After a hard day’s running around in the sun kicking a ball or kicking another child, my mother would bring me inside and rub my skin with a mixture of cucumber pulp and milk. Why, I would ask. To keep you from getting dark, she would say.
As the somewhat duskier child of a fair mother, I never really had much conception of skin color. There was only one distinction for me: I am not white, I am brown. From the ages of 6 to maybe 12 I was dark, kissed by the sun at recess. Then came puberty and more time spent inside studying. I grew paler and thought ah, I must be fair now. I would wink at myself in the mirror as I got ready in the mornings. Now I am suitable and desirable and marriage material. And I carried on like that till college.
At university, my best friend was a Fijian girl. Her family came from Tamil Nadu two generations before her and her skin was rich and dark. When we walked the hallways together we would get stares. When we went to parties together, I would get hit on.
Boys like you more, she would say. It’s not fair.
It’s because I’m prettier, I would think. It was because I am lighter, I know now.
These petty frustrations and semi-drunk heart-to-hearts never found a home until one boy brought it all out in cold light for us.
I don’t remember his name, we used to refer to him as Papaya, childishly code-naming him to the point now where he practically disappears into murky memory when called. He was half-East Asian and half-white and looked it. He chased my friend persistently, even climbing into her bed shirtless while she protested and I stood next to them. He didn’t understand why she wouldn’t date him. At the time, I didn’t either but I took her side against him. Then one day, he started moving in on me — accompanying us to parties so he could get me alone, talking over her to me, grabbing my hand for no reason.
I didn’t understand what was happening. How could this boy think I would accept his advances after he made his intentions clear with my friend? How could he think I would want him to touch me so brazenly in front of her? I told her what he was doing, and she confronted him. Lucky me that she decided to have it out with him under the window of my second-floor dorm where my roommate and I could overhear.
“Why are you chasing her?” my friend asked, reeling her neck back ready for his inexcusably ridiculous response.
“Listen, I’m white so it makes sense that I’m into Nadya rather than you,” he said, crossing his arms in front of his chest like it was obvious.
“Why does it make sense?”
“Because she’s lighter.”
My friend made quick work of him — I can’t remember if she slapped him or just marched off in a righteous explosion, but I remember my roommate and I excitedly cheering her on while Papaya cowered and trudged off.
I didn’t think about the inherent colorism of the whole situation again besides commenting every now and then to my friend in the years after “Remember Papaya? That was fucked up.” And that would be it. I remember consoling her about my popularity with boys, trying to assure her it was superficial attraction and anyone who got to know her would adore her in a second. I thought I was doing her a favor, but all I was doing was trying to make myself feel better for advantages I didn’t earn.
My skin color has never been an issue for me. I’ll say as much. I would be considered ‘wheatish’ on matrimonial dating sites and my biodata would probably need to include a few other perks to make up for it but my prospects wouldn’t be dashed completely. With the exception of one Tinder acquaintance who mean-spiritedly called me dark after I told him he probably couldn’t see me blush, my experience with colorism has been non-existent.
I’ve found myself recently, as I swipe through white boy after white boy on dating apps, attracted to darker skinned South Asian boys. These men with skin like polished copper and curly black hair look like the epitome of romantic to me. And there is definitely something not right about that — maybe I’m over-compensating for being on the fairer side or fetishizing an experience I’ve never had. Either way it unsettles me but doesn’t stop me.
There is a Toni Morrison quote that always strikes me in the heart, ““What are you without racism? Are you any good? Are you still strong? Still smart? Do you still like yourself?”
Do I still like myself? If I wasn’t fair-ish would I feel comfortable? If I didn’t have a darker friend in college would white boys have been able to decide I was the lesser of two exotic evils?
Does it matter that I am more Kajol fair than Kareena fair?
This is an on-going interrogation I have with myself and I hate that I come to the same answers every time.