My skin takes on different shades depending on the season. During summer, my skin becomes a rich chocolate with warm undertones from napping on the beach. I tan so easily that one summer I had to buy an entirely new shade of concealer. But in the winter, my skin dulls out into an ashy brown. The cold air turns my face pale, leaving only a numb redness for color. Nevertheless, my skin is brown.
The first time I realized this was at lunch in the second grade. One of my friends had just said I looked similar to Alex Russo from “Wizards of Waverly Place” to which someone at the lunch table responded, “No she doesn’t, she’s too dark.” I was stunned. I was embarrassed. One second I was being compared to my childhood idol, and the next I was becoming cognizant of race and color. I watched “Wizards of Waverly Place” like usual that evening, except, it wasn’t the same: Every time Alex came onto the screen, I stared at my reflection in the mirror. Prior to that comment, my skin served the sole purpose of containing my organs and protecting me from germs. Afterwards though, it was like seeing myself with a new filter where my “dark” skin stood out first and foremost. I peered into different mirrors, bending over trying to get in a good look. I turned the lights on and off to inspect my reflection under different conditions. After acknowledging the overall brownness of my skin, I turned my hands so my palms were facing me. I realized this part of my skin was the most fair, and most similar to what I had known to be the “skin-colored” crayon. At that moment, I thought about how if the color of my fingertips was the same for the rest of my body, then I would look like Alex. I was looking at my palms when I noticed the fine line along the side of my fingers where the lighter skin blended straight back into the brown. This was the last hint of pale skin until I turned my palms around and was met with the rest of my skin, and in that moment, the words of the kid from the lunch table rushed back, and I fully realized that the color of my skin was brown.
The next thought was, why am I brown? The simple answer was genetics, but I was curious about why exactly being brown-skinned made me so different from Alex — different enough that someone else would point it out. I asked my older cousins this, to which they responded, “It’s because we’re Brown.” This time brown didn’t refer to the color of my skin. Instead, Brown signified an identity, synonymous to Desi. Google dictionary defines Desi as anyone of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi descent. The word itself originates from the Sanskrit word, desh, meaning country. I fell under the category of being Brown or Desi as a Bangladeshi-American, but I did not fully understand it until I discovered JusReign on YouTube.
His videos like “Most Annoying Brown Guys” and “Surviving Brown House Parties” outlined my own Brown experience. His videos never fail to make me laugh and become nostalgic about coming to school picture day in my Eid dress from last year, or trying to leave a house party hours after my parents said it would just be one cup of chai. JusReign is a Sikh, Canadian-Punjabi male content creator, and I am a Muslim, Bangladeshi-American female. Yet, I am able to enjoy his content as if he speaks directly to me. This is because, at the end of the day, I know we are both Brown. His content even serves as a conversation starter for when I met other Brown peers. Through this, I came to recognize the close proximity between Desi peoples in spite of other differences.
Even though Brown takes two separate meanings in my life, my skin color and ethnic background easily and often overlap. The thing about skin is that it’s not something I can hide. It’s one of the first things people notice about me. And without fail, people often take it as an opportunity to make guesses on my ethnic background. It manifests in different forms of the same question: “Where are you from?” Apparently, the correct answer isn’t my birthplace, so they ask again, “No, like, where are you really from?”
The most popular guess is India. When I correct them by saying Bangladesh, I am met with a confused look. After a more in-depth introduction to Bangladesh — or even just mentioning that it’s that country close to India, but not India — the general reply is “That’s basically India though.”
In my high school freshman year algebra class, we were talking about what names we’d assign one another if we didn’t know each other. My teacher looked at me and said, “Pooja.” I didn’t think too much of it, until he said the same name for the only other brown-skinned girl in our class. The name Pooja is of Indian origin. We were both Bangladeshi-American girls with Arabic names.
A few months later, a man sitting next to me on the train asked “where are you from?” He gave an “aha” after I told him I was Bangladeshi-American. Later in our conversation, he asked for my Snapchat and I lied saying I didn’t have one. He simply said, “Oh yeah, you Indian girls got strict parents.”
Time and time again, my skin suggests to others that I was Indian. It was easy to accept this ignorance and simplify my identity to Desi. It was simpler to explain to others and even connect with other Desi people. But while Desi is an overarching label I identify with, I am actually of Bangaldeshi descent. That’s not the same as being Indian.
My dad made sure I never forget that. For as long as I can remember, he would blast Bengali news from the TV, car radio and even his phone in public. He took my siblings and me to Bangladeshi picnics, events and performances where we could learn about Bengali culture and history. My dad would randomly break into song, singing the Bangladesh national anthem, “Amar Shonar Bangla” which translates to “my golden Bengal.” Evenings with my dad consisted of hearing random facts about Bangladesh like its national flower, a water lily, or stories about how his older brothers received new Bangladeshi passports after the Liberation War came to an end in 1971. Even though we could not visit, he painted a vivid image of Bangladesh for me through stories of visiting the shores of Cox’s Bazar and riding a motorcycle through the busy streets of Sylhet.
This past Friday — March 26, 2021 — marked the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence. I did not realize until the day of. The whole day I kept thinking about how young Bangladesh is for a country — 50 years of independence, meaning 50 years of its formal existence in the world. I thought about all the times I have been the first person to introduce the very existence of Bangladesh to others. Yet, I felt disconnected, knowing that I was accustomed to labelling myself as Desi rather than Bangladeshi-American. While identifying with Desi offers me a place within a larger community, it also conflates multiple identities into a single one. The term Desi often overlooks, and even neglects, the nuances of other South Asian identities.
About a decade later, I asked myself the same question: Why am I Brown? I know now the answer isn’t simply because I’m Desi. My skin, a mix of my dad’s deep brown and my mom’s honey color, instead connects me to my family. It reminds me of my uncles who lived through the birth of Bangladesh, my Indian grandfather and my distant Persian ancestors. Though it is not always interpreted as such, my skin is the unique product of my Bangladeshi ancestral history.
At the start of quarantine, I found myself rewatching “Wizards of Waverly Place.” The series remains one of my childhood favorites, and I still adore Alex Russo as a character. Yet, this time around, I was able to focus on the show instead of my own reflection in the mirror. I may not look like Alex Russo, but I am okay with that. Instead of being fixated on my palms and imagining what it would be like if the rest of skin was that light, I have come to appreciate my skin as it is. The backs of my hands tell a million stories of my ancestors, and I would never trade that for anything –– not even to look like Alex Russo.
MiC Columnist Zafirah Rahman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.