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Michigan in Color: Made of fire

Photo Illustration by Teresa Mathew
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By Teresa Mathew, Managing Photo Editor
Published February 9, 2014

I wish I could tell my skin that it is made of fire. That it covers blood and bone and muscle no different in makeup from Jennifer Lawrence or Michelle Obama or Emma Watson.

I wish I could tell my skin that it exists as a covering for what is pulsing within my body, that it has been designed to keep me safe, and that anyone who cares more about wrapping paper than what it contains inside is a fool.

And I am learning that even the people who love me can be foolish.

I am trying to come to peace with something I never used to cry over.

I am trying to tell my skin, I am trying to tell myself, I am trying to tell my mother and my family and whoever I want to love me that I am more than my color.

But I am my color, too.

My skin is not a shade an Indian mother can be proud of, my skin is the color of cinnamon and peeled-back tree bark, and my skin never used to make me ashamed.

I am dark. My father is darker, could probably pass for Black if his features were not so unmistakably Indian. My mother, on the other hand, is fair. I never had a problem with being dark when I was younger — my father’s sister is darker than he is. I thought her skin glowed, it was so black. I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I used to sit out in the sun so my skin would grow to be like hers. And I laughed at that Indian standard of beauty, sure I would never care about the shade of my skin.

But then I turned fifteen, and I sat in a room while my great-uncle demanded to know why my two-year-old niece, whose skin is far, far fairer than mine, was “so terribly dark.” He thundered this at my uncle in a tone both angry and disapproving, and I shrunk back into a corner and tried to disappear and learned for the first time that being brown could make me feel small.

I was twenty and listening as my great-aunt told my mother that I was looking a bit nicer now that I at last looked fairer (living through two Michigan winters will do that to you). Most painful of all, I had to listen to my mother tell me she agreed with my aunt, that she thought fairer was prettier as well. This from a woman who married a man so dark his complexion isn’t just shades darker than hers, it’s at the bottom of an entirely different paint swatch. What did that say about what she thought of my father? What did that say about what she thought about me?

I know they say beauty is only skin deep. But we want even that thin layer of skin to be wholly accepted by the people we love, regardless of its color.

When I tell white Americans that Indians prefer fair skin, they inevitably ask me, in a tone half disapproving and half slyly pleased, “Oh, so like … they want to be my skin color?” I used to think it was my duty to sweetly answer these condescending questions. I do not think so anymore.

I do not want to be your skin color. I want to be my own. And I want to be comfortable in it, the same way I was when I was a child and didn’t notice that no one I read about in books or saw on television looked like me.

I want my mother and the mothers of other Indian girls I know, smart, educated women who love and want the best for their daughters, to stop caring about the color of our skin.

Let us play outside if we want to.

Let us get darker, let us develop.

We are more than the shade of brown we are labelled by.

Let us understand that we are made of fire.

Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail michiganincolor@umich.edu.