The Darker the Berry

20 April 2018
Poorniima Colourism

The feeling of the sun on your face is one of life’s simplest, most affordable pleasures.

But, not if you’re a brown girl.

I remember being told by family, after seeing them for the first time in months, that I’d “better be careful” because I’d gotten so dark in the New Zealand sun. But it’s not as if they were trying to hurt me. This warning came topped with the biggest scoop of love and a sprinkle of concern. But, it was as if, to them, becoming dark was something to be afraid of.

Colourism is the post-colonial monster that hides in the light. It prides itself on its insatiable hunger for brown girl insecurity, something that’s rampant in today’s bleached world. It’s a concept founded on the fundamental notion that lighter skin and Eurocentric features are somehow better and more desirable than darker skin and natural beauty. If all you’ve heard around you growing up is that “only light skin with European features is considered beautiful”, there comes a time when that’s what you’ll find yourself believing.

I know what you’re thinking. Colourism, racism, quite a few “isms” floating around, right? Although they sound the same, colourism and racism are entirely different. Racism is inter-racial, it usually comes from someone who doesn’t belong to the race they are talking about. Whereas, colourism is intra-racial; it usually comes from a PoC, or is a same-race person talking about members of their own race in a derogatory manner. What makes colourism racism’s “uglier” sister is the fact that it’s a form of internalised racism. PoC have internalised European standards of beauty to the point at which anything that is a shade darker than milk is as off- putting as having to pay one dollar extra for soy milk in your latte (disgusting, I know).

Although, looking back, it’s not hard to see how we got here. European standards of beauty became normalised and desirable from as early as the 15th century, when European powers colonised India and other Asian nations. Masters and lords decorated Indian society, each powdered with a fine coat of “white”—pale skin, blue eyes and golden hair. The psychological effect that these societal hierarchies had on Indian society is mirrored in colourism. This is why PoC simply can’t “get over” the history of our native countries.

“Bleaching syndrome” is a phenomenon where PoC invest in skin-lightening products. It’s a huge unspoken reality within our communities, and something that will continue to follow us for a long time. It’s something that isn’t helped by instances such as Vogue India choosing Kendall Jenner to be their cover girl for their tenth anniversary. Reinforcing yet again that it’s blonde, brunette and white that gets you on the cover, and the losing hand of all-brown everything gets you a tokenistic page-six feature.

I’m not immune from basking in my own privilege. By PoC standards, although I am dark, I am still “light”, comparatively, on this intangible scale of skin hues. I used to revel in the fact that my relatives would praise my lightness and look down on the visibly darker family members. This was my edge, I thought. It has taken so many years on the almost excruciating road of self-acceptance to unlearn this. My edge is not being brown, or relatively lighter. My edge is being me.

My brownness became like a mud I tried to scrub off every waking minute of every day. I wanted to be light. I resented the summer months when I would play outside with my friends and return home 50 shades darker. I wanted to be worth more with a golden mop atop my head, reminding people of delicate chains of precious metal that glinted in the sunlight.

I was able to dismiss my skin colour within my family because of my “light” privilege. But, outside the safety of home was a different story. The biggest lesson that any PoC will learn throughout their lives is that this skin never gives you the opportunity to dismiss it. It isn’t something you can hide behind, a secret weapon that only gets unleashed when you’re backed into a corner. In this black-and-white world, it’s your only defence against stares laced with bleach.

But the moment I truly realised how far I’d have to carry the weight of this concept with me was when I attended a wedding and overheard some guests whispering, “She’s lucky she got married because she’s so dark.” And, I realised that not even on what everyone calls the “happiest day of your life” would I be able to escape from the clutches of colourism. To put it bluntly, I was pissed. Before I even opened my mouth, my skin colour had done all the talking and said volumes about my worth.

Recently, I reunited with my Bharatanatyam (Indian Classical Dance) Guru (teacher) after not seeing her for the better part of four years. I remember walking up to her front door, anticipation and excitement threatening to bubble over, filled with the same desperation to impress her as I had when I was her student. I wondered if to her, I still looked the same, with significantly shorter hair streaked with bronze and a nose ring to match. I heard her approach the door, and suddenly, it was open.

“Veera! What happened to you, you used to be so fair!” Her tone was shocked, almost sad. As if she was mourning the loss of the girl she used to know, the one who could dance in lighter salwaar’s because I passed the “brown paper bag test”.

I’m the type of person who smiles and laughs whenever they’re in pain. And so, the only thing I could do in that moment was to stretch my mouth from ear to ear, while the memory of middle-school Veera was slowly tainted by my darkened skin.

It was this exact moment that I stopped apologising and hiding away from what was literally right in front of me. I remembered a quote from one of my favourite spoken word pieces: “When they call you dark as night, tell them that without you, the stars would have nothing to shine for.”

And I’ve never stopped sitting in the sun.

2 responses to “The Darker the Berry”

  1. Chandra Mamtani says:

    Veera – fantastic and very well written – you have a flair for writing and should continue with it and perhaps make it a profession !

  2. Sujoy Brahma says:

    Your article touched my heart. I am so proud of you. Your writing skills and articulation of the topic is amazing. Keep writing and growing. You are an amazing, beautiful person. Inside and Outside!!

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