The colour of my skin is brown.
It’s not a glamorous shade, one that’s earned by vacationing somewhere exotic and warm. Nor is it acquired by lying outside for leisure by a pool in the sun.
It is the colour of my ancestors, a people born and raised in countries down south. It is the colour of people oppressed for generations. It is the colour I have been ashamed of my whole life.
All my life I have wanted to be white. After taking courses on sociology, race theory, media, popular culture, and colonialism, I have learned that this lifelong desire to be white is a package that has been sold to me by society my entire life.
In my anti-racist studies in education class, we watched a video that was based on the Clark Experiment; in the Clark experiment, an adult interviewer asks kids as young as aged 5 to pick between a pair of dolls, depending on who the pretty and good doll is, and who the ugly and bad doll is. No matter the the kids’ ethnicities, they almost always picked the white doll as pretty and good. The dark coloured doll was always the dark one, the ugly one, the one no wanted to be like.
This was me as a child.
I don’t know where or when this perception was born into my mind, but I only wanted the blond haired, blue eyed Barbie. I didn’t want light brown coloured Teresa or darker skinned Christie. I wasn’t being racist in my tendencies, I just thought (like so many other girls like me) that Barbie was prettier. Unlike the women I saw around me, I didn’t look like Barbie and therefore I wasn’t pretty.
Growing up in a Western country, I was constantly reminded of my skin colour and how it wasn’t like the dominant race’s. I never saw people of my colour on TV or in movies, nor did I read about them in books or learn about them in school. We were invisible and so was I.
A huge part of the problem I faced was a cultural one. I come from a culture that values white skin, adores it, worships it. I grew up listening to aunties praise other girls or women for their beautiful, white skin. I was told by people that my skin colour was ‘clear up’ when I got older, as if the colour of my skin was a blemish to be rid of.
And so I grew up with this false hope, of my skin getting lighter as I grew older. I didn’t know the science behind this statement (does people’s skin colour change as they go through puberty and through adulthood?) but I envied my younger brother for his fair skin. In my silly way, I berated my parents for giving my brother the good genes of fair skin, while I was stuck with being darker. They didn’t recognize this for the symptom of something darker brewing inside of me, but I can pinpoint the signs now, years later.
Instead, I continued to hope that I would blossom into a fair-skinned beauty, like the ones that I saw on TV and read about in fairytales. After all, real princesses had skin the colour of snow, not the colour of coffee with cream.
In my short life’s experience, being white made you normal, it made you average. As the times began to change and brown skin became ‘in’, I was constantly told that the colour of my skin was exotic and different. But I didn’t want to be exotic. I wanted to be like everyone else.
Everyone else didn’t cause a daily ruckus whenever attendance was called, as faces scrunched up in order to pronounce such a different and exotic name. Everyone else didn’t get asked where they were from. Everyone else didn’t have to explain themselves or who they were; they just got to be.
And as I began my writing career as a young girl, I made sure that all my characters were white. Only white people were interesting and pretty and important. No one wanted to read a story about a girl who was brown, and so I made all my characters white. If I wanted them to have interesting, adventurous stories, they couldn’t be brown.
As I began university and took courses on race theory and colonialism, I began to unearth my own prejudices and racism against myself. Why was I obsessed with being more fair skinned? Why did I think brown skin couldn’t be pretty? In digging up the answers to these questions, I unearthed my own shameful memories, of aunties recommending the infamous South Asian skin bleaching cream , Fair and Lovely, to me, of people telling me that I wasn’t that dark, and of constantly comparing myself to my fairer skinned friends, who in my mind were a thousand times lovelier than I could ever be with my darker skin.
Despite discovering the root of shame in having brown skin, I’ve realised that I’m not completely free of it, and I may never be.
As I begin to grapple with the notion of ‘ideal’ matches that parents are looking for, for their perfect sons to get married to, I am again confronted with whiteness. I am constantly bombarded with stories of families that are looking for girls that are fair; they only want someone light skinned, my mom is told to her disappointment on the phone by matchmaking aunties.
And so it’s ironic, that after a lifetime of hating the colour of my skin and then finally beginning to accept it and my feelings about it as a commodity that had been sold to me through culture and the media, I am back to looking at that white skinned Barbie with envy.
Despite years of university and education, I can see myself transforming into that little girl, the only who only wanted to be prettier, to be fairer.
And while I can’t change things for myself, I can certainly change things for other girls. As I study to become a teacher, I can see the importance of schooling, both the formal lessons, but also the informal messages in the classroom, on a young person’s life. I can see the impacts of my own schooling on my own life.
And so I vow to provide my students with examples of girls who are strong and brave and of different backgrounds. They don’t need to be feminists to be strong, don’t need to put down men to be brave. And they certainly don’t need to be fair skinned.
So when they read their favourite stories, and a mirror asks, “Who is the fairest in all the land?” they can say, with confidence, they are.