Brown Skin Girl
All people of colour have a profound memory of their first experience of racism. It becomes a monumental event, usually in early childhood, that beckons the first realisation that you are fundamentally different from those around you.
Psychology has taught us that childhood experiences inevitably shape identity, sense of self and worldviews, and younger children are known for their ability to relate to each other through similarities and interests that aren’t influenced by racial differences. I was particularly lucky to grow up in South London – colourful, vibrant, and extremely diverse. I don’t ever recall being the only brown person. Yet, this diversity didn’t shield me from encountering racism. I was about 7 when a girl whispered that her mother didn’t want her to play with me because I had brown skin. It was such a life changing moment because I specifically saw my skin as something external from who I was as person, and that having brown skin wasn’t desirable.
This alienation became more apparent as I got older. Although I went to an all-girls school with a BAME population of over 90%, I quickly realised how brownness was characterised by a sense of invisibility and the crude stereotype of the nerdy, quiet, and submissive Asian girl. Brown people never played the lead in school plays, they were never seen in films (unless they were the awkward token characters), never represented in music, and I was a teenager before I had encountered a brown character in a book. South Asian culture has constantly been ridiculed, marginalised, and suppressed. Even in their rare representations, they are only used as mouthpieces to affirm western values, particularly white saviour-ism.
Not only was the exclusion of brown people so normalised, but it was also reciprocated by South Asians. Particularly from my family, I noticed a desire to remain invisible. Ever since I remember, my parents demanded a clear-cut demarcation between Western society and our conservative South Asian household. I wasn’t locked up in the house and not allowed to have friends of other ethnicities, but my parents always warned me that I would never be ‘one of them’. My traditional parents emphasised difference as a defence mechanism against racism and to preserve our culture. This burden is disproportionately placed on the shoulders of females – who become flag bearers of honour. The policing of clothing, sexuality and the restriction of movement served to emphasise the difference between a respectable South Asian female in relation to a more ‘loose’ Westernised female.
However, this self-segregation is also a result of internalised racism. As racism relies on a power interplay in which whiteness is superior and every ‘other’ race is inferior, many victims of historical racism internalise their oppression. This is evident in colourism and the South Asian obsession with fair skin. Many South Asian girls will remember being told to stay out of the sun or the pressure to use fairness cream to lighten their complexion. The global skin whitening market is a multi-billion industry which feeds upon internalised racism through equating whiteness with ideas of beauty and power. We even see it splashed across pop culture as Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking has shed light upon the casualised colourism in the Indian dating scene – the fact that complexion itself was a dating preference shows how colourism, an off-shoot of racism, continues to be perpetuated by racial ‘others’.
As "white" values were seen as immodest and corrupt, white skin continues to hold the utmost value. This coloniser complex, this love-hate relationship with whiteness creates an irresolvable complex – to be white or not to be white? It's only in the past decade where I have slowly seen a mass change in attitudes surrounding colourism and racism. In the Western world, I believe a large part of it is because of how far the black empowerment movements have progressed in educating a society that was hellbent on miseducating itself. It will take longer for the message to seep through the tall walls of the South Asian community, but I think we're getting there.
By Nazrin Bhadusha