We are in the midst of summer. The temperatures are high (for the most part), the sun is shining, and the water is tempting. Summer also has routinely been synonymous with tanning and tan lines. (This is not to overlook or disregard the importance of sunscreen). At the same time, my impending visit to Korea means I must grapple with skin color politics. In Korea, the valorization of light, pale skin makes my tan, dark skin automatically foreign—exacerbating differences already produced by my adoptee status.
I hear the internalized logic of pale skin amongst Korean adoptees who joke about “being good Korean girls” with pale, light skin, covered up in the summer to avoid the sun’s beaming rays. What does it mean when “being a good Korean girl” is tied to light skin? How do we grapple with the ways in which colorism is alive and well?
Colorism is not solely Black or White. We know this. Or at least we should know this. Colorism is evident in Asian countries where advertisements promote skin lightening or whitening regimens or creams.
For the uninitiated, in the US we most often hear colorism associated within the Black community. Colorism valorizes whiteness and perpetuates skin tone stratification. J.N. Salters writes, “this system of discrimination that privileges light skin, Anglo features, and “good hair,” is a remnant of slavery, embedded in America’s consciousness since the antebellum period.” To this end, Trina Jones notes, “Given the critical role of skin color in racial classification, it is not surprising that the color hierarchy in the United States generally tracks the racial hierarchy. The lighter one is the more desirable one is deemed to be. Conversely, the darker one’s skin tone, the more negative are the stereotypes and biases projected onto one’s person.”
Addressing the broader, worldwide implications of the lightness obsession, Evelyn Nakano Glenn states,
The production and marketing of [skin lightening] products that offer the prospect of lighter, brighter, whiter skin has become a multi-billion-dollar global industry. Skin lightening has been incorporated into transnational flows of capital, goods, people, and culture.
In her article, Nakano Glenn explores the histories of colorism within various global communities. She finds that the origins often are rooted in racist histories of colonialism and imperialism as well as in countries or regions’ investments in the relationship between pale skin and socioeconomic standing—the assumption being that if one is a laborer, one is darker.
I begin with an overview of colorism because we tend to overlook how conversations about color and skin tone shape Asian adoptees’ understandings of self. And, when your parents are white, they’re often underprepared for the politics of skin color when white folks—mainly women—historically and, arguably, continually strive to get a “healthy glow” through tanning year after year. As a result, when you’re a Korean adoptee growing up in white American culture, you never think getting “too dark” is a possibility; rather, it’s a question of, “How does my tan look?”
Ever since I can remember, I always tanned easily. (This is not to say that I don’t use sunscreen, I do.) My mom always retells the story of how walking home from elementary school with a hole in my jeans resulted in me getting a tiny little circular tan on my leg. The walk was maybe fifteen minutes long. This ability to get tan also garnered supportive nods from my friends growing up, because who wasn’t trying to get tan in the ‘90s and early ‘00s? Remember, we were coming of age in the era of MTV Spring Break—for better or for worse—and the term fake and bake was just entering popular culture parlance. We need to remember there was a time when baby oil ruled the summer.
In college, a Korean American, non-adoptee friend of mine made it clear that perhaps being tan wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. I remember her excitedly discussing her pale, Snow White skin, how her skin was almost translucent. I distinctly remember sitting in her dorm room our sophomore year as she showed off her milky white complexion. My understanding of the value of lightness began to take shape after this encounter.
|L to R (clockwise): The author in Korea
in 2007, 2010, 2013, 2011
By the time I first set foot in Seoul in summer 2007, I had learned more about the value of pale, light skin in South Korea. That visit and a subsequent trip in 2010 rendered me Other—unintelligible as a Korean or even gyopo. In fact, 2010 saw me argue with an ahjussi about being Korean—I clearly lost the argument—and me be asked by an ahjumma if I was from “Africa.” It was not until I returned to live in Jeonju (summer 2011) that I was finally read as Korean. I honestly attribute this to two factors: 1) I wasn’t in Seoul; 2) I finally was learning some basic Korean (and rocked an awesome success perm). That summer made me become more comfortable claiming my space as an adopted Korean and as someone who finally was read as Korean. To become legible in a place where my Koreanness was somehow less because I was tan highlights how my body and I existed in the middle of skin color politics.
When I passed as Korean—in Angel-in-Us Coffee near the Chonbuk National University campus—I was ecstatic inside. Between this moment and when I communicated with my taxi driver with relative ease in Seoul that summer, I could not have been happier. I became a legible Korean subject—one that could pass, even if my language skills and Korean cultural competency remain lacking. For me, the simple fact that my physiognomy allowed me to be read as Korean was enough—and I’ve made my peace with being functionally illiterate in Korean and on a continual learning curve about the nuances of Korean culture.
Yet when all is said and done, and while these previous experiences solidified my feeling of home in Korea, this doesn’t erase or elide nervousness about showing up to see my family with my summer tan.
I first met my birth family in December 2013. It was winter. I was a lighter. A year later, I see them in September 2014. I was slightly darker that time, but still light enough where my color didn’t cause too much of a conversation. In fact, I remember a piecing together a conversation between my Korean dad and sister about the fact that my makeup was so natural that he didn’t think I had any on—I’m took this as a compliment. Why read more into something, when it seems so nice lost in translation? Last year, I saw them in August. With a cooler summer spent mainly indoors, at conferences, or traveling, I was still light.
This visit is rolling around the corner. I fly out at the end of July. I’m spending time with my Korean mother and father’s families. I am about ten times darker than anytime they’ve seen me. At least, I feel that way. Honestly, I’m probably just as dark as I was in 2007 and 2010.
I don’t fear rejection. What I fear are the comments. The “you are so dark” comments. The “why aren’t you wearing ahjumma arm sleeves and visor” comments. (Okay, they probably won’t make the latter of the two comments.)
I knew at the outset of this summer that this was not going to be the summer that I finally stayed out of the sun or the summer where I would wear long sleeves and long pants and a sun hat. Sun screen, yes. But, extra precautions to appease—or potentially appease (after all we don’t know what, if anything, they will say)—my Korean family would not be taken. I was not going to become less of me. And yet, I’m writing and reflecting on this becoming a potential issue. I’m self conscious for something that may be a non-issue. For something that I can’t prepare for. For something that could all be an internal conversation I’m having here and in my head. And yet, I still write. Even if they say nothing, I am fully aware that my concerns about being marked Other are not unfounded. Colorism in Korean culture cannot be erased just like we cannot erase colorism from American culture.
What sparked this piece is an off-hand remark a female, Korean adoptee made jokingly about being a good Korean girl in her sunhat, sunglasses, and long-sleeved garments. Inside I cringed. On the outside, I smiled back with a small laugh—“Oh, those Koreans and their notions about paleness” the laugh signaled with jest. Nevertheless, on the inside I was still struck. Struck by how we as an adoptee community remain complicit in white supremacist, imperialist, and colonialist standards of beauty. How we perpetuate violent cycles of what is acceptable beauty. Where we denigrate darkness. When adoptees and adoptive parents repeat comments that underscore the valorization of white, light, and pale skin, we become complicit.
Don’t let anyone tell you or make you believe you are somehow less Korean because you don’t adhere to racist standards of beauty.
I’m not sure if I shared anything new or offered new insights on the issue. My intention is to disentangle colorism from a Black/White binary and to expose how internalized standards of beauty and assumptions concerning skin color impact adoptees.