When I was 18-years-old, there was a fairness cream advertisement that showed a girl around my age ready to board the train. She was off to college. Her parents were misty eyed. Her mother gave her a tight hug and kissed her on the forehead. Just as her darling daughter turned to depart, she pressed something into her palm. The girl looked questioningly and her mother beamed a worldly wise smile. As the girl sat in her seat she opened her palm to reveal a baby pink fairness cream. To be fair was to be lovely. To be fair and lovely was a sign of victory.
Thankfully, my mother did not indulge in this sort of colorism. When I boarded my train to college she gave me a kiss and made me promise to call her every weekend. The only thing she pressed into my palm was, not a tube of fairness cream, but a letter that said I was old enough to know good from bad, right from wrong and never too far away from home. My mother knew that identities cannot be shaped from fairness creams but are formed from strong values and stellar characters.
The only reason I still remember that ad is because the timing was perfect. Nothing about the white girl mantra bothered me. If my aunts and grannies clucked their tongues when my male cousins landed pretty and ‘fair’ brides, that was something else. They were still soaking in their colonial past. To be brown was a stamp of toiling in the fields and living the hard life. The fair people were the sahibs and the masters. I never attributed my setbacks to my skin color but that was because I lived in a place where the majority was brown. Then I came to the United States of America.
Here I’ve been called dusky, wheatish, earthy, dark, brown and sometimes rustic. People often want to label you with something…anything. It still doesn’t get under my skin. Yet, for girls who are born here and are rubbing shoulders with the Taylor Swifts and Kate Uptons in high school, I worry for them. Will this stereotyping and branding puncture their shield? Fitting in seems daunting and to be different requires strength.
Nandita Das elocuted in her “Dark is Beautiful” campaign that, “I have done nothing to be born as a woman, a Hindu, an Indian or dark. But then there are choices I have made through the years that have been mine and if I must be judged, let those be the ones.”
Friedo Pinto once considered her complexion a curse. To be brown in Hollywood was complicated. Instead of cowering and sulking about her disposition she started flaunting it. Why?
“I’ve seen that self-doubt is not just an Indian problem. All people—African, European, American—worry about being different. But I’ve learned that the traits we’d rush to get rid of are the very ones that others desire. People always covet what they don’t have. That’s why we should look at ourselves every now and then and say, “I’m proud of myself. I like the way I’m made.”
This was her ah-ha moment that was featured in the Oprah’s beauty revolution.
People like Indra Nooyi, Kamala Harris and Nandita Berry have not let the shade of their epidermis deter them. They did not use that as an excuse nor indulged in self-pity. They seized the hand they were dealt with and strode forward.
Perhaps it is fitting to end with what Miss America Nina Davuluri declared after winning the crown. She not only silenced her racist commenters, but also instilled hope for generations to come.
“We (brown people) did it again; we managed to take another seat that had, for the most part, been occupied for nearly a century by a white face. Miss America, like the president himself, is an important (if illusory) signifier of who’s in charge around here. All of a sudden “we” brown people were two for two in Obama’s America.”
India spends billions of money on whitening creams, girls lap up laser treatments and surgeries, anything that will lighten their melanin. Many of us agree grudgingly that Nina doesn’t stand to win the crown in the country of her origin, but is it better to alter what nature bestowed on us? Is it easier to hide under lighter skin, would life suddenly become easier and more accepting?
As a Brown Girl and a mother, I know for a fact that skin color is not something that I would want my daughter to fret about. Brown is just a color that makes the black and white pallet more diverse. Who you are has nothing to do what you skin color is. Besides, brown is beautiful and not fair is oh, so lovely!