“I love white,” began the commercial. “White is clean. White is pure. White is beautiful.”
I stared at my laptop disgusted by the blatant discrimination in the ad as I watched a light-skinned Asian actress grace my screen, proudly showing off her “whiter, healthier, younger-looking” skin thanks to a skin-whitening cream which promised, “Whiter skin in 14 days”.
When I first began researching skin-whitening products and their marketing campaigns, it was to gain insight into Studio Theatre’s current production White Pearl, which centers on a Pan-Asian cosmetics firm doing damage control after an ad campaign for skin-whitening cream goes awry. Before long, I found myself sucked into a world of light-skinned models and products that promised to “reduce the dark spots” on my face and “even skin tone.” Regardless of the country from which they originated, the message in all of the ads was the same: Whiter is better.
But, “Can you be too white?” This is the loaded question that playwright Anchuli Felicia King strategically asks in her play. With White Pearl, King tackles the topic of race and colorism head-on and examines the destructive power of social media marketing and the toxicity of Whiteness.
Though White Pearl may be the first play of its kind to challenge ideals sold through skin-whitening products, the practice itself isn’t a recent fad. As I dove deeper into my research, I learned that skin-lightening as a global phenomenon took off in the 19th century as a result of Western Imperialism. Colonizers brought skin-lightening creams to the countries they settled as a method of maintaining their white complexion in tropical environments. They soon began peddling skin-lightening products to darker, indigenous peoples as a way to attain status through “Whiteness.” Centuries later, skin-whitening has evolved into a multibillion-dollar industry, one that is projected to reach a global market of 31.2 billion U.S. dollars by the year 2024.
It’s fitting that King uses an international cosmetics firm as the setting for a story that heavily scrutinizes the effects of colorism on society. What White Pearl does well is highlight how poisonous the struggle to attain and maintain Whiteness can be. By focusing the plot on an industry that owes its success to the shaming of people of color around the world, King shamelessly shows the uglier side to beauty and investigates ways in which communities of color continue to perpetuate the toxic ideals of Eurocentric beauty standards.
While the circumstances that influenced White Pearl occur throughout the world, I was curious to know how its approach to race and colorism would impact an American audience. In a country like the US, where views on race are polarized and focus primarily on White versus Black American experiences, the Asian community finds itself in a particularly difficult position having been labeled by many Americans as “Model Minorities”— a term long associated with near-Whiteness, but was in reality a myth constructed as a “racial wedge between Asians” and other minority communities in the States.
American media often portrays Asians as a singular ethnic identity. But the reality is that Asian and Asian-American identities are complicated. We are a diverse community of people whose families have immigrated from a continent consisting of nearly fifty nations. We are not homogenous as American culture would prefer to believe.
Growing up Filipinx in America, I learned early on that I would never fully fit into American society as it expected or preferred. Because I was born in an Asian nation, my identity as a Filipinx child was gradually reduced to generic “Asian”. However, the American media I consumed communicated to me that as a “morena” or “dark-skinned” Filipinx, I was lacking. I wasn’t White, I wasn’t Black and I was too brown as an Asian. My darker complexion and Filipinx ethnicity made it impossible for me to assimilate into American culture, not just as an Asian, but as a person.
When it comes to representation, American media is just as ostracizing and discriminatory as the skin-whitening campaigns White Pearl aims to criticize. Despite growing demands for diverse representation in popular culture and the success of Asian-centric films and television shows such as Crazy Rich Asians and Fresh Off The Boat (which was recently canceled), the truth is we’re still lacking in honest Asian and Asian-American representation. Through White Pearl, King insists her audience — American or otherwise — consider the topics of race, colorism, and identity from the perspective of the Asian experience.
It’s refreshing to see a cast of characters that reflects more accurately the diaspora of Asian identity, one that is far more diverse and complicated than the “Model Minority” myth propagated by American culture. Through six very different female leads, White Pearl argues that our proximity to Western influence and Whiteness plays a much deeper role in defining our identities and informs the ways in which we view one another.
But productions of White Pearl need to be extremely vigilant when addressing mainland Asian sentiments toward the Black community. As a dark comedy, this a risky script to stage because if the jokes don’t land it becomes nothing more than a play featuring a bunch of racist Asian women screaming at each other. The plot itself lacks a much-needed reconciliation between the characters and their differing viewpoints, especially regarding their opinions on Black people. At best, the mention of Black culture might be viewed as a tool to guide a controversial story into finding a meaningful resolution; at worst, it could be interpreted as a weapon with which to carve out conflict, something that needs to be avoided when presented in a country where tensions between Asian and Black communities continue to run high.
I hope to see more plays as unconventional as White Pearl in the near future. It’s brazen, inappropriate and nuanced in its confrontation of race and colorism. Though it isn’t perfect, it certainly is a much-needed addition to an extremely convoluted conversation and a culture that is profoundly lacking in Asian representation. Perhaps, with productions such as this in mainstream media, we can begin to shift our society’s views on identity in a more positive direction.