She was a brown skinned girl. She has always been one. But she had never really looked at herself and told herself that till that day. She was happy as a lark that day. She was sitting in the hospital room next to her baby brother’s crib, looking at his tiny, pink toes and cute button nose in wonder. He was flitting in and out of sleep, gracing her with a half-smile once in a while. The room was packed with the relatives who had come to see the new-born. But she had eyes only for this tiny bundle of joy. It was then that her grandmother told the whole room something that still rings in her ears. She told everyone, “Look how fair the baby is.” And then turned to her and sneered, “Not dark like her.” The raucous banter which had filled the room earlier was replaced with an eerie silence. Everyone was looking at her now. And she felt humiliated. She felt like she was on the stand and the jury had given their verdict. Guilty…of being dark.
There I was, all of eight years old, without a care in the world, ecstatic at the birth of my baby brother and I was told that I was not as good as my fair skinned brother because I was brown. Make no mistake about it. That was exactly what I was told, though not in as many words. And it didn’t make any sense to me. How could my skin colour be my fault? I didn’t choose my skin colour. I knew instinctively that it was wrong to blame me for something that was beyond my control. I looked around at everyone in the room, hoping that someone would stand up for me. But no one did. Everyone sat there, stewing in awkward silence. Their silence was proof of their complicity. I was furious at everyone. I realized that no knight in shining armour was coming to save me. So I decided to be my own hero. I looked my grandmother in the eye and told her with all the defiance an eight year old could muster, “Look who’s speaking. You are also brown like me.” And then I ran out of the room. My eyes were brimming with tears. I went out into the corridor, held on to the railing and looked down at the courtyard, trying to control the sobs racking my little body. I looked down at my little hands and “saw” my brown skin for the first time.
I had never really given much thought to my skin colour till then. I never saw a brown skinned girl in the mirror till that day. I just saw a little girl. But that day, at the age of eight, I was made to realize that I was brown and somehow that was a bad thing. I would go on to realize that that incident was just one in the series of many that were to follow. And every time it happened, I was back in that hospital room. When I was told not to play in the sun by random people. When I was given unsolicited home remedies to whiten my skin by all and sundry. When the sales girl at the beauty store expounded on the wondrous properties of a whitening cream without my even asking for the product. When the beautician tsked looking at my face and tried to badger me into getting a whitening facial. (For the nth time, it’s not a tan! It’s my natural skin tone.) When I was told not so subtly not to wear certain colours. (I didn’t know that colours were racist too.) When I was asked to drink fruit juice and get regular facials when I was getting married. (How dare the bride be dark skinned!!! We will whitewash her skin if need be.) When I was told how lucky I was to get a fair skinned husband. (I thought love, friendship, trust and compatibility were far more important in a marriage than your partner’s skin colour. But then, what do I know?) When people told my friend that she would look pretty if only she were fair. When a relative of mine wanted a fair bride for her son because she wanted her grandkids to be fair. When a six year old relative of mine called the house help a derogatory name used for dark skinned people and her parents and grandparents laughed it off as a joke. When a friend lamented on the bad luck that had befallen her family because her sister had a dark skinned child. These are just a few of the countless such instances; some first-hand experiences and some second-hand. With age, I learned which ones I should react to and which ones I should ignore. With age came the wisdom that the society that values your skin colour more than what you are inside was wrong, not you. What I never got used to was the anger I felt whenever I heard people throw these comments around with impunity.
I don’t think my grandmother realized the gravity of her words. Her words could have turned my joy at the arrival of my baby brother into bitter jealousy. Thankfully, it didn’t. But I guess it must have happened in many families. I wish people realized the far-reaching consequences their careless words could have on others. It chips away at a person’s self-esteem to hear such comments over and over again. We are basically trying to shame a person for something they were born with, collectively as a society. We are telling a person that you are nothing more than the colour of your skin. It doesn’t matter what your achievements are, it doesn’t matter how good a person you are.
Why are we so scared of being dark skinned?! We are a nation of brown skinned people. Most of us are varying shades of brown. Yet, we still manage to effectively shame each other for our skin colour. In fact, we are so scared of dark skin that we even paint our dark skinned Gods blue. If, even Gods aren’t allowed to be dark skinned, what chance did we, mere mortals ever stand! Continue reading “The day I realized I was brown”