My parents tell me that you are always near, always listening. So please hear me out. “Why didn’t you make me white?”
They whisper fables of your glory and miracles at bedtime. So please perform another one. “Please make me more likable.”
I would repeat this prayer night after night in my pubescent years. After the failed first hundred nights, I went to Google — “What are the best duas to guarantee that God hears you? Are certain prayer times better than others?”
I made adjustments to my prayers, yet nothing had changed. Something was innately wrong with me, something that made me unlikable.
Growing up, I tried my hardest to fit in. I convinced myself that I had to be involved in everything, in hopes of boosting my chances of making friends; and, in fact, I did. But despite my efforts, there was always a level of alienation. I was invited to the study hangouts but never to the parties, sat next to on the bus, but never saved a spot at lunch. I was liked, but I was no one’s close friend. It’s humiliating to pretend like you belong when every sign points to the opposite. No matter how hard I tried to fit into the white American culture — even saving up to buy popular clothes right as the trends had died out — there was something I wore day in and day out that could never be returned no matter how hard I tried. A thin fabric that separated me from everyone else, a cloth that made me hate myself.
After a year of being ghosted by God, I figured he was busy replying to more important people, so I decided to take some action of my own. I knew I couldn’t perform miracles but I thought I could alter my skin. As a Muslim, the shower was a place of purification; I thought maybe I could use it to purify myself of this plague. I’d add extra soap to my elbows and neck, the parts of my body that seemed to accept no light, and scrub them incessantly until they brightened. Some nights, those spots seemed to glow — not because I had removed the dark brown from my skin but rather from the burning scarlet rashes I had produced in the process.
I’d like to say that over the years, I matured and learned to love my outer shell. I’d like to say I faced the raging bull of insecurities like a matador who didn’t hide behind his cape. The truth is that I ran. I dashed to the one place I thought would be impenetrable: a castle filled with loved ones who looked like me. Even if I wasn’t accepted by the outside world, I thought I would always have my family. Instead, I soon realized my safe place was more harmful than the dangers I was running from.
As much as I’ve been showered in affection, there have always been hints that family members wished I looked different. As I matured into high school, I took more notice of the quiet comments that aunties made. “His skin looks burnt,” they said. “It’ll be hard for the boy to get married like that.” Their whispers invaded my inner thoughts and eroded the remaining pillars of my self-worth.
At the time, I thought I was the only victim of these insults. It wasn’t until I started college and began engaging in more conversations with South Asians did I realize that colorism was the norm: a widespread generational issue that scarred the majority of our community’s lives.
Colorism traces its origins to the caste system and how the South Asian subcontinent looked down upon outdoor laborers, like the lower caste Sudras and the outcasted Dalits, who became darker day after day under the scorching heat. As a result, being dark-skinned was associated with the physical work marginalized groups were forced to complete. Brahmins, the priests and scholars comprising the highest caste were sheltered from the sun and commanded respect. Over time, the fairer-skinned people were seen as pure and more deserving of opportunities as opposed to the inferior kalo-skinned ones. Colorism was further institutionalized during British colonial times when darker-skinned Indians were ostracized to the point of not being allowed in restaurants and educational institutions. Over centuries, these patterns were woven into the fabric of our community, leading to an unreachable standard for the majority.
Many of these prejudices remain and colorism continues to have a hold on the psychological well-being of South Asians around the world. Many parents within our community force their children to wash themselves with skin-whitening soaps and reject marriage proposals for their children because the bride or groom’s complexion isn’t white enough. Colorism even creates significant professional barriers. One study from 2015 found that many South Asians prevented themselves from pursuing client-facing careers due to insecurities related to skin color. Millions of people who look like me have fallen victim to color-based discrimination, leaving me wondering — if God only created us out of his beauty, why had our exteriors been deemed so ugly?
I thought I could breathe safely within the fortitude of this community’s walls. But the reality was that this was a fragile fortress that suffocated the air out of those who didn’t fit in, a castle that was crumbling from within.
Was there anywhere where we could just be? Where could we be happy?
I hear so many conversations around me about the origins of our generational trauma. Many of us wonder how colorism has prevailed despite our parents and grandparents dealing with the same prejudices. But when I come home every night and I look in the mirror, I don’t see the imperialists; I don’t hear the centuries of victims. I just see an isolated boy stuck in a vacuum with his own insecurities, and in that moment, there’s no one to blame but me.
In no way am I trying to deny the complicated roots of this horrific issue. It’s essential to acknowledge the history of colorism and fight against the microaggressions that we face on a daily basis. But I’ve pointed fingers at others, just as my parents and grandparents did. I can blame the centuries of destructive systems and our history, yet as overly simplified as it may sound — I am the architect of my own destiny and the origin of my future children’s stories. So perhaps the one at fault and the one to fix all my pain wears the same face.
For this flood of harrowing judgment has long broken through the gated walls, sunken the cement of our houses and seeped into my heart. Maybe it’s time to look inward.
When I look at myself, my honest thoughts about the person in front of me are filled with hatred. I see a boy that is “too dark,” “not tall enough” and “overweight.”
How long will I let the poison of this disease corrupt my mind and heart? At some point, the responsibility must fall upon myself, to build a fortress of my own. Some day, I must unlearn all of the hatred that I hold against myself.
So tonight when I stare at the kalo-skinned boy in the mirror with the short stubby legs, it’s possible I will repeat those prayers from sixth grade because those insecurities still linger with me. Or, maybe I’ll start to see the beauty in the rich, warm brown tint that’ll one day paint across the faces of my future children.
MiC Columnist Nazim Ali can be reached at email@example.com.