The femmephobic guy I mentioned in my most recent post also told me that he found me unattractive because of internalized colorism. “all my past relationships were with pale skinned east Asian guys rip” he texted me. He shared that he did not have a specific plan to work through his internalized colorist sexual preferences.
I first felt a surge of anger. Thoughts emerged like: you’re Southeast Asian too! We’re basically the same skin tone! Wtf is wrong with you! I didn’t feel hurt that he found me unattractive; I don’t care what men think of me and I had already sensed some underlying incompatibilities between us. Rather, his actions and lack thereof reminded me of Asian men I’ve known who prefer to date white people and view that as a preference as opposed to a function of internalized racism. His lack of agency in unlearning his internalized colorism also reminded me of people who articulate issues within themselves yet do not take specific steps toward self-improvement. When I went on a date with this guy, he carried a copy of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which now strikes me as additionally ironic given his own unresolved colorism.
After I let myself feel my anger, I took a step back. More compassionate or at least sympathetic thoughts emerged. I remembered on our date how he told me about how in Thailand, he often saw billboards and posters that glorified light-skinned Asian folks. When I texted him and asked if his friends contributed to his colorism, he acknowledged that his community in Thailand often perpetuated colorism without viewing that behavior as problematic. He himself named how he considered himself unattractive because of his internalized colorism.
This scenario reminds me of my research about men and toxic masculinity, as well as my encounters with certain men who did not know how to express emotions in healthy ways. How much responsibility do we place on men – as well as women and nonbinary folks – to go to therapy and take actions outside of therapy to address their issues? Or how much do we work to prevent patriarchy and toxic masculinity, as well as other forces of systemic oppression such as white supremacy and colorism from occurring in the first place? One of my many amazing undergrad students told me in a meeting about how she believes in the importance of both, of recognizing the harmful role of systemic oppression and at the same time believing in people’s autonomy to take action to heal and recover.
I am by no means perfect either. In high school I valued thinness and restricted my eating, in large part because of abuse occurring in my family and my own tendency toward perfectionism, before discovering feminism and internalizing more empowering messages instead. In early college I struggled with communication while navigating PTSD, until I went to long-term outpatient therapy and grew more comfortable asserting what I want in more direct ways. At the beginning of grad school I used AAVE in my speech before a friend pointed it out to me, and for a few minutes I reacted defensively before eventually apologizing, owning up to my collusion in anti-Blackness and then doing better.
I don’t think I deserve cookies for trying to grow as a person. At the same time, I feel proud of myself for doing my best to improve, especially after interacting with this MwUIC (Man with Unresolved Internalized Colorism) who reported no agency to address his colorist sexual preferences. I talked about this issue of motivation to change with a few of my best and closer friends, and we identified some factors that may motivate some people to change or not, especially when they do have access to resources to try and heal and grow. These included: 1) a lack of privilege or having privilege (e.g., people with more privilege may not feel motivated to change because they can still do fine enough in life even not addressing their issues, whereas for myself I felt like I *had* to be a better person because no one else would do the work for me), 2) a lack of agency or having agency (e.g., I and my close friends view ourselves as people who are capable of growing as people and taking tangible actions to do so, whereas others view themselves in more passive terms), and 3) the social circle you surround yourself with (e.g., this guy sounds like he’s friends with people who aren’t unmotivated to address internalized colorism, whereas my best friends and I always hold each other accountable for self-growth and improvement).
In some ways, this issue of people improving or not reminds me of what it felt like growing up in my biological family. I remember at one point in elementary school I brought home a writing assignment where my teacher instructed us to write about our families. When my mom found the assignment, she exploded in fury and yelled at me because I had written that my mother has anger issues, my brother has anger issues because of my mom’s anger issues, and my father spent most of his time outside of the house. What strikes me as unfortunate about this now: instead of thinking something along the lines of like hm, my small child perceives our family in this way, maybe we can enact some behaviors to improve as people, my mother directed her energy outward into anger toward me, instead of reflection about herself.
Growing up, I always felt the most attuned to my family’s emotions and interpersonal dynamics, the one responsible for mitigating people’s anger and harm when possible. In the present day, I still feel motivated to empower myself and my communities and to try and prevent and fight societal oppression. At the same time, I’m drawing boundaries, in particular with those who harm me and show a lack of willingness to change. As an adult I have that agency now; I wish I had had it sooner.
This MwUIC may have wanted to [REDACTED] my [REDACTED] if I had been more masculine, lighter-skinned, and East Asian. In another world, a different version of me may have coped by trying to gain more muscle, or trying to change how I look to come across as more masculine. In this present moment though, I feel no desire to do that because I already have what sustains me – a loving relationship with myself and my friends, pop music, books. Even if the prevalence of colorism across the world remains out of my control, I can still control how I show up in my day to day life, which for now, feels like enough.
What do you think motivates people to change or prevents people from changing? How have you grown and what factors have helped you to do so, or not? General reactions to this post? I’m screaming nine days until match day and I know where I’m headed for my final year of my PhD wowow. Hoping to fit one more post in before then amidst research and clinical work and books and friends and food and all else. Until next post!