Last February, I’ve been invited to do a live question-and-answer online session for writers and industry professionals. I received great questions, but the one that really made me think is the one who asked me about my thoughts about the lack of children’s literature tackling Philippine post-colonial themes.
For one, the asker’s observation was true — there really are very, very few children’s books that tackle this topic. For another, it’s actually a topic that I believe should be discussed. Not just by kids, not just by Filipinos, not just by Asians… But by everyone.
Colorism as a result of post-colonialism may seem difficult to understand if you’re looking in from outside the Filipino culture. But I believe otherwise. Because when you really think about it, it’s more a question of “are you willing to understand?” instead of “do you understand?”
Allow me to explain. Colorism is, by definition, discrimination based on skin color that’s usually from members of the same race. It’s basically saying Filipinos discriminate against fellow Filipinos.
Now, when you put that idea in context of a culture where you are used to being with people of your own race to protect yourselves from discrimination by people of other races, it doesn’t make any sense. In your world, people of color band together to uplift each other. But here’s this Filipino author who tells you that Filipinos have a tendency to throw each other under the bus, and writes a character who seemingly has “white envy” just because her country was colonized by Spain and the US. Like, why should history be blamed for this character’s insecurity? It’s so confusing!
It’s actually very simple — you just need to open your mind to the idea that certain things are done differently in cultures outside your own. Spain colonized the Philippines for 333 years, then sold our country to the United States (via the Treaty of Paris) who in turn colonized us for another 48 years. Our Spanish and American colonizers instilled upon us the idea that white is beautiful, brown is not. Our Spanish colonizers even had a tax system in place where “natives” pay bigger taxes even though we did more of the work, while those with “white blood” pay less, and those who are “pure white” pay next to nothing or none at all.
Surely, things are different now, aren’t they? Not really. Those centuries of being a colony has become part of what we now know of the Filipino culture. We’ve adapted Spanish food and names, American education… There are a lot of good things we’ve “inherited” from our colonizers, but at the same time, we are left with the scars of this colonized past. We retain certain quirks and thinking, colorism and colonial mentality included.
Now, I know this is sounding too theoretical, so allow me to tell you some personal experiences.
I was around eight or nine years old when my grandmother threw a brunch at her home for her friends. I remember overhearing one of my grandma’s friends say, “your granddaughter… Worst of her parents… Dark skin from the father. Flat nose from the mother.” Needless to say, I never saw that friend again until my grandmother’s funeral.
My grandma’s nasty friend did tell the truth, albeit in a terrible way. I do have dark skin and my nose is flat, while my cousins have light skin and high-bridged noses. I studied at an all-girls private school, surrounded by rich and not-as-dark-as-me classmates. As an athlete, I was never directly bullied, but I never really felt I belonged.
And things like this didn’t just happen in my childhood, mind you. A few years ago, I stumbled upon a thread on social media where white and half-white expats were proudly sharing their experiences of getting out of traffic violations after they used their whiteness and English proficiency to intimidate Filipino traffic enforcers. There were brown Filipinos (I knew they were brown because I have seen them personally) who applauded these whites and half-whites in the very same thread.
I once tried to open a dollar account at a bank, but I was denied even though I had more than the minimum deposit requirement and maintaining balance. The fair-skinned woman after me, who had less than I had and never opened a bank account at that branch unlike I have, was allowed and was even graciously entertained by the light-skinned teller. Long story short, I opened an account at a different branch. And because I was petty, I went back to that bank and asked for a balance inquiry from the same teller — she was so surprised, but not the least bit ashamed for dissing me the last time.
These stories are just a few I have experienced. I have more to tell. Sadly, other brown-skinned Filipinos like me have their own colorism stories to tell, too. Putting light-skinned folks on a pedestal is sadly a reality we live with — and still live with. There may be some marketing push for “loving your brown skin” on social media, but as long as we still have these rows upon rows of skin whiteners in stores, we are far from outgrowing this mentality.
Which brings me back to children’s literature. I write middle grade, so my reading audience is usually from ages eight to twelve — the formative years. The years in a person’s life when they are still usually unmarred by internal biases.
I believe it’s the perfect time for kids to learn about colorism and colonial mentality. Books can open their eyes to this seemingly “un-Western” constructs, which is why I make sure to include them in my stories. All. The. Time. I want kids who will encounter these ideas for the first time to understand that there is a world beyond their own — different, but the same. That they may have privilege but never know it, and actually do something about it once they recognize it. Because being complacent with privilege makes you a part of the problem, and we sorely need the future adults of this world to be not part of the issues we’ve been battling for years.
At the same time, discussing colorism and post-colonial mentality can also open the eyes of kids who are living this reality — brown kids who are made to feel less by the society because of their skin color. They need to know they matter; they don’t need light skin to be important too.
I remember seeing the cover of My Fate According to the Butterfly for the first time. I cried at the thought of the Filipino kids who would see Sab on the cover, and think to themselves, “that’s me.”
Would I have felt more beautiful had I seen a cover like this when I was a kid myself? I don’t know. Maybe. But one thing’s for sure: seeing a cover with a prominently featured Filipino girl with dark skin and flat nose would have assured me that yes, even someone who looks like me can be a hero/heroine in their own story. It would have told me that I can be in the spotlight too, even if I don’t have light skin and a high-bridged nose.
While we regretfully have very few books that tackle these issues, and most times it feels like a losing battle, but seeing a kid feel represented in my story makes the challenges totally worth it. I can only speak for myself so I’ll say this: I will continue writing about our truths — our Filipino truths — as long as I’m able to. That’s a promise.
Augvocate for the Day
Gail D. Villanueva is a Filipino author born and based in the Philippines. She’s also a web designer, an entrepreneur, and a graphic artist. She loves pineapple pizza, seafood, and chocolate, but not in a single dish together (eww). Gail and her husband live in the outskirts of Manila with their dogs, ducks, turtles, cats, and one friendly but lonesome chicken. My Fate According to the Butterfly (Scholastic Press, 30 July 2019) is her debut novel — add this book on Goodreads and purchase a copy via Amazon or Book Depository.
This guest post is part of a month-long collaborative series called Augvocacy, which is shorthand for August with an advocacy. Essentially, this project aims to bring together like-minded individuals — be it bloggers, authors, or readers — in actively forwarding a particular advocacy. All contributors to this project are referred to as Augvocates — and each Augvocate will share their thoughts on my blog from the 1st day of August until the 28th. Find the rest of the Augvocacy 2019 posts here.
For this year, Augvocacy hopes to discuss and encourage the importance of amplifying Asian voices in books and in media. While this particular call brings attention to the oftentimes-ignored demand for more authentic Asian representation, it also aims to debunk the bigoted view that Asian cultures are a monolith and to shed light on the nuances of struggle, privilege, and identity within and across our own communities. Learn more about Augvocacy 2019 in this post.
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I’d love to hear from you!
🌻 Do you agree with Gail’s points? What are your thoughts on colorism and colonial mentality? Are these huge problems that are prevalent in your country?
🌻 Do you think it’s beneficial to discuss the realities of colorism and colonial mentality in children’s literature? Particularly to a Middle Grade audience?
🌻 Aside from children’s literature, do you believe that these themes should also be tackled in other popular media, such as, films and television shows?