Check Your Colorism

Growing up as a daughter in an Indian household, I was always taught the importance of keeping myself as perfect as I could be. 

“Be Sanskaari,” my parents said, “have discipline.”

Of course, this said discipline had many unwritten rules strung along to it.

  1. 1. Rule #1: “The beach is gross. Don’t go out in the sun. You’ll turn black.”

    My mom’s words, to this day when I mention my beach plan with my friends, ring in my head. Going to the beach, sitting out, and relaxing in the warm summer sun, was looked down upon in my family. Tanning is not in our culture. Why do you want to turn dark if you’re given beautiful fair skin? My mom used to ask me this as a teenager. Of course, I wasn’t really thinking about maintaining my precious skin tone. I was just looking forward to splashing around in the waves, collecting rare seashells (as rare as you can find on the Jersey Shore), and letting my body soak in the rays of the sun. Tanning is such a white people thing. It is not in our culture. Me being a young girl didn’t understand the association between going to the beach to tan and culture, but I didn’t want to disrespect my mother. 

    Why would I give up experiences and memories just for some stupid social construct?

    But of course, precious childhood years down at the shore were taken away from me, all because of my mother’s fear that her daughter would darken. Nobody would look at her the same, would they?

  2. 2. Rule #2: Invest in Skin Whitening Lotions.

    “Fair and Lovely” were three words I heard so often growing up. Watching advertisements about a dark-skinned bride being rejected because of her skin tone felt oddly concerning. Then, when someone urges her to apply “Fair and Lovely,” her skin tone turns white, and her in-laws and her own husband finally accept her. I watched this advertisement for the first time on my aunt’s television, sitting on the hard tiled floor in a criss-cross applesauce sitting position. For years, I used to think that if I was dark, I wasn’t gonna get married.

    So after one whole summer spent outside practicing for band camp, I came home with my forehead significantly darker than the rest of my facial features; my mom made a face. She nagged me about it for years. It ruined my self-esteem. I was told to apply sandalwood paste to my forehead every night before bed. I was called “kaala” in a negative connotation because once again, what would people think of me? At family gatherings, aunties would come up with concoctions to “fix” my “skin disaster.”

    Until one day, I stopped using sandalwood paste to fix my forehead.

  3. 3. Rule #3: Don’t have curly hair.

    Now, I know what you’re thinking. How does that have anything to do with colorism? Well, my hair is naturally curly. Curly and thin. I finally discovered my stringy hair when I started taking care of it properly. Amazing what a leave-in conditioner can do for your hair. 

    My mom has a big issue with my natural waves. You don’t look Indian. You look Black. Especially when you put on dark makeup (which by the way, her idea of dark makeup is just a basic contour and highlight).

    Now, there’s nothing wrong with looking like another race sometimes. But the connotation in her words strikes me. She told me if I chose to wear my hair curly, natural, that I needed to stop putting on foundation. Because I look “dark” and “tribal” if I did. 

    These words put a toll on my self-image. Why was there an emphasis on how I did my makeup? I have never black-faced once in my life. My mom just didn’t want me to look darker than I did, which I didn’t. But the fact that she made another association with curly hair and Black people, was what set me off. There is such a great history behind Black hair. For instance, cornrows are significant to Black history. Who was she to tell me I was appropriating it when all I did was wear it natural? To me, her words showed me that any kind of curly hair or, any kind of darker shade was negatively tied to Black Culture.

This is where I’m here to explain how we must change our ways. As South Asians, the generation before us, and even quite a few today, use “kaala” and make fun of dark-skinned people. We are used to seeing matrimony sites explicitly stating that a family wants a fair bride. We have become complicit to be anti-Black by rubbing our faces with whiteness creams. 

Our actions translate to our implicit biases towards African Americans here in the U.S. The notion that “Black is inferior” needs to be unlearned by all races and ethnicities. 

And it needs to be learned that people of all colors are what makes India so diverse today.