Drink milk, it’ll make you fair.
I had a rich and vibrant upbringing with my hyphenated identity — a Canadian with Sri Lankan immigrant parents. But being a little chocolate-colored child, I also grew up hearing comments like this from relatives and people within our community. Aunties would tell me to eat carrots for lighter skin. I was warned to stay out of the sun so that I wouldn’t get even darker. I even remember a relative once looking at my parents, then at me, and wondering aloud “how did she become this dark?” Her question was met with silence – because really, what is there to say?
I had moments like that throughout my life while living in Canada and visiting Sri Lanka. Then, a few years back, I moved to the south of Spain to start a new adventure in a completely different culture. The people here love the sun and go to great lengths to achieve that golden tan; pre-sun visits to tanning salons, weekends spent at the pool or the beach, tanning oils, even melanin pills to tan from the inside out. Considering all this effort, the general reaction to my skin tone was often appreciation, sometimes with a touch of envy.
However, I also encountered the concept that it’s possible to be “too dark.” Many people have stated (some directly to me and others amongst themselves in Spanish, believing I wouldn’t understand) that I’m negra pero guapa — black but beautiful.
[Read Related: Dark Goddesses and me: Religious Colorism in Hindu India]
Incidentally, this is a comment I have also heard from within the Sri Lankan community on multiple occasions, uttered to me directly or said to my parents with me in the room:
Dark but beautiful.
While I always understood this type of comment to be problematic, it was only recently, with more information available and open discussions, that I was able to name the problem — this is colorism, discrimination and prejudice based on skin color.
Colorism is understood to be part of the fallout of colonialism, and here we can see that legacy in two post-colonial cultures, groups who have played the roles of both the colonizers (Spain) and the colonized (Sri Lanka).
While colorism generally centers around discrimination within a racial group, here we have two different examples: the Sri Lankan community is reflecting this idea internally, while the Spanish are externalizing it, using it to look at other races. The people making these comments, products of these communities and histories, were likely unaware of the discrimination that is baked into their thinking and their actions. Yet both cultures are manifesting the same idea: that beauty excludes dark skin.
I never questioned those comments when I was younger because I was too consumed by my own reaction, too busy nursing my hurt feelings to have the presence of mind to challenge the idea. Now, older and wiser, when Spanish people (usually strangers) make these comments, I do try to question them in a non-combative way.
[Read Related: My Journey of Unlearning Internalized Colorism]
When I ask “what do you mean by ‘but?’” most people will brush it off without clarifying anything, “oh, you know what I mean.” (No, I don’t). I try to press the topic but I’m also careful, because in fact I don’t need an explanation, and I’m definitely not looking for an argument. My hope is that our exchange will at least make that person ask themselves the same question and examine why they would think and say such a thing.
I don’t know if there’s ever been any lasting impact or change resulting from these conversations, but I will keep having them. I see it as my responsibility to speak up and I hope that I can at least plant a seed or promote some critical thinking in the people I interact with.
Admittedly, it took some time for me to reach this place. When I was younger, I didn’t internalize the negativity in a debilitating way, but I did buy into the idea of “fair and lovely.” I would see fairer girls in the Sri Lankan community and think they were so much more beautiful. Thankfully, I don’t remember ever actively thinking that I was ugly or even that I was too dark. It was more that I perceived it was “better” to be fair. I even created stories about myself as a white girl when I was 11 or 12. I gave myself a white girl name (though I kept my jet black hair) and wrote of my adventures in the world as a fair-skinned person.
As I got older, that perception of what was “better” changed. The end of high school and my university years were formative for me—I came into myself, developed significant friendships, explored my interests and started to really carve out my identity as a Canadian, as a Sri Lankan, as a woman, as an individual.
[Read Related: Book Review: ‘Unfair’ by Rasil Kaur Ahuja Explains Colorism to Children Through Storytelling]
As I was doing that, supported by great friends and family, bolstered by my rich South Asian heritage as well as North American ideas and experiences, I gained a confidence that allowed me to let go of the things I can’t control. I don’t remember a specific moment when my mindset switched but I eventually fell into a space between loving and appreciating my dark skin and recognizing there are more important things to put my energy into. It was an understanding that came from somewhere inside that almost neutralized the negative ideas — this is who and what I am, my melanin is the bomb, Thank U, Next.
I no longer need to write stories about a white girl’s adventures. I don’t need to hide or hesitate, or wish for something different. Perhaps most importantly, I can receive those offensive comments about my skin color without internalizing them or taking them personally. I can see them for what they really are, understand where they might be coming from and turn the conversation in a different direction.
I can also happily spend summer weekends at the beach under the hot Mediterranean sun (slathered in sunscreen, of course) and joyfully return home several shades darker in complete freedom.
I believe that with continued conversations, education and representation, ideas can change. I can contribute to that change as an individual by confronting and challenging the offensive ideas and comments I hear from people in my European city and within the Sri Lankan community. I obviously can’t hope to completely expunge colorism from two entire cultures, but I will certainly do my part, speak up whenever the opportunity arises and encourage others to do the same.