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Light Skin, Dark Heart by Sambath Meas

Ads are borrowed from Khmer Magazines
Painting borrowed from Rath Muni’s facebook (not sure who the artist is)

While modern day Caucasians associate tanned skin with leisure time, globe-trotting, sportiness, and a healthy glow that comes with wealth and a higher social status, modern-day Cambodians associate pale skin with beauty, wealth, and higher social status (ABC Science).[1] Khmer people come in kmao (black), sra’em (tan), and sar (white). Skin color used to be irrelevant among Khmers. Thanks to the influence of the minority, the majority is now brainwashed into obsessing over two shades of color: black and white—believing that black is ugly and inferior while white is beautiful and superior. Colorism, to use Alice Walker’s term, has resurfaced from the colonial period and spread like wildfire in Cambodia.

After the slaughter of over one million of the Khmer population in the name of an egalitarian society, the socioeconomic, political, and historical disease of white supremacy from the days of French colonialism has returned with a vengeance. Only this time, it is being practiced by one group of Asians against another. With the on-going shamble of the Khmer Rouge (KR) trial, the presence of the “truth” seeking Cambodian Documentation Center, the unearthing of massive graves, and all of the genocidal short stories, plays, and memoirs that are coming out of the woodwork, one would think the current Cambodian society would be enlightened by what happened to the supercilious society of the past. Sadly, the only light that glows from them these days is mercury, one of the poisonous ingredients found in their whitening cream. That explains the memory loss or lapse in judgment. Perhaps, it is the lack of education or a society rules by corruption. But I digress.

Upon my first week of arrival in Cambodia (a bastardization of Kambuja), the greeting my parents and I received from my cousin Vanny was: “You’re so white; you’re so pretty.” First of all, referring to Asians as white might sound utterly ridiculous to Westerners. Secondly, such shallow adulation bothered me. Growing up in the states we, as a people and an educated society, are taught that it is wrong to judge a person by their skin color. Millions of African Americans and civil rights advocates were barbarically mutilated, lynched, tortured, and shot to death by people who thought they were superior. Native, Asian, and other nonwhite Americans were treated inhumanly as well. Today’s Americans, generally, have learned from these dark histories and atrocities. There is law, adopted in school, the workplace, and other institutions, preventing people from publicly uttering such words and displaying such attitudes. There is nothing wrong with having white skin, but at the same time, we simply don’t go around glorifying how pretty white skin is while degrading dark skin; but, unfortunately, in modern day Cambodia, this is the people’s new form of greeting: “Hi. You’re so white; you’re beautiful. I’m dark and ugly. I wish I had beautiful white skin like yours.” Or, “Ew, you’re so dark.”

Thirdly, if we have to define our skin color, my parents and I are sra’em. Upon hearing Vanny’s partiality to white skin, I turned to look at my parents with disappointed eyes. They gave me a don’t-blame-your-naive-cousin-it’s-the-Cambodian-society look. “She is a victim in all of this,” they later reminded me. I did not buy it. She was as much responsible for not wising up and for perpetuating this shallowness.

“For goodness sake, she’s a teacher,” I said.

“It’s Cambodia. That doesn’t mean anything,” said my father. No argument there.

Vanny, a niece of my father’s with skin like caramel and eyes like lotus petals, was so conditioned to see attractiveness in white skin when she was growing up that she is now blind to her own beauty. She often complains about being dark.

“You’re beautiful the way you are,” I reassured her.

“But I’m dark,” she said, ashamed.

I said, “Like my good friend once said to me, ‘Work with what you have.’ We’re all born with different shades of color and we’re all beautiful, each in our own way. As long as you wash your body with soap and your hair with shampoo, you’ll be clean, healthy, and beautiful. Skin color doesn’t determine your beauty, wealth, and intelligence. Regardless of what others say, you shouldn’t let it. Look at your two sons; look at those big, ebony eyes. They’re gorgeous and smart kids.”

Her big, dark eyes glazed over, like she did not hear a thing I said. “They’re dark. If only they had white skin.”

At this point, my eyes rolled to the back of my head. I thought to myself, “Convincing a rock would be easier.”

I get the same sentiment from my second cousin. I complimented him on his children and his response was: “I wish they had white skin like their mother.” His wife’s face perked up and beamed with pride. I turned to look at the little 4 and 5 year-old kids. They just sat there with doe eyes. I wondered if they understood any of this and what was going through their minds. Meanwhile, my outrage had gotten the best of me. Just like Vanny, he is a teacher. “Really?” I thought. “This is the mentality of a teacher? What a way to destroy your children’s self-worth and confidence!” I wanted to scream at him.

“Why don’t you turn on the light next time?” my father asked. Everyone at our family gathering laughed.

Unfortunately, my male and female cousins are not the only ones who buy into this white-is-pretty and black-is-ugly perception. As more high-rise buildings are constructed and roads are paved, Cambodians seem to have become even more self-conscious about their skin color. Peasants, instead of sporting their straw hats or krama (checkered scarves), are now donning cap-scarves that cover their heads and faces, only showing their eyes.

My father’s cousin said, “Back in the day, we used to be able to tell each other apart and refer to each other by name. Now, if my buffalo or cow has gone missing, I don’t even know who I am calling out to, to ask. They’re all covered up from head to toe.” If you peeked into their bathrooms like I have, you can see whitening products for their faces and bodies.

Pale-skinned people, especially city dwellers, generally display an air of superiority about themselves, as seen at social events, temples, restaurants, and malls. They walk much taller, their noses stick higher in the air, and their demeanor is anything but inviting. Their children, too, are boosted with confidence since infancy.

Friends and neighbors gather to admire light-skinned babies, no matter how unsightly they may be, as if they are the chosen ones. For me to witness this was like watching Rafiki, the wise old baboon in The Lion King, holding Simba aloft to anoint and show him off to the population of Pride Lands. These white babies are generally spoiled, cuddled, and handed from one person to the next, showered with kisses and lavished with praises: “Whose heavenly baby is this? Who is this smart and gorgeous little one?” I heard them say.

Dark-skinned people tend to be looked down upon by the pale ones, especially if the former is a peasant and ethnically Khmer. They tend to be timid, fearful, and kowtow to the pale ones to the point of crawling and prostrating themselves before them. If their kids are dark, no matter how attractive they may be, they tend to be ashamed of their appearance and do not receive words of encouragement to prepare them for the cruel world in which they live. Not all dark-skinned people and white-skinned people act this way, but too many of them sadly do. The problem lies in Cambodian society. Its obsession with skin color is an epidemic of epic proportions.

Right out of Pochentong International Airport and Siem Reap International Airport, we were greeted with images of “white” Asians on billboards and posters plastered on store walls and windows. Even the faces and bodies of Apsara dancers were paler than ghosts. In most arts, human subjects are not only portrayed as having porcelain skin, but also lacking Khmer essence.

Modern musicians also pay homage to the beauty of white skin in their songs.

As for magazines, they are filled with airbrushed models with skin whiter than Caucasians. Even the so-called Cambodian super models consist of white Asian girls. For the one or two dark-skinned girls, their bodies and faces are so thickly powdered they looked ashen, gray, or even clown-like.

On people’s walls at their homes, for those who can afford to have them done, you can see big, chintzy, Photoshopped portraits of family members who are heavily-styled, the women garlanded and made up with tarantula leg-like eyelashes.

For the handful of existing Cambodian channels, movies, and music videos, dark-skinned people are rarely shown, let alone have leading roles. Television hosts and hostesses consist mostly of white Asians who can barely speak Khmer. Oftentimes, Cambodian channels show dubbed East Asian movies, granted there are many East Asian and other foreign channels in the country already. Whitening product commercials take up most of the airwaves and run around the clock; each time, promoting the confidence-boosting, superiority, and beautifying qualities of porcelain skin. They are generally Khmer-dubbed commercials from Thailand, Japan, Korea, and other Asian countries. The top three memorable ones go something like this:

1) A young Thai woman is sitting on a bench reading a book. She discovers a good-looking man smiling at her. Self-conscious of her not-so-white skin, at home she dabs her face with whitening cream. The next time she sees the young man he pulls her bench closer to his. Her skin shines white and the two longingly gaze at each other like they are the two proudest and happiest beings on earth.

2) A white Japanese flight attendant steps down from the jet bridge to be greeted by a dark-skinned Japanese flight attendant who admires the whiteness of her skin. The dark-skinned flight attendant asks the light-skinned flight attendant how she got her skin to be porcelain white. The woman tells her the brand of whitening cream she uses. The next time they see each other, they both look brightly white. They beam with pride as they walk shoulder to shoulder, heads held high.

3) A tall, svelte Asian woman steps out amidst the crowd and her trench coat bursts away from her body, revealing her bright white skin that is wrapped in a scant, tight, purple mini dress. With an air of pride and jubilation, she parades herself amongst the young men and women who are awestruck by her stunningly bright, white body.

Pale skin is so glamorized in Cambodia that it is demoralizing and offensive. I get it. I have the freedom and luxury of being myself; therefore, it is easy for me to parachute into the motherland every other year and be irritated with poor and uneducated Khmers who admire and try so hard to fit into the shallow ways of mainstream society. They are the ones who have to live and put up with prejudice, discrimination, and denigration in a world operated by “colorism, the privileging of light skin tone over dark skin tone” (Glenn 53).

In school or society, whitened girls tend to flock together. They look down their noses at dark-skinned girls. Society in general favors pale skin. I got a taste of such prejudice and superior attitude by elitist grocery store and restaurant owners as my own skin began to darken under the scorching sun of Cambodia. They would not look at me, talk to me, and had their employees, whom they publicly chastised and denigrated, tell me the prices. They threw my change at me and turned their backs on me like I was beneath them. Interesting. When my family first came to the United States of America, in grammar school, particularly, a group of kids— especially boys—taunted, harassed, pushed me around, and beat me up. They routinely called out to me, “Hey, Ching Chong!” Whenever they said, “Ching Chong,” they would pull up their eyes to make them look severely tight and slanted. They would make weird sounds under the pretense that they were speaking to me in my native tongue. Yet, here I was, in the motherland, being treated with contempt by the very people who would have been derided just like me in the Uptown Chicago of the early 1980s. Oh, the irony. If we were to meet a neo-Nazi in the alley he would not care if I had dark skin and that Asian next to me had light skin; our skulls would be bashed just the same. Looking at these ignorant and uppity Asians with daggered eyes, I wanted to go Dirty Harry on them by grabbing their collars and speaking through my clenched teeth: “Do you feel lucky, punk? What makes you more special than me? Your customer service skills reek monkey tail. You shouldn’t be opening a business if this is your attitude. I acknowledge you, and put my money in your hand. I expect the same courtesy. Now pick up my damn change, hand it to me, and thank me for doing business with you.” Since my parents had this thing about creating a scene, I just rolled my eyes, thinking, “We won’t be shopping or eating here again”, and let these incidents bounce off of my shoulders.

Vanny confessed she felt prejudice and discrimination when she first left the countryside to study in the province. “Light-skinned girls normally hung out together and shunned dark-skinned girls,” she said. “They made fun of us because we spoke with a country accent.” Having felt that, I had expected her to learn from it now that she was a teacher and well off. But instead, I found her giving into Cambodian society in full force. She did everything to fit in: whitening her skin with a poisonous chemical, straightening her hair with harsh chemicals that smelled so bad her husband jokingly told her to sleep in another bed, putting up Chinese ancestry altars in her house, and plastering red Chinese signs all over her door (when neither she nor her husband have a droplet of Chinese blood in them and cannot even read Chinese), and speaking Khmer in a bastardized, lazy, and slurred accent like the people of Phnom Penh. Even its name is altered to Nom Penh or Um’Penh now. She likes it when people refer to her as Che (Cambodian corruption of Jie) or E (corruption of Yi). Jie and Yi mean older sister and aunt in one of the Chinese dialects. Cambodians in general have abandoned Khmer kinship terminologies and opted for those of Chinese instead, but the modern conquest of Cambodia will be discussed in another essay.

For goodness sake, even monks, who are not supposed to be concerned with superficialities or attached to material things, also whiten their skins.

I asked around why Cambodians are so obsessed with having pale skin. The general consensus is: “It is common among Asian cultures to find light skin more alluring and attractive. Light skin means a person comes from a wealthy family. It means they spend most of their time indoors and do not have to work as much. They live sheltered lives. Light-skinned girls have more chances to not only be married, but also married into rich families. Meanwhile, dark-skinned people are associated with the lower class or with slaves because they have to work most of their lives, especially under the blazing sun.” People seem to be proud of not having to work as much, and thumb their noses at people of different classes. This is their justification and they see nothing wrong with it. Some even feel offended by me questioning their choice. “It is our freedom,” they said. Is it really a freedom of choice when people don’t know all the facts and risks surrounding whitening products? Are they really acting on their free will or are they, as John M. Kang wrote in his article, submitting to the “ideology of White Aesthetics” (Kang, 321)? Or are they being brainwashed by the sophistication of mass marketing? Realistically, what do they know about freedom when their government suppresses them from views about politics, unbiased news, and human rights abuses? Moreover, just because certain dark-skinned people voluntarily prefer light skin to their own detriment, why should those of us, who are comfortable with our own skin, have to put up with this light-skin-is-beautiful and dark-skin-is-ugly nonsense?

The current Cambodian society is very much responsible for promoting White Aesthetics with its mass marketing of whitening products and its glorification of “white” Asian people. In government, business, entertainment, and academia, “white” Asians dominate. With their silence regarding the negative treatment of dark-skinned Khmer and the valorization of pale-skinned people, they are taking their society many steps backward.

Obviously, many business people are not too concerned with society’s mental and physical wellbeing. Why should they be when there are billions of dollars to be made in whitening products (GlobalPost)? “The contradictory aspirations of dark-skinned cultures seeking luminous pale skin and white-skinned cultures seeking a tan are something that international beauty companies have cashed in on. Lancome, Clinique, L’Oreal, and other well-known brands promote self-tanning and whitening ranges across different cultural markets: the former in North America and Europe, the latter in Asia and Africa” (Glass, 26).

A friend bluntly asked, “Why do you care?” I gave the question some serious thought. Even if he meant that I should not care about colorism and other people’s stupidity, I found myself caring a great deal; mainly for selfish reasons: I want people to treat me the same way I treat them; I want other dark-skinned people to be proud of who they are and to focus on intellectual and economical improvements, so that they can improve their lives without living on other people’s charity, and so that they won’t kowtow to their aggressors and leave me all alone to fend against prejudices; and lastly, so that others won’t have a reason to treat or pigeonhole us as inferior, poor, uneducated, weak, and that we will never amount to anything.

Speaking of inferiority, I asked my relatives and the local people why the majority of businesses in Cambodia are owned and run by non-Khmers? Even small vendors and kiosks consist of foreigners. The locals said they have no connections and no bribery money. My twelve-year-old niece spontaneously said, “Because we’re inferior.” Sadly, she is not the only one who thinks this way.

I told her, “You must not think that. We’ll never amount to anything if we keep telling ourselves that. We’re all human. Most of us are born with functioning brains, no matter what race we are. It is that other people know how to use them. Our ancestors knew how to use them. Just look at the legacy they left us. Too bad Khmer posterities don’t even reap the benefit. Our ancestors fed themselves and ran an empire. Learn from them. They did not let their dark skin, curly hair, flat noses, and big lips get in the way of their progress. Do you see all these different groups of people?” I asked, pointing them out to her in Siem Reap. “They come from around the world to bear witness to such grandeur and legacy.” I could not tell her that not all tourists visit Cambodia for its rich culture and history. I figured she already had a lot to absorb. I had no idea if what I said made sense to her, for she remained quiet.

On a positive note, after spending a few weeks with my relatives and traveling around the country, my shy, dark-skinned four-year-old peasant niece learned that she is just as pretty and smart as my “white” skinned four-year-old city niece. Her confidence level skyrocketed when elderly Japanese and Korean women complimented her on how cute she looked. One of them, whom my family and relatives met at the Preah Ko temple, asked if she could photograph her. My light-skinned niece has all the confidence in the world, but it is up to her parents, her teachers, leaders or politicians, and community or society to guide her to appreciate who she is without treating others with a dark heart.


Works Cited


Glenn, Evelyn Nakano. Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2009. Print.

Kang, John M. “Deconstructing the Ideology of White Aesthetics.” 2 Mich. J. Race & L. 283 (1996-1997): 283-360.

Glass, Katie. “I Want to be Lighter. She Wants to be Darker.” Sunday Times, (London, England) 27 Nov. 2011: 26. Academic OneFile. Web. 5 Aug. 2012.

“Skin Colour 1.” News in Science. ABC Science. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Aug. 2012. .

“Why White Skin Is All the Rage in Asia.” GlobalPost. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 May 2010. .


[1] John M. Kang, in Deconstructing White Aesthetics, sees tanning as an example of amusement or recreation for white people.



Copyright © 2012 Sambath Meas


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