Michigan in Color: The Unbearable Weight of Sunlight

Courtesy of Anitha Menon
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By Anitha Menon, Contributor
Published October 15, 2014

When I was younger, my mother’s resonating mantra was, “Stay out of the sun.” She’d sometimes scold me for playing outside too long when she’d come home from work and comment on how dark my face had gotten. She would scrub both of our skins with a homemade concoction of chickpea flour, turmeric and olive oil that was supposed to lighten our complexions.

“You were the fairest baby in the Maharashtra hospital, Anu. All the nurses told you were such a pretty baby. Now? Kanna, you look like a beggar child.” She would say Kanna, in Tamil — my first language — for “my eyes,” with more love than I can — even now — know.

My mother is one of the most intelligent people I know. Growing up in South India, she always made the highest grades in her classes and is so gifted at math that she became the only female calculus professor at a top college there. She and my father met at a bus stop and have what relatives would call, clucking their tongues, a love marriage. This is a term that seems redundant to me, but is shrouded in scandal, indicating that their marriage is not arranged and not sanctioned by their families. My mother is several shades darker than my father, a stigma that has followed her across an ocean to America. In India, fair is beautiful; dark is irrelevant. Miss India, year after year, looks more white than Indian. The most recent Miss America, Nina Davuluri, is too “dusky” to ever win an Indian beauty pageant.

My mother loved that her daughter was relatively light-skinned for a South Indian. At Indian parties, I felt gaudy in the layers of bright silk and chiffon she’d dressed me in and overdone under the foundation and powder that she’d caked onto my skin. “You’re glowing,” she would whisper, squeezing my hand. “You’re beautiful.” I can’t quite describe the way I felt when she called me beautiful. I always went to the bathroom to look in the mirror whenever she did, to touch my face, and to try to see what exactly had elicited her compliment. I couldn’t stop smiling all night.

We visited India over my winter break in seventh grade. My dark-skinned cousins would look at me in awe, teasing me and saying that I should act in Bollywood movies. A stranger on the street once asked me if he could touch the underside of my arm. It was so fair. In America, I’d never even gotten a second glance. I wasn’t allowed to walk down the streets of Chennai without my uncle or dad because — as I’d overheard my mother telling my aunt one day — the men looked at me as though they were in a mitai kada — a candy store. Even with the distress in her voice, I could still hear an unmistakable hint of pride.

During the summer, if I spent my time safely indoors, reading or studying, I could maintain a light, high-yellow complexion and my mother’s approval. My life grew counter to the arc of the sun. Where it was, I was not. Sunny days became a burden: even one hour outside could significantly darken my complexion. I hated playing sports, going to the park and, especially, going to the beach because I would feel sick the whole time I was there, worrying about how dark I was undoubtedly getting. Around this time, my mother showed me a strange product called Fair and Lovely. You can only find it on the dusty shelves of Indian grocery stores. The label displayed a dark-skinned model, looking sadly into the distance and becoming progressively happier as her skin became progressively paler, thanks to this “miracle cream.” These were, after all, the rules: dark = unhappy; light = happy. The first time I put the cream on my face, my skin felt synthetic, cold, and it stung delicately. I started using it religiously, believing completely that I was in need of a miracle.

When I started high school, my skin naturally became a couple shades darker, much to everyone’s dismay. I remember that in ninth grade I won first place at a local debate tournament. The trophy was a framed candid photo of me delivering our team’s championship-winning speech under harsh fluorescent lighting. The dollar-store frame somehow felt heavy in my clenched hands: the words “First Place Speaker, Okemos Debate Classic” were printed at the base of the photo in white Arial font. But all I could do was stare at my image, my features nearly imperceptible against my dark face. Had I really gotten so dark this summer?

I’ve forgotten everything else about that day. All I remember is that I’d slipped the picture into my backpack and waited until I was home to tiptoe to my room and shove it into the back of my closet, so I wouldn’t have to show my mother. I’d learned young this awful habit of putting up a facade, of preempting hurt. I lived in the shadow of my appearance.

Only when I left for Michigan did the facade begin to crack. The first time a white boy told me he thought the color of my tanned skin was “hot as fuck,” I was the drunkest I’ve ever been. I ran to the bathroom to throw up but ended up sitting there, staring at the floor in a daze. I’d made straight 'As’ throughout my life, I was eloquent, and I had friends who loved me. Yet a stranger who had just wanted to get into my pants had the power to do something I couldn’t: make me feel beautiful in my skin. A friend pushed her way into the bathroom and freaked out when she saw the tears on my face, demanding I tell her what the hell had happened. I tried to articulate (but ended up slurring) that it was September and how much I hated the way my skin looked in the fall and what Fair and Lovely was and why I sometimes used it. She held my hair back and responded softly, “Now that’s some racist shit.”

Even through the Crystal Palace haze, her words had stung. I’d never thought of it as racism. I was 18 at the time, a self-proclaimed humanist, and damn proud of how open-minded I’d grown to be. I was certainly no racist.

Well, except for a tendency to think dark skin was ugly.

It was slow, the transition. It would take friends who would, in March, put their arms around my shoulders and say, “You need some sun, girl! We’re getting pasty!” It would take friends who would throw tubes of lightening cream from my makeup bag into the trash and ask, “The hell is wrong with you, Anitha? This shit is gonna give you cancer.” It would take friends who would drag me to the lake and tell me I looked hot that day and teach me how to kayak and make me forget about how I looked altogether.

Only recently did I finally find the courage to say no to my mother when she told me not to spend too much time in the sun. I was just leaving our house to play tennis with a friend, and she was washing dishes at the sink. I don’t know how I’d expected her to react. Did I expect her to scream? She’d just stopped and hesitated. She cocked her head at me, looking into my eyes as though she were looking at me for the first time and responded, “No?” I stared back, unblinking, “Amma, I just want to play tennis right now, OK? That’s all I want to worry about right now — is that OK?” A heavy look overcame her face, and a remorseful apology began to form in my throat. But I just kept staring at her. She dropped her gaze and said, plainly, “OK, Kanna. Be safe.” And she went back to scrubbing the dishes, as though nothing had changed.

When I was younger, I felt endlessly victimized by my mother’s domineering expectations. But these days, each time I see her, she looks less domineering and more human, more tired. Last August, we went to the mall and she wanted to stop by the Clinique counter to pick up some foundation. She picked up a shade of foundation the color of sand, of a Bollywood starlet, but not of herself, and began to apply it. The classically white salesgirl, likely with the best intentions, practically pulled the bottle from my mother’s hands,

“Ma’am, your skin is much too dark for that shade of foundation. Why don’t you try something a little more natural?”

She replaced it with another one, the color of what I might describe as milk chocolate. But I could tell from the pain in my mother’s eyes that she wouldn’t have described it that way. To her, the color was heavy, one weighted by a culture and a bias she’d never been able to leave behind in India. I knew that she was too self-conscious of her English and of her race to tell the salesgirl to fuck off, that she would buy the foundation, and that it would sit, forever unopened, in some drawer in our house. I immediately took the bottle from my mother and shoved it back to the salesgirl, telling her to have a nice day.

After, I took my mother to the food court, and we shared a jalapeño soft pretzel — spicy, our favorite. I told her, somewhat sheepishly, that I thought she was beautiful, with or without any dumb foundation. She looked startled. I guess that was, for some reason, the first time I’d called her “beautiful.” She told me so frequently; how had it taken me so long to say it back? We were both, I suppose, victims of a world that we had allowed to define us.

“Thank you.” She touched my hand, “I always wonder how I ended up with a daughter as wonderful as you.”

I think (all the time) about the things I’ll someday teach my own daughter. She will know about grammar and kindness and about being patient and being passionate. She will know what it’s like to break hearts and to have her heart broken. She will know when to hold her tongue and when to hold her own. I’ll take her to the beach, and she will know how to swim and how to snorkel and canoe and raft. And maybe we will just sit in the sand and watch the water for hours and know what it’s like to feel indomitable and infinite.

But she will never, ever know the unbearable weight of sunlight.

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.