What Makes You Different from Others: Colorism in Asian Culture

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 1379 |

Pages: 3|

7 min read

Published: Aug 4, 2023

Words: 1379|Pages: 3|7 min read

Published: Aug 4, 2023

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Asian Pop Culture: Beyond K-Pop
  3. Colorism: Different Treatment of People of Color
  4. Colorism Ideology and Media Globalization
  5. The Issue of Skin Lightening
  6. Conclusion
  7. References


Even though my strict Asian parents brought me up with an Easternized parenting style, I consumed mostly Western media throughout my childhood thanks to the monthly subscription of cable tv. I grew up watching American shows, listening to English pop music from the American Billboard charts, and even wearing apparel from popular American brands like Levi’s. Hence I grew up believing Western cultures are much more superior than Eastern cultures. Don’t get me wrong, I was still embracing my identity as Asian by following the Malay cultural norms like eating traditional Malay delicacies but I secretly enjoy eating at Western fast food restaurants like Mcdonalds or Pizza Hut once in a while because I just find it cooler.

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Asian Pop Culture: Beyond K-Pop

So when I first found out about this module I had no cohesive understanding of what constitutes Asian popular culture. Naturally, the first assumption that came to my mind was the “K-Pop’’ mania which has become a phenomenon across Asia and now globally. Well, I’m not wrong but I’m not entirely right either because the Korean wave is an integral part of Asian popular culture. Through my initial study of this course, it is interesting to know how the Korean wave has surpassed Western ideals in terms of music, food, and even beauty. Alas, Asian popular culture is not limited to only Korean products.

Colorism: Different Treatment of People of Color

As I dive further into the course, I begin to understand Asian pop culture as an accumulation of cultural products or practices from Asia that are widely consumed by the majority of a society's population. In other words, it acts as a societal truth. I thought long and hard before I could derive an Asian popular topic that I could relate with the most. And that topic is colorism. Colorism is an example of popular cultural practice in Asia that still exists to this very day. Colorism is a form of racial discrimination in which people are treated differently based on the social meanings attached to skin color. It is evident in Asia where there is an abundance of whitening products available on supermarket shelves and mass media advertisements promoting skin lightening.

The reason why I could relate to it is mostly because I too experienced discrimination due to my skin color. I grew up as a tan-skinned Asian girl. Throughout my childhood, I got pointed out for my skin color by friends and family members. I often get remarks that I am different from my fair-skinned siblings. I was told to stay out of the sun as much as possible and to start applying whitening products. I could not understand their fixation on fair skin then because historically I learned Malay as a race known to have medium to chestnut brown skin tones so I took no interest in their comments. However slowly as I mature I succumbed to pressure and started purchasing whitening products and began practicing a beauty regime at the tender age of 14 in hopes to become fairer. When I turned 16, I received comments from people around me I had become “fairer” and “prettier”. Based on the tone of their voice I knew they meant it as an achievement for me and I have surpassed their standard of beauty.

Colorism Ideology and Media Globalization

Through this course, I find that the origins of this ideology of “whiter is better” stems from the racist histories of colonialism and imperialism in Asia. Even though Asian countries are no longer colonized by Western nations, the effects still remain. For centuries, skin tone has been used to identify social class all across Asia (Glenn 2009). Fair skin is a sign of beauty, implying higher social and economic status. Those who worked outdoors, such as manual laborers and farmers had darker skin and is identified as being in a lower socioeconomic class. Conversely, fair skin became an indicator of an affluent life spent indoors. In other words, to be light-skinned is to be rich, while to be dark-skinned is to be poor. I noted that this ideology is still deeply rooted in our Asian culture based on the exchanges and comments I received from the people around me.

Now media globalization is fast spreading this ideology. Media globalization refers to the worldwide integration of media through the cross-cultural exchange of ideas. I now witness mass media aiding and abetting the colorism ideology by portraying distinctions between races and ethnic groups. Hollywood movies in the West often ‘portray darker skin people as lower class, dirty, and evil, while white or light skin people are depicted as morally purer, better educated, more intelligent, and cleaner’ (Li et al. 2008).

The Issue of Skin Lightening

The 2018 Hollywood movie blockbuster “Crazy Rich Asians” perpetuate this notion. In the movie, the cast mainly consisted of light-skinned East Asians playing glamorous and wealthy Chinese characters. On the other hand, a handful of brown Asians are playing service roles like guards and maids to the Chinese family. Personally, it is upsetting to know that such ideology is still present and practiced in the mass media, especially at a global level. Such media portrayals perpetuate the existing racial stereotype that ‘being fair-skinned is much superior to the dark-skinned’ amongst the audience in Asia and even internationally. This could be the reason why the movie was badly received by the minorities in Singapore who did not feel that they were portrayed and represented correctly in the movie.

But it does not stop there. Skin lightening has been incorporated into transnational cultural flows. In this case where culture moves beyond national boundaries through the export of capital and goods. The obsession with whiter skin has successfully generated a multibillion-dollar industry encompassing not just cosmetic whitening creams but invasive procedures such as skin bleaching. International cosmetic giants like L’oreal and Unilever have capitalized on this market by using advertisements and different marketing strategies to fuel the desire for light skin amongst consumers. These companies further amplify their agenda by tapping on current beauty trends and using celebrity endorsements.

These companies create advertisements often targeting to women, injecting the colorism ideology to show how being darker skin means you are losing out in life. In 2002, Unilever ran a commercial for Pond’s skin-lightening cream. The commercial showed a Malay college student who was unable to get a second glance from the boy sitting next to her; but after using the cream and appearing to achieve skin tone several shades lighter, she manages to get the boy’s attention (Prystay, 2002).

Unfortunately I, like many other women have fallen prey to such unethical marketing gimmicks. It does not help that some of my favorite Asian celebrities have endorsed whitening products by appearing in such advertisements. They are portrayed to be more desirable and attractive to men due to their fair skin. Thinking back, some of these celebrities are naturally born with fair skin or have pan-Asian features because of their mixed racial backgrounds. It is very unethical of them to endorse whitening products when they are already fair-skinned yet as a consumer I still choose to believe that the skin-lightening products did wonders on them hence it will work the same for me too. That shows how powerful media and celebrities are in conveying ideologies and influencing cross-cultural desires in Asia.

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The topic of colorism as an Asian popular culture made me understand that ongoing racial stereotypes that exist in our daily interaction with family and friends do not appear on their own. The ideology is actually the by-product of colonialism and imperialism that have existed in Asia for centuries and it is deeply ingrained in our minds. However, media globalization and transnational cultural flows have played major roles in further aggravating the notion through repeated media portrayals. Hence, as a Public Relations student, it is important for me to be able to identify aspects of Asian culture and be aware of how dominant ideology can be constructed and negotiated in the media.  


  1. Glenn, Evelyn Nakano. 'Yearning for Lightness: Transnational Circuits in the Marketing and Consumption of Skin Lighteners.' Gender & Society, vol. 22, no. 3, 2008, pp. 281-302.
  2. Li, Yinuo, et al. 'Beauty Ideals in the Modern East Asian Context.' Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, vol. 7, no. 3, 2008, pp. 190-193.
  3. Prystay, Cris. 'Pond's Lightens Skin, Sponsors Education.' The Wall Street Journal, 2002.
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What Makes You Different from Others: Colorism in Asian Culture. (2023, August 04). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 25, 2024, from
“What Makes You Different from Others: Colorism in Asian Culture.” GradesFixer, 04 Aug. 2023,
What Makes You Different from Others: Colorism in Asian Culture. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 25 Feb. 2024].
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