In My Brown Skin

When I was in school, we didn’t have modern ideas about equality across communities, race and colour. (It is another story that equality was there anyway, without any of us talking about it much). So, it used to be fine and non-offensive to make personal remarks about someone’s hair-tie or school-bag or curly hair. It was all in good fun and nobody held it against anyone.

One afternoon, in the school bus, a classmate started a discussion about skin-colour. I think we were in class VIII or IX – that time when you start lingering in front of the mirror for longer moments than usual. She was a rather chubby, loud girl who loved airing her opinions about everything from the food at the canteen to the school song.

“So, do all Bengalis have dark skin-colour?” She said to me, poker-faced. “Like you, I mean.”

I was flabbergasted. I was the typical school nerd, who wore her hair in two braids and had eyes covered behind large spectacles. I was born with reddish skin, says Mom, and through school, I’d say it passed for brown. But point is, it never occurred to me that my skin colour could become a subject for discussion, let alone unify my ‘community’ in some way.

The girl looked around the bus and her eyes fell on a classmate – also Bengali, but reasonably fair-skinned. “No! She is Bengali too, and looks beautiful. I think it depends…”

I nodded absent-mindedly and was stunned to find my eyes prickling. My stop arrived, saving me the task of carrying on the enlightening conversation. Or of gathering my composure.

I loved going to school; I had several friends and all the teachers liked me. I paid little attention to ‘frivolous’ pursuits like folding the skirt at the top to make it shorter, pulling socks down, getting multiple ear piercings, or flirting with boys. Yes, yes – I have already stated I was quite the nerd, and happy about it. Never before had it bothered me that I didn’t count among the ‘fair and beautiful’ girls in school. I didn’t even know the two adjectives necessarily belonged together.

But that afternoon, I was, quite simply, stupefied. Also, stunned, dejected and teary.

Mom had come to pick me at the stop, like every day. I looked at her carefully. She had on a rose-coloured salwar suit, her hair tied with a clutch, and a big smile on her gentle face. Her skin was brown, perhaps a shade or two darker than mine. But it was the skin I touched when I got scared of the dark at night. It was the skin that smelled of lime and lavender when Mom used her shower gel. I had always found it beautiful, and very often, I’d ask Mom if I looked like her yet. Relatives and family members often commented on how I didn’t resemble her much. I tried to make up for it by observing how she walked and talked and smiled. All, in that brown skin of hers.

If I meet her today, that classmate of mine will probably not even remember this incident. It was so many years ago, and was an offhand, casual remark, very characteristic of her. But it still lingers in my memory somewhere – this conditioning of school-children that fair is beautiful. Isn’t school about friendship, learning and fun, where the only things that matter are loyalty, not telling tales to teachers, and sharing your tiffin?

If I have kids one day, I am going to do my best to teach them this: skin colour is just that – a colour. And all colours are equally beautiful.

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12 thoughts on “In My Brown Skin

  1. These few quirks in our otherwise pacific life remain embedded in our memory: Maybe because they stand out. But you brushed it in quite a style with this post. Useful stuff! 🙂

  2. Nice post. I don’t know why we Indians are so fascinated by fair skin. Result of British raj, maybe. Keeping the fairness skins in evergreen business 🙂

    Such casual, off hand comments can leave behind lasting scars sometimes. I was 5 when I heard one such comment, casually and even lovingly spoken. That was the first time I realized I was different from other kids. Haven’t forgotten those words yet.

    • Very well said, Jyoti 🙂 This conditioning indeed goes way, way back into our history, and there are several big players to ensure it never disappears.

      I really wish people would be more sensitive and considerate about remarks they make around their kids. You never know what the little ones are picking up from us…

  3. If only the people around the world understand the basic logic.. The whole world will be a beautiful place and to make a change we need to start at home. By making sure kids grow up knowing there is no difference.

    So much is happening in The world and if we go back it all stems from religion and also from the colour of the skin…

    • So true, Bikram! If only we start at home and ensure that we – and our children – grow up free of such prejudices, the world will indeed be a happier place. 🙂

  4. It’s horrible when parents use such racist language during a conversation at home where children imbibe them to bring in school. I think, as a society, we need to be more aware what we impart into our kids. It’s silly and bad to be at the receiving end of such things when only fair skins are deemed beautiful. Love the language you inject in depicting the comfort Mom offered you in the dark. Keep shining Debo:)

    • I agree completely, Vishal – you put that very well. It is we, the parents, who need to be more careful of what our kids are learning from us, our language, and our prejudices.
      Glad you liked the post 🙂

  5. Loved this post. I guess a lot of people do associate fair skin with beautiful in India, specifically North India. I have been in a multitude of situations where I ended up comparing the tone of my skin with other fair girls. That’s what the common mentality does to your mind. I hope parents raise their kids right so that they find these things irrelevant.

    • Thanks a lot, Anupriya 🙂 Indeed – our minds, no matter how strong, do tend to get swayed and affected when we keep hearing such things all around us. It is only childhood conditioning that can insulate us from this.

  6. A long time ago, I volunteered for just over 2 years in a Crisis Intervention Unit at a Toronto hospital and, during the early morning hours of a slow shift, got into a similar discussion with a Pakistani doctor. His perspective was quite enlightening (I am white English!). He looked at me with a wry smile on his face. “When you were born, you were probably red, and there would have been a good chance that you turned yellow for a short time. When you are cold, you go blue. When you are sick you can go green and, if seriously ill, may even go a grey colour… and you guys call me colored!” It was all said humorously, but does stress the total irrelevance of skin tones. I think Hollywood and western world corporations have a lot to answer for when it comes to peoples perspectives on others! Great Post!

    • Colin – that was indeed very interesting perspective! 🙂 Agree with you on how several factors are at play in embedding skin-colour-led-judgment further into our social fabric. I cringe each time I view a fairness cream advertisement, for instance. Only the fair women, it seems, find good matches in marriage, find friends in college, and even excel at the workplace. How totally amazing.

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