Skin Routes – The Racialised Contours of Filipino Flesh


As a Filipina, I was brought up with stories about the ‘fatherland’.  The myth of this superior fatherland was articulated in many ways: in how my family emphasised the beauty of my grandmothers’ Spanish heritage (her father was Castilian Spanish), and the tendency to promote Spanish colonialism simply as a ‘good’ thing for Filipinos. Although most of my family had migrated to the US from the Philippines, and despite my mother and me migrating to Australia, our family gives precedence to Spain over our adopted or natal countries. Even when meeting other Filipinos, many assert their Spanish ancestry without mentioning other ethnicities that compose the routes of their blood-lines. The politics of inclusion/exclusion that position what gets announced and what gets silenced gestures towards Castilian colonial history and its segregation of people. Further, this positioning reveals the idealisation of a ‘mixed’ identity: one that merges white with brown. Such an identity is named mestiza (for women) and mestizo (for men). While both signify a racial mix between a Filipino and another ‘race’, these terms are dominantly used to signify white American or European ancestry.

The normalised practice of skin-bleaching in the Philippines and across the diaspora highlights this mestiza/o idealisation. Filipino sari-sari stores in Sydney sell products that whiten the flesh and rid the body of its darkness. Coupled with warnings against getting darker from Filipinos, this constant decree against brownness haunts how my skin can be and become.

But sounds of dissent are increasing. American-Filipino hip-hop group, Deep Foundation vocalise the preference for a white, western aesthetic as a legacy of Spanish colonialism and its attendant racial preferences. Kiwi and CJ (the members of the group who rap specifically about this) critique this idealisation by emphasising how normalised it is within the Philippines and its diaspora. In their words: ‘The colonized mind, the remnant of Spain…Our notion of beauty needs to be changed. The Spanish are gone but the mindset still remains. White people conquered our country and changed our religion. Gave us their systems, imposed their way of living. To them we were inferior, join me and disagree. I am brown, I am proud, Filipino this is we’.

Their observations lay bare the immense influence mestiza and mestizo identities have in shaping the legitimacy of Filipinos, so much so that to be recognised as mestiza or mestizo connotes success. This normalised mestiza/o benchmark frames what can be recognised as authentically ‘Filipino’. CJ and Kiwi chart this mode of authenticity through positioning mestiza and mestizo whiteness as an identity and aesthetic that Filipinos need to work at to attain. Conversely, being ‘brown’ is promoted as ‘naturally’ Pinoy. ‘Brown’ is what needs to be re-claimed as one’s own Filipino flesh. However, in discoursing brownness and mestiza/o whiteness in this manner, other racialised identities are elided. Blackness, for instance, is not mentioned in CJ and Kiwi’s articulation of Filipino identity. Here, the black-coloured skins of Filipinos are removed from the sphere of ‘authentic’ Filipino identity. Within such logic, Filipinos with black skin are not considered as Filipino at all.

This failure to recognise blackness as constituting the bounds of Filipino identity can be evidenced through the reception of Apl de Ap (Alan Pineda, one of the members of the hip-hop group The Black Eyed Peas) by many Filipinos. Before Apl de Ap began to sing and rap in Tagalog and appear on television to talk about his Filipino heritage, many Filipinos assumed that the Filipino member of the group was Taboo, a light-skinned Mexican-American. To cite an example from my own family: some of my cousins and I were talking about how exciting it was that there was a Filipino in The Black Eyed Peas. We all thought that the Filipino was Taboo. To this, another cousin entered the discussion and declared to the rest of us  that the Filipino member of the group was Apl de Ap, a member of the group who looked African-American.  . My cousin’s declaration was met with laughter and disbelief. We were certain that Apl de Ap  couldn’t be Filipino. How could he? He was black. To us, Filipino did not equate to blackness and an assertion that it could was met with extreme doubt. So much so that all of us went on internet search engines to verify my cousin’s claim. The fact that my cousin even had to announce this is telling. His declaration was set up like a revelation and not pointing out something that could be easily discerned. What this demonstrates is that black skin as Filipino skin is not only unrecognised but not spoken about as ‘normal’.

CJ and Kiwi’s rap positions mestiza/o white as the counterpoint to Filipino brown. While this challenges the dominant hold mestiza/o whiteness has on Filipino societies and cultures, it unwittingly replicates this dominance. The normalisation of a desirable mestiza/o identity effaces other racial mixes. Brown and white become the identities in focus, so much so that even when CJ and Kiwi blatantly speak against mestizo and mestiza hegemony, they do so through reductive channels. These cannot account for the multiple, rhizomatic strands of Filipino flesh and the different kinds of Filipino skins we live with and through in our everyday lives.

Elaine Marie Laforteza

Author: Elaine Marie Laforteza

Elaine Laforteza teaches in the School of Communication in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney. Her new book, The Somatechnics of Whiteness and Race: Colonialism and Mestiza Privilege is now available through Routledge (ISBN: 9781472453075). She has also volunteered for the not-for-profit organisation, Gawad Kalinga (GK), which aims to eradicate poverty. Since 2002, she has written for the Filipino-Australian newspaper, The Philippine Community Herald on topics that examine embodiment and identity politics, particularly in the context of Type 1 diabetes, Australian multiculturalism and community development. She has also published in academic journals on the topics of race, colonialism and Asian-Australian relations, particularly in context to Filipino-Australians. For her work on merging academic research with community activism, she has been awarded the ‘Distinguished Service, Young Alumni’ award from Macquarie University (2011), and a ‘Global Filipino Youth Award for Academics/Education’ from Global Filipinos Australia (2008).

5 thoughts on “Skin Routes – The Racialised Contours of Filipino Flesh”

  1. Interesting and telling that your cousin had no problems accepting the more white-looking Taboo as the Filipino BEP member.

    Regarding where blackness fits (or doesn’t fit) into the spectrum of Filipino identity, I immediately wondered about the Negrito Aeta, who are the true indigenous people of the Philippines. Little wonder that they are so marginalised in a society where lightness is prized.
    I’ve heard so many Filipinos speak proudly of the country’s mixed heritage, and also read that Filipinos tend to overstate the degree of Spanish admixture in their population. So it seems like mixing is celebrated, just as long as it’s the “right” kind of mixing.

    At the same time, is Spanish colonialism the main factor in the preference for light skin? This preference occurs all over Asia and is tied in with class prejudices (dark skin being associated with peasantry and working outdoors). So perhaps the Spanish influence was merely a reinforcing factor, overlaid onto a culture that already had its own inherent colourism?

  2. thanks for your comments ‘eurasian sensation’.

    also, like you, i don’t think it was simply spanish colonialism which entrenched this racialising/colour caste system. i do think that what spanish colonial governance did do was idealise a certain racial mix (european-white with “brown” indio) which does merge with notions of class.

    while there are many kinds of mestizo/a people, the mestizo/a that does get idealised and becomes an aspirational figure is this white euro/american and “brown” filipino mix, rather than a “brown” mix with Chinese or other Asian ancestry. So while Spanish influence was a reinforcing factor, it was also a factor that created and sustained a specific type of idealised mestiza/o identity, one that is specific to the Philippines and its diaspora.

    Like you wrote, other ‘Asian’ nations also embrace this light-skin colour preference (and this also contributes to current notions of beauty in the Philippines and for Filipinos), but the influence of Spanish colonialism ensures that (for example) if there were two filipinos who are as light as each other, the one that would get more praise for their “beauty” is the one that fits a normative model of European beauty, rather than “Asian” beauty. Also, while light-coloured skin in this context is lauded because it connotes a higher class position, a Euro/American lighteness still takes precedence.

  3. yes, and you’re right about the Negrito Aetas. During Castilian colonialism, they weren’t even considered under the category of indio (indigenous). So the indigenous Pinoys weren’t even “valued” enough to be part of the colonial economy and acknowledged as indigenous subjects!

  4. I am by no means well versed in what does or does not happen in the Philippines, but it seems like many of the celebrities and politicians/rich (seem to be the same thing pretty much) are often of Chinese decent. Mostly they have rather Spanish sounding names though. Together with the mestizos, they seem to be the dominant aspiration (or at least what they want people to aspire to) in the media over there. And, sadly, to the vast majority of the population, they are ideals that they can never live up to, simply because of their genes.

    In a way not surprising since I have seen statistics that ethnic Chinese families control a disturbingly vast share of the country’s wealth, and so their views, preferences and prejudices are likely to be prominently portrayed in the mainstream media. After all, money talks, and lots of money talks very loudly…

Your thoughts?