Every school I went to had a sports day. An annual athletic production, where tie-pronged children put on this facade of discipline in a military-style march past, followed by house races, shot puts, long jumps, and a whole lot of other activities meant to flaunt childhood flexibility. I always considered myself the worst pupil for such an institution. In the weeks leading up to the show, I faithfully morphed into the girl who cried, ‘on my period’ to sit on the sidelines and read Malory Towers while my classmates shriveled in the Indian heat. It worked well for a long time. The male PE teacher, more disgusted by my weekly recurrence of femininity than he was ever suspicious of it, didn’t care to stop me. Neither did the friends who probably didn’t want to be out there either. Naturally, I got by. But most importantly, I avoided the tan.
(As told by the elders)
A South Indian, Tamilian individual whose ancestors were high-caste priests, and who believes that all castes lower than himself are products of regurgitation from his mouth
Dark is less. It is the color of the nefarious, disgusting, and untrustworthy. Dark is conniving. Dark women give birth to dark children and cannot be married off to fair boys. Dark men are tolerated, but barely. The powers of genitalia, refreshingly, do not apply to the whims of the skin. Tamil Brahmins are the fairer members of southern states. It sets them apart like shiny diamonds in a sea of dark. Unlike the field workers, warriors, and wandering traders of the caste system, the Brahmins concoct their superiority inside cool temples, and so their fairness becomes holy.
The whiteness of Brahmin skin runs exclusively among
their our own, so they we do not marry outside their our caste. My mother was a prodigal who did, and now it is now my duty to continue her lineage. To shy away from the sun and bear its dark skin. To sit on an artificially perioding bottom every week and above the binding of a book, watch friends run on open rolling grass. To perch in shadows away from windows, rub potato skins on my face, burn the flesh with lemon juice, learn to exfoliate melanocytes at 11…
Blood Report - VITAMIN D
|6.00||>20.00||Lowest level compatible with human life.|
Life is the jam that was left stuck to the kitchen counter overnight and the curry that miraculously fossilized on top of the microwave. Life is also a pea pod and a somnambulist on a tightrope. It’s everything. Anything can happen. March of this year showed us as much. Today, Gretchen Whitmer, the Governor of Michigan, will declare racism to be a public health crisis. Tomorrow morning, I will email her office to ask if colorism is one too.
Since life is already a metaphor, lying somewhere between microwave gunk and disoriented dream-ware, let racism and colorism be the two twisted cords of headphones that are impossible to untangle. The Middle Eastern girl who lives down the hall from me looks white, but Wikipedia says she’s not. My father is Indian, but to some, too South Indian equals black. A coffee-colored Bangladeshi, Latino, and Sri Lankan are brown, but the Native American is not a Person of Color, he is Indigenous. The Indian and Black woman on the presidential ticket for the soul of this nation is not black enough, but you cannot say she is just Indian, after all, she is white-washed in her accent. Color and race and ethnicity are now used interchangeably, concordantly, and more often than not, too freely. The lines between them, if they ever existed, bleed in each other this year, in a way that doesn’t bring us closer, but pushes us apart.
I spent the cusp of 2 AM last night reading an article in which some Lori Tharps of Temple University said that, “if racism didn’t exist, varying skin hues would simply be a conversation about aesthetics” (Tharps, 2016). I can’t help but wonder if Lori’s peppiness about the choice of aesthetics is justified. Racism is bad. Noted, printed, screamed from the rooftops. There is no necessity or transaction that can ever undermine the truth that racism creates unfair, unjust, and fatal divides. But the selective vilification of race, as though divorced from color, is concerning for the very reason Tharps claims… right? If racism is a crime, but color is an aesthetic, the latter is a social and personal preference, condonable by the choice to choose in a democracy. I am not allowed to discriminate against a race, but I am allowed to like what I like and dislike what I dislike.
You dislike dark. That is your choice, your right.
But then somehow, it becomes my life.
The world is still picturized in black and white. Little houses that stand in rows have grilled gates, where the paint chips and children catch rust. A ceramic-skinned grandmother, her radiance and lightness preserved with age, walks on the dusty roads with her granddaughter. The girl is lean and dusky, with skin that wanes and waxes but always stays dark. They mostly just call her dull. A woman in a sky blue cotton sari stops to strike a conversation with the grandmother. She is new to the neighbourhood, and mistakes the child for a servant girl. Another, in a bright yellow salwar this time, stops to touch the grandmother’s feet. She asks if they will be attending the concert tonight, and the grandmother smiles.
“Why Maami," the woman asks, "how is it that you are so bright and fresh like the moon and the girl is so dark?”
The little girl shrinks and hides in the folds of her grandmother’s skirt.
"My son-in-law," the grandma whispers, "he’s not that fair.”
The yellow lady flashes a sympathetic smile and walks away.
The young girl emerges from her grandmother’s clothes. She is a mother. She now has her own skirts and with her own children to hide in its folds. One day, she tells her daughter that her neck is too dark for the yellow of gold to decorate it on her wedding day.
Together they sit away from windows, rub potato skins on their faces, burn the flesh with lemon juice, and learn to exfoliate melanocytes. One of them is only 11. But they get tested together, and they are both a 6.
There was a time before Fair and Lovely whitening cream boxes had Priyanka Chopra’s face on them. It was the era where casting couch-picked arrays of light-skinned women were just not cutting it anymore. It was the golden age of interactive advertising. Like when people trying to sell you things gave you a pop quiz before they stole your money. The rip-off this time was a shade card. Slapped vacuously along the side of the packaging for the consumer to see where they lay on the spectrum of Indian shame, enticed by the illusion of where they could be. Two shades lighter in twenty days—or your money back. Asterisks succeeded the promise in a font size no one could or wanted to see. The offer was so sultry it found itself playing every ten minutes on Nickelodeon.
I had lied to my mother before, second-naturedly most times. But this was certainly more than a lie. I asked her, one afternoon, for 30 rupees. Said I wanted to buy a pack of chips to share with my friends. An hour later, I returned with the pink and white tube and used up a fourth in one night. I lathered the face, neck, arms, legs, any place another human being could see. Then I hid the little box between the folds of my unused sports uniforms where no one could ever find it.
I was ashamed I was dark. And I was ashamed that I was doing everything not to be.
Krishna is the God of mischief, among other things. He’s the dude with the feather and the flute. if you’ve ever visited an Indian temple. There’s this televised cartoon of 4-year-old Krishna, barely older than myself, playing by the lake with his myriad girlfriends, when suddenly demons erupt from the Earth to spoil their fun. As the girls run away screaming, their earthen pots shattering behind their anklets, the miniature god-ling grows 500 times his size, into a muscular, gigantic protector. With one stomp of a foot he crushes every foe and leaves the universe trembling.
“Why is Krishna shown in blue on TV?” I ask my grandmother as she peels peas on the sofa behind me.
“If he looked like all the other people, you wouldn’t know who he was. He is blue, so you can identify him.”
“So then why are the demon people so dark?”
“Well kutti, black is the color of evil. They’re dark, so you know they're bad.”
Michigan is a cold place. The sun doesn’t reach its cities the way it does back home. I’m wiser now—I know where to find vitamin D gummies with 10 grams of sugar, that feel like rotten Jell-o on the way down. After all, when Augusts turn to Decembers, and as the sailor of the sky disappears, as does the dusk in my skin. I find myself looking in the mirror more during those winter months. The paleness of my chest matches the color of my neck. It puts a smile on my face. In the right lighting, maybe I could pass for a California girl perhaps. Once someone mistakes me for a North Indian—a win as well. Perhaps not a rosy-cheeked Kashmiri, but a Maharashtrian, Gujarati even, if I dare go further.
When I go home for Christmas, grandmothers and great aunts stare at me in awe. “Your color has come into bloom,” they say. “Michigan suits you.” What they mean to pass comment on is the recognition that I am truly one of them—a girl with what might pass for darker, but still Brahmin skin; hidden for 18 years under a subtropical tan that only stripping me from my motherland could erode.
My great-grandfather was a freedom fighter. He believed in our country and that the brownness of our people did not justify their abuse. For all his fight, in the earlier half of the last century, the colonists enslaved and put him on a ship to Australia for ten years. I wonder what my family told him about his color when returned.
Today, my sister was told at the wedding that she would be a prettier bride if she was just.... a little lighter. Someone asked if the tailor had misdone her blouse for making it silver… that the shine of the outfit only sucked the light out of her face. Dark colors they said. Dark for dark people.
At the wedding, I spent a lot of time thinking about whether I preferred to be called brown or South Asian. I also spent a lot of time thinking about how they became synonymous and what my life would have looked like if they hadn’t. This French psychologist Jean Piaget believed that as children, human beings develop language to express only the things that describe their thoughts (Piaget, 1983). Language and description form a result of a way of viewing the world. The universalist view on language speaks of a New Guinea people and how they only think about dark and light and nothing in between (Casaponsa, Athanasopoulos 2018; Ball 2011). If they thought more deeply about color, they would have words for it.
It is not possible to be colorblind, and we shouldn’t be. But what if we stopped actively thinking about the color of people’s skin? The color of my skin. And if we did do that, would we, like the New Guinea people, be saved from developing language, hateful language, towards it? Can we just see dark and light, recognize it, appreciate what it represents—the culture, the history, the tradition, the respect—and move on?
What is it about a remote tribe with little social hegemony and pyramidal capitalism, that understands something so simple, when high-society aunties just refuse to?
TikTok has been great. As have YouTube, and Instagram, and Facebook, and all the other platforms that allow brown women to flaunt their skin color and tell the world that they identify as beautiful. There is a thrill in being tagged and affirming the posts of girls in glistening ornaments and dark shaded foundation, boasting an Indian hyperpigmentation. And yet in the covers and in places I don’t want people to see, I say good for them and keep scrolling. They are role models, but they are not my role models. They came, they conquered, but they came and conquered too late for me. I don’t know how to say that their love of brownness doesn’t do much for the years of voices in my head that teach me to hate the skin my body naturally tends to. Years of dusky inadequacy make up every layer of the tan I cannot shake.
Social media can’t be enough for me, but all I really hope is that it is enough for my daughter.
Ball, P. (2011). Are languages shaped by culture or cognition? Nature. doi:10.1038/news.2011.231
Casaponsa, A., & Athanasopoulos, P. (2018, April 22). The words that change what colours we see. BBC Future. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20180419-the-words-that-change-the-co...
Rieber, R. W. (1983). Jean Piaget’s Views on the Psychology of Language and Thought. Dialogues on the Psychology of Language and Thought, 103-120. doi:10.1007/978-1-4615-9308-9_4
Tharps, L. L. (2016, October 6). The Difference Between Racism and Colorism. TIME Magazine. Retrieved from https://time.com/4512430/colorism-in-america/