses, my girl colleagues told me I was pretty because of my narrow nose (I don’t like my nose though!!) and my skin was so white. And when I told them that I prefer to be tan, they were a bit amazed. I guess they didn’t see me tan to judge whether I would be uglier or not :)

  9. I remember the fist time I saw this and couldn’t believe it. That was in 1991 and the whitening phenom was in high gear. It all comes back to the fact that we always want to be what we aren’t…at least a fairly sizable chunk of the population.

  10. Great post Alice, it’s impossible not to notice this subject in Asia. I dread having to buy new body lotion when I’m there, moisturiser, deodorant (who the heck wants bleached armpits?!) as it’s so hard to get non-whitening ones.
    I met a gorgeous Vietnamese girl, a friend of a friend, in South Vietnam and she went on and on about my ‘beautiful’ pale skin: my pasty, red, blotchy, acned, moley skin. I’d swap it with her in a moment if I could! Hahaha!
    It really is a mixed up world!

  11. Lovely post, Teacake!

    Sadly, Egypt has the same problem. All my friends there used skin bleaching creams, as lighter= more attractive. They couldn’t understand why I dyed my hair black when it used to be light brown.

    I just wish women would realize what mainstream media is doing to them.. all that effort and money you spend on your appearance, can be spent on something that makes you so much happier.

    It is unfortunate that many women feel like their value is based on their appearance.

    Fortunately for me, in Egypt, slender women are not the ideal beauty. The more I weighed, the more beautiful I became. LOL!

    • Haha here’s to drinking a lot of tea and eating a hell of a lot of cake! I absolutely agree with you that all of that money could be spent on an amazing adventure instead. Thank you for sharing your experiences in Egypt!

  12. This is so true, and a disheartening part of Asia. We were talking about trees in my first grade class yesterday and one of my Japanese students said that trees are for shade so girls’ skin won’t get dark. It was a serious WTF teaching moment. Who taught him that?!

    Also had to comment because my friend Alessio shot and directed that Round Eye video. Love their stuff! Small world :)

  13. I would trade pasty white for golden tan any day, that whole whitening cream thing is truly scary. Colonialism ideals passed down from generation to generation I suppose. I stock up on tubs of normal lotions when I find them :D Although it might be tempting to experiment on one leg to see if it works.
    Oh, did you know Jodie Foster was the original Coppertone tan icon? I think they even used her as the model for the logo. :P

    • Ha you’re so funny! I never knew about Jodie Foster either >< Would love you to experiment on one leg: you could make money from that you know - scientific cosmetic testing and all that!

  14. That’s crazy, I hate the preference westerns have on tanned people and belive me I’m tanned I live in the south of Portugal 5min from the beach, but I don’t get it! I hate to see all the tourists from the UK getting sunburned just to get tanned or even worse, traveling to Portugal just to get some color! Smart people don’t give a sh*t about your color, grow up :D But I had no idea about this other side of the coin, thank you for letting me know, interesting post!

    • The British population’s fascination with being tanned is certainly an interesting one! I USED to put on fake tan but quickly realised I liked my skin for what it is…essentially, the bottom line is, love your skin, love yourself and don’t judge anyone else for what colour they are!

  15. well the whitening craze is same in all over Asia or should I say all over the world..its a dream for majority of brown people..
    India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Middle East, SEA, China, Japan, Korea, Egypt, Morocco, Africa..in fact more than 60%population of the world wants fairer skin tone..

    Its a multi bullion industry in Asia..and people go to any length for fairer skin..some times in even risking their lives..


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