By Devika Girish ’17
Note: This is the fourth in a series of short posts in which the author explores the experience of being a Person of Colour in America from her perspective as someone new to the country. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here. If you would like to continue the conversation, join us for lunch on 11/3 at 12pm in the Petteruti Lounge. RSVP REQUIRED.
Party. Freshman year. I gyrate my way through the writhing mass of college students, trying to orient myself to the dim lighting and to a recreational ritual new to me, wondering (hoping?) nervously if I’d be noticed, asked to dance.
A boy approaches me, and whispers heavily into my ear: “You’re so beautiful. How has an Indian sultan not swept you away, yet?”
Those of us who have been raised in post-colonial countries know that in the public imaginations of our cultures – and, by extension, deep in our own minds – fair skin and the ideals of beauty are entangled together in toxic knots. From the insidious popularity of “fairness skin creams” – the best-known brand being “Fair & Lovely” – whose commercials advertise fair skin as the magic ingredient for beauty, love, confidence, wealth and success in job interviews, to the pervasion of white models in our advertisements and billboards (an “oddity” one of my close American friends noticed during his recent trip to India) to the “skin tone” search category on widely-used matrimonial website Shaadi.com, featuring the options “dark”, “wheatish” and “fair”, to my aunt, who scrubbed her skin with bricks for months as a child after being ridiculed for being the darkest among her siblings – I and everyone around me in my country are reminded constantly that whiteness equals desirability.
Having grown up in this environment, I brought with myself both literal and invisible baggage when I arrived in America – a country where this skin-color-based discrimination has an institutionalised past and present, and in which white privilege isn’t an aspiration, but a daily reality. When I first came to Brown, I was convinced, deep down, that I wouldn’t be considered attractive in my new social setting. Why would I, when I was surrounded by actual, white people, with not just fair skin, but the whole gamut of prized Caucasian features – tall, light eyes, light hair.
In those initial days, compliments caught me off guard; if someone called me pretty, my inner voice would scoff. Dating and romantic interactions became complicated – part of me would be suspicious of interest from white men, finding it difficult to believe that I was attractive to them, another part would be thrilled beyond measure at this validation of my attractiveness, and a third part of me would loathe myself for feeling validated, for seeking white approval and being complicit in the unhealthy valorization of whiteness – that third part of me would question the motivations behind my own interest in white men. Curious questions from friends back home about whether I had a white boyfriend didn’t help; some were just matter-of-fact, others seemed to imply that having a white boyfriend would be some kind of ‘reaching’ or achievement.
Over time, I started to grow more comfortable and confident in my own skin (literally), and these fears and concerns started to fade (though they still surface occasionally, and friends still ask about “white boyfriends”); however, I soon was forced to confront a different kind of complication, one I’d never had to face before I became a ‘foreign’ woman of colour in America: exoticization. Sometimes it was subtle, like men saying that they liked that I looked “different”, sometimes it was more pointed, with men commenting on the “sexiness” of my accent or my “exotic” dark complexion (which is funny, considering that back in India, I received compliments for my “fair” skin), or asking me how an “Indian sultan” hadn’t swept me away yet. Suddenly, the aspects of me that had made me feel undesirable seemed to have become my most desirable attributes, but the underlying reasons felt wrong somehow, as if the very reason I was desirable was my “different-ness”, my otherness. So that, I started second-guessing every compliment, sniffing for traces of exoticization before allowing myself to accept them.
Not that every attraction or interest I’ve had has been caught in this murky web of questions of race, or that every compliment I’ve received has been some kind of insincere fascination with my otherness. However, what I’ve come to realize is that for a person of colour in America, race seeps into and complicates these everyday relations and interactions of life, making even the most personal things political. Which is why it bothers me when people, in response to certain critiques of racism, say that “not everything is about race.” When you live as a person of colour, often, everything is about race – whether you like it or not.