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Emil's Big Chance Leaves Me Uneasy

Tricia Capistrano with son EmilIn the 21st Century there seems to be more light brown faces in the media than ever before. Should we be happy about it or are there more serious implications?

Tricia Capistrano wrote about her thoughts in Newsweek.

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie may have the most popular baby in the world right now, but I do not envy them. I had my taste of celebrity when I took my infant son on a trip to the Philippines two years ago. I walked away from him for a moment at a baby-goods store in Manila and when I returned, he was surrounded by four women in their 20s who were ogling him. 'He is so cute!' they said. 'So fair-skinned!' Whether we were in the mall or at church, people would gather around to look at his face.

My son is mestizo, of mixed race. My husband is Caucasian with ancestors from Sweden and Slovakia. I am a brown-skinned woman from the Philippines, where many people I know have a fascination with the lighter skinned—probably because our islands were invaded so many times by whites who tried to convince us that they were better and more beautiful than us. We were under Spain's rule for nearly 400 years, the United States' for almost 50. As a result, skin-whitening products fly off the pharmacy shelves.

'Any plans to move back here?' my relatives ask when I visit.

'I'll send Emil when he is a teenager so he can become a matinee idol and fund our retirement,' I joke. Most of the country's famous actors are of mixed-race, and the teen actors who are on their way up don't have to be talented, just fair-skinned and preferably of Spanish, American or Chinese descent.

I started to reconsider my response several months ago after my husband and I read that by the time our son goes to college in 16 years, his education will cost about $500,000. When we visited my parents last January, I asked my friends in the advertising industry if I could bring my son by their offices to take some test shots. I wondered if he could land a commercial for diapers, cereal or maybe ice cream.

By the time I got the number of an agent, I had started to second-guess my idea. I realized that I was going to be part of the system that can sometimes make us dark-skinned people believe that we are inferior. I do not want Filipino children who look like me to feel bad about themselves. When I was a kid, my grandmother would get upset whenever I told her that I'd be spending the afternoon swimming in my cousin's pool, because it meant that my skin would get darker than it already was. My mom, whose nose I acquired, has one of the widest among her brothers and sisters. She taught me to pinch the bridge daily so that the arch would be higher, like my cousins. Most of her girlfriends got blond highlights and nose jobs as soon as they received their first paychecks, almost as a rite of passage.

As a teenager, I tried to hang out with the mestizas, because I wanted to be popular like them. It was only when I was 22 years old and moved to New York, where people of different colours, beliefs and sexual orientations are embraced, that I learned to appreciate my brown skin, wide nose, straight, black hair and five-foot stature. Because of the self-confidence I saw in the people I met, I found everyone—in the subway, on the street, in restaurants—beautiful.

When some of my friends in Manila express disappointment that their children are not as light-skinned as Emil, I tell them it doesn't matter. And for a long time, I've been content with my decision to scrap my plans for Emil to be on the airwaves. I felt I was doing my share for my brown brothers and sisters.

Then, on one of the first warm days this spring, Emil and I went to the playground with our half-Irish, half-Polish neighbour, Julia, and her son. While we were watching the kids play, I joked that I was going to send Emil to the Philippines to be on TV. 'Oh, that would be great!' she said earnestly. She told me that as a little girl she had been in a series of Kodak commercials in the 1970s, ads I remember seeing during episodes of Three's Company. Julia's parents were working class, so it was the only way they could afford to pay for her college education.

Once again, I'm tempted to call that agent. After all, I am sure other fair-skinned children are being chosen to appear in Philippine commercials even as I write this. I know my boycott is just an anecdote in the world's bigger drama. The real stage is in my decolonised mind. If my son ever lands a part on TV because of his colour, do I want to be the one who has cast him?




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