For as long as I can remember I wondered what it might be like to move through this world a lighter shade of brown. What might life be like if I weren’t so dark? If I was just one, two, or even three shades lighter? I knew from a very early age that my brownness—my dark brownness—meant that I couldn’t be pretty.
I remember being five years old and my friend who lived two doors down got a brand new bike. Her blond curls bounced up and down in excitement as neighborhood kids took turns on that bike. When it came to my turn, she loudly proclaimed: “My parents said that I am allergic to the color of your skin, so you can’t have a turn. You can’t use my bike.” I guess we weren’t really friends after all.
When my younger brother was born people said he looked like “a ball of butter.” My Indian aunties were so mesmerized that he was so light skinned and called out ooohs and ahhhs of shock and delight about how fair he was. But in Indian culture, he didn’t actually need to be fair for acceptance. It was the girls who needed to be fair.
Then there were the times we would go to the beach as a family. I loved screaming in delight as my baby brother and I ran away from the crashing waves. But the seemingly innocent warm rays of sunshine became my worst enemy. I remember one of my Indian aunties seeing me after a trip to the beach. Wrinkling her nose she proclaimed in disgust “you became darker!”
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One day at the age of twelve I confessed to my best friend: “I wish I was blond with blue eyes and light skin.” She had asked me, while enjoying a slice of cheese pizza, what I secretly wished for. I just blurted it out and I still remember how angry and disappointed she was. How could I wish for that? She embraced who she was at such a young age, and all I could think as I chewed on my pizza crust was that it’s easy for her to say because she’s lighter than me.
At home, my singular focus was studying. If I was going into the 6th grade, my dad got the 7th grade math book. I would do my math problems, watch Nickelodeon, and read books all summer long. We never talked about our shades of brown. But the outside world was there to remind me.
In our larger Indian community, light-skinned girls were constantly complimented on how angelic and beautiful they were. I clung to images of actress Tatyana Ali from the TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, songstresses Toni Braxton and Brandy, as well as supermodel Naomi Campbell. These women represented true beauty to me. However, for Indian folks things are very different. Every Bollywood movie, program and magazine celebrated the lightest of light—the lightest of brown Indian women. They were peach, pink, and caramel—all cousins to brown. But not brown.
And then there were my visits to India throughout the years. Sly comments reminded me that I was constantly minimized to my dark brownness. Did I spend too much time in the sun? Why were my knuckles and heels and knees so dark? Maybe I could try to do a yogurt honey mask with turmeric on my face twice a day? And I was always in awe of my other cousins who were much fairer than me. I stared at them and wondered what would it be like to move through the world a lighter shade of brown?
“You are pretty for being a dark girl” was the compliment I held onto from my college days. So, it was no surprise that I was a late bloomer when it came to dating. I had been focused on being smart, since pretty was not an option for me.
My husband was the first person I ever seriously dated. We were matched online and when I first saw his picture, an Indian girlfriend commented: “Well, let’s see if he responds.” He was very fair skinned with green eyes. But when I met him, his peach colored complexion was the last thing I noticed about him—it was his kind eyes.
When we married, I knew what some people were thinking. How did I get him? Because some of them flat-out asked me. “He doesn’t even look Indian. He looks like he is Egyptian or German. How did you even meet?” And when we were expecting our son Jay, I remember reading a baby announcement from an extended family who had just given birth and there was a line that read: “The baby came out pink and crying. A very light brown baby.” And for a minute, as I rubbed my own belly and read the announcement, my secret wish was that my baby wasn’t as dark as me.
Thankfully then when Jay came out screaming into the world I immediately noticed his head full of dark hair and his marked stubbornness. I didn’t notice what shade of brown he was. The same for the birth of my daughter Priya. Her dark hair and calmness were the center of attention—not her skin color.
We took Jay to the beach for the first time when my brother got married. I splashed and played with him. And didn’t hide under a large hat and large umbrella. I embraced those warm rays of sunshine. We also made sure to buy brown baby dolls for Priya. I also gently asked family members to stop buying white dolls for her.
Jay and Priya’s births began to heal all the wounds I had felt for so many years. The dark patches on my elbows, knees and knuckles and heels. My dark hands and dark feet. My dark face which encased my bright white smile. Their brownness and my brownness became intertwined. Their color was mine and my color was theirs. They could not be pulled apart. If I didn’t love my brownness. If I didn’t embrace it, honor it, and celebrate it. How could I ever expect them to love theirs?
I want my children to know, believe and understand that they are equal—not to accept how others might choose to define them based on their shade of brown. And for Jay and Priya, not to be suffocated under the cloak of colorism. The cloak I let the outside world put on me. The cloak I readily accepted as the only thing I would wear no matter what the circumstance. The cloak I never took off and carried into adulthood.
One day Jay proudly proclaimed “I am brown” as he was creating a 6-year-old self-portrait. He grabbed the brown crayon without hesitation. Only with love. And then Priya leaned over to squeezing my cheeks tight said: “Mama, you are so pretty. I love you!”
In our house, we now have a saying I started: “We are brown, beautiful, and smart.” Priya added silly and Jay added curious and creative. I no longer wonder what it might be like to move through this world a lighter shade of brown. After a long journey it took my children to help me discover that I am brown and that I am beautiful.
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