I use the eye roll and pink beating heart emoji most, followed by the two laughing-so-hard-I’m-crying faces. The yellow thumbs up is now my alternative to typing “ok.” I’ve recently settled on using the default yellow for all those hand signals and other body parts emoji. My skin color falls between the available skin tone emoji and I worry that if I present myself as too light or too dark it may be taken the wrong way. Do the recipients of my texts notice when I vary a shade up or down the skin-tone spectrum? How I wavered between two and finally settled on Winnie the Pooh yellow?
The first time I ever had to think about my skin tone was in kindergarten. During an unstructured play period Mary Beth, my best friend at the time, looked at me and Katrina, another friend, and suggested,
“Let’s compare skin colors!”
Even back then I didn’t feel this was a friendly invitation or an innocent way to pass the time. It now sounds to me like a command from a dictatorial overlord in a dystopian fiction. Dystopian dictatorial overlords always have an agenda.
Mary Beth held out her arm. Katrina and I hesitantly did the same. We then positioned them next to each other, like too closely set rungs on a ladder.
“Katrina, you’re the lightest, so put your arm here. We’ll put our arms in order of darkness,” Mary Beth instructed. She then inspected her arm against mine, hers a dark golden tan from the sun.
“Hmm, you’re darkest so I go in the middle,” she said to me while inserting her arm between mine and Katrina’s, even though Mary Beth’s tanned skin was darker than mine at that moment.
I looked at our stacked arms. Katrina’s skin was so light and thin that I’d often curiously stare at the blue and greenish veins I could see around her temples and eye sockets. Her arm glowed white in comparison to the other two arms. Mary Beth’s arm, sprouting a forest of blond hairs, was tan in the way Northern Europeans tan. We held out our arms, skin pressed to skin, for an uncomfortable amount of time. I wasn’t sure why we were doing this comparison, but I felt like it was definitely meant to prove some point. I took my arm back and cradled it in the other.
Katrina had inherited her fair skin from her Norwegian mom. Mary Beth’s family, at least on one side, had come over on the Mayflower. She and her mother declared this so often, working it into unrelated conversations, that no one could ever forget. I got the impression that this was meant to impress people. Now I know it was a form of validating themselves and invalidating others. During our kindergarten Thanksgiving dinner, we had to dress up as a Pilgrim or a Native American. Mary Beth, of course, chose to be a Pilgrim. I chose to be a Native American because I didn’t identify with the Pilgrim story and also felt I couldn’t be one even if I wanted to. I remember sitting at the child-sized dinner table wearing a paper headband with a single paper feather along with a brown paper vest decorated with crayons and fringe I had cut into the edges. From across the table, I watched Mary Beth beam, taking comfort in the fact that she was the real Pilgrim in the room. She wore a black paper capotain, the iconic hat and symbol of Pilgrims in the United States. Pictures from that day show Mary Beth genuinely smiling, something she didn’t do too much. Her Pilgrim’s pride made me uncomfortable.
Mary Beth’s mother asked my mom if my dad married her for a green card. I only learned about this as an adult and it made me realize that Mary Beth’s invitation to compare skin colors and rank them according to darkness was inspired by her parents gossiping about my parents’ interracial marriage. Our two families did many things together, from beach trips to overnights in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. My dad even invited Mary Beth’s family to join us at a party at the Coast Guard Academy, his alma mater, where Hillary Clinton (as First Lady) christened a submarine. It hurts to think that, after a day of laughing and having a good time together, they’d go home and develop theories on why my Filipino father and Irish-American mother got married. My mother having white skin and my father having brown, creating a child of a color somewhere in the middle.
Growing up I had a general sense of my coloring, but didn’t think about it much. By seventh grade, many girls started wearing makeup. And by makeup, I mean foundation and, sparingly, some mascara. It became cool to have foundation stains on the inside of your coat collar where it had rubbed off from your cheeks and chin. Clinique was all the rage at the time and eventually my mom conceded, taking me to the makeup counter at the mall.
“We’re here to get my daughter some foundation.”
The woman behind the Clinique counter welcomed us and then scrunched up her face as she looked at me, showing she was doing a deep cosmetological analysis. She then nodded and bent down to pull out some makeup tubes.
“Let’s start with this one…” When she squeezed the tube, a burnt sienna cream came out. I stared as the woman put the cream on the back of her pale peach hand and dab it with a sponge. “Put out your wrist,” she instructed.
I looked at my mom for help. The reddish dark brown cream was beautiful, like the red clay of Sedona mountains, but nowhere near the color of my skin.
“You think that color matches my daughter’s skin?”
“Well, it’s all a trial-and-error process, really based on preference. You only know once you try it.” She reached out with the sponge and wiped the cream on my wrist. “What do you think?”
I looked down at my wrist, unable to say anything. I couldn’t understand how she could see me so differently than I knew myself.
She leaned her head to one side, considering the color, “I think it works.”
I was choked with disbelief.
“Really,” my mother said flatly.
“If you don’t like that, we can try something else.” Unfazed, she started squeezing another tube whose cream was also very far from my skin color.
“You know what, we’ll have to think about it.” Mom gently pushed me along and grabbed a tissue to wipe off the blatantly mismatched makeup. My mom is an artist with a meticulous eye for color. Her artistic sensibilities were jarred and her motherly protective instincts were firing. She assured me that the woman didn’t know what she was doing, that the woman had her own issues which made her unable to see me as I truly am.
Every time I go to buy makeup foundation, I am brought back to that moment at the Clinique counter. I have stood in the aisles of Sephora and in front of Cover Girl and Maybelline displays, my hands loaded with color options. I repeatedly compare the colors on the boxes and in the bottles to my skin. Sephora makeup artists ask if I need help and I always turn them down when it comes to foundation. I don’t trust them and I don’t trust me.
Is this powder too light?
I don’t want to look like those excessively pale-faced people of Marie Antionette’s court.
Is this liquid too dark?
I don’t want to unintentionally do brownface.
Is the lighting off in here?
Am I seeing right?
I vacillate among three options, then pare it down to two, then doubt myself and come upon another color I had not yet considered that might be the one. After standing in front of a makeup display for close to an hour, I sometimes break through my anxiety and finally remember a clinical way to get the right color foundation for my skin: treat it like an art project. I clear my mind and instead of seeing skin, I see a color swatch. Like my mother, I am good at color matching. I have to concentrate really hard so I don’t remember that I am trying to define my skin color. Otherwise, I’ll just put everything back on the shelf and walk away. I don’t wear a lot of foundation. When I can, I opt for translucent powder instead. This makes the buying and application processes less excruciating.
Throughout my life, strangers and friends consistently reveal how they see me. They have yet to reach a consensus.
In high school, I told my friend Mike that I wanted to dress up as Britney Spears for Halloween. He laughed, scoffed really, and said, “You can’t do that!” When I asked why, thinking it was probably because I didn’t have Britney’s amazing abs, he said, “Because you’re not white.”
In college, I went home to meet the parents of my first serious boyfriend, Nick. I watched the expression of his mother’s face morph from anticipation to disappointment as I walked through the door. My Irish-sounding first name tricked her into thinking I would look stereotypically Irish.
“So, what is your family’s background…” was the first thing she said to me after “Hello”.
“Ugh, you’re so lucky to have that skin,” Kim, a longtime friend, reminds me every so often. “Do you know how hard it is to be this pale?”
“Did you just come back from vacation? You look so tan!” David, a former co-worker, would ask me multiple times a year. He never inquired when I had actually gone on vacation. I never told him that whatever he was seeing was just my natural skin color.
At a recent museum job, I gave 90-minute tours about families who had immigrated or migrated to the United States from different parts of the world. At the end of a tour a visitor came up to me bubbling with curiosity, “What is your family background? I’ve been trying to figure it out the entire tour and I haven’t been able to rest!” Who knew my presence could bring a complete stranger so much distress?
I dated Marcus who identified as a person of color despite having fully white European lineage. As I sat in his lap, we intimately talked about my experiences growing up biracial. With a sentence, he dismissed my stories and experiences. “Yeah, but you’re white,” he declared as if it was obvious and undebatable.
When the skin tone options for various emoji came out, I considered them opportunities to deepen self-expression and add nuance to the clipped world of texting and emoji-speak. In practice, I found texting with emoji became complicated. Looking at the clapping hands, middle finger, defiant fist, and flexing arm emoji triggers me to fire through my inventory of social interactions and microaggressions while trying to process which color to choose. I take note of which skin tones my friends use. Instead of selecting what I think is closest to my skin color, I gauge my choice based on others. For the friends who embrace and see the physical Filipina side of me, my facial features and skin, I feel I can skew darker. For friends who I think see me as white, I skew lighter.
During a breezy, casual text exchange, I can suddenly freeze and start to brood, acting the same way I do when confronted with a foundation display at Sephora.
“Really hope your teaching assignment comes through!” texts Ali.
I open the emoji keyboard to respond. I hold down the fingers crossed emoji to reveal the palette of skin tone options. I select a skin tone. Backspace. I select a lighter skin tone. Backspace. I consider the default yellow option. Hm, is there another emoji I could use instead?
“Fingers crossed!” I reply.
I won’t define my skin color. Despite being in my thirties, I’m still confused as ever, but I have learned to no longer expect you to see what I see.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Megan Elevado is a Filipina-Irish-American writer and artist who moonlights as a part-time Assistant Professor at Parsons The New School for Design. Her ongoing project, Marabou at the Museum, analyzes Western museums as institutional embodiments of colonial legacies and was highlighted by the American Association of Museums. Follow her on IG at @princess_puffalump