Michigan in Color: Uncomfortable

Photo courtesy of Hema Karunakaram Buy this photo

By Hema Karunakaram, Michigan in Color Guest Contributor
Published September 17, 2014

There’s half a tube of Fair and Lovely in the bottom drawer of my bathroom. I haven’t used it in years, but I can’t bring myself to throw it out. Scattered elsewhere among the drawers are tubes of Fairever Mantra, Vicco Turmeric Fairness Cream, and Himalaya Fairness Cream, all in various states of usage. Part of me hates that I’ve used these products. I should be above all these superficial notions about ideal complexion by now. But part of me clings to them — clings to the insecurity I’ve had since I was a little girl about the color of my skin, clings to my subsequent obsession with lightening my skin and changing people’s perceptions of me.

I am Indian-American, and I am dark-skinned. To be specific, I’m closest to HTML color #A0522D, or what I call a “dull mocha.” They say it’s genetic; but save for my maternal grandfather, I’m the darkest person on both sides of my family. So? It’s just the color of my skin — it’s not who I am.

Or at least it shouldn’t be.

The societal preference for light skin is no new phenomenon in India. Billboards promoting fair skin are embellished with the face of actress Katrina Kaif — who is in fact half white. Commercials feature girls who’ve used fairness creams getting movie offers from the likes of noted director Rakesh Roshan. Matrimonial ads ubiquitously seek women who are not just smart and talented, but, more importantly, fair-skinned. These unrealistic expectations and their effects on the self-esteem of women in India has been well documented and frequently discussed. But the bias toward light skin isn’t confined to India. It’s traveled across the world to Indian-Americans as well, and has followed me for the 19 years I’ve lived in the U.S.

This isn’t a subject I generally feel comfortable discussing because it seems ridiculous that such notions persist in a country as diverse as the U.S. For all the education and awareness about equality found in America, Indian-Americans seem, too often, to still harbor this preference for the fair-skinned. Indians in America are proud to treat other races with respect, but they often overlook — or in fact perpetuate — the bias that occurs in our own community. Sure, there are plenty of Indian-American youths who proudly decry Fair and Lovely ads and eagerly support looking past skin color. But there are also obvious, unforgettable instances in which I’m reminded of how being dark is a bad thing.

I have been told to my face, here in America, that some people will never find me attractive because my skin is too dark. I have heard with my own ears, here in America, that character is the most important factor in assessing a potential Indian groom, but a potential Indian bride must first and foremost be fair-skinned, and therefore beautiful. I have seen people right in front of me, here in America, judge a fair-skinned Indian as likely more intelligent and successful than a dark-skinned one. All the self-esteem promotion out there is great to see, to hear, to nod at — but it’s not helpful in a world where people are still judged by their complexion.

Young girls are repeatedly told not to idolize what they see in the media, because “no one actually looks like that.” To that end, I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to look like Katrina Kaif or Kareena Kapoor or any other fair-skinned Bollywood celebrity. My insecurity comes from frequently being surrounded by Indian-Americans who are lighter than me and keenly being made aware of that fact. And thus I keep wishing I look more like my fairer peers. Because my skin isn’t glowing against the lights like everyone else’s when I’m on stage. Because I’m the least visible person in that picture taken outside at night. Because I can’t borrow my friend’s makeup, whose colors wouldn’t suit me. These are simply facts that naturally arise from differences in complexion, but I’ve been brainwashed to repeatedly look at them in a negative light.

When someone calls me “dark,” I take it as an insult. The problem, I tell myself, isn’t what they’ve said — it’s my reaction. I reassure myself with the copious amounts of research I’ve done, almost obsessively, on the science of complexion (in short: you can darken your skin, but you can’t lighten it). I look in the mirror and try to accept myself for who I am. And then I hear a joke the next day about me looking “dull” or “invisible.” Cue the incessant water consumption, the herbal remedies, the salon face bleaching, and the use of one of those tubes from my drawers for another week or two. I know I’m so much more than the color of my skin, but somehow that one trait has become one of my primary identifying features over the years — and it’s stuck as something wrong with myself that I can never change.

I have dark brown eyes, black hair, long fingers, a birthmark above my left knee, and medium-dark brown skin. That’s what I look like, but it doesn’t define me. I’m a student, a leader, a dancer, a writer, a musician, a daughter and a friend. That’s what defines me, and that’s who I hope people accept me as. But reality is not so simple. No amount of writing, discussing, or convincing will likely make me truly comfortable in my own skin. So for now I turn to the new Himalaya Clarifying Fairness Face Wash on my desk I bought yesterday, knowing fully well that it won’t do anything for my complexion, but hoping anyway.

Author’s note: This piece has been nearly three years in the making, but it still rings just as true today as it was when I first wrote it. I had the opportunity to present a version of this piece at this year’s Yoni Ki Baat monologue show — a big step in the long journey toward my self-acceptance. Finally, I am ready to take a giant leap, to be vulnerable in front of the largest audience in the world: the Internet. Although emotions may evolve over time, these words have an impact on me every time I read over them — reminding me that no matter where we go and no matter how we change, we carry our experiences forever in our back pockets.

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.