I love being an Indian, truly I do. With the country’s powerful history, one of a kind culture and to-die-for food, how could one simply not?
But behind India’s beautiful face, there is a growing disease that our society continually fails to recognize: colorism.
Colorism is a term coined by author Alice Walker, and is defined as a discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone among people of the same racial and/or ethnic group. Also know as internalized racism.
Growing up, I’ve always had dark skin. I, personally, didn’t see anything wrong with it and ― heck, to be honest ― if you ask anyone I knew back then, it was no secret (with my plaid cargo shorts, above ear length hair and buckteeth) that I gave absolutely ZERO flips about how I looked. And to be quite honest, why should I have? I had great friends, saw the glass half full, and went to bed at 9:30 every night. There was nothing in life that could stop me!
LOL and then middle school happened.
“Yeah, no offense, but I’m so happy I don’t look like you." Everyone laughed, but my blood boiled...
As I got older, I really began to start noticing the things people said about my dark complexion. I remember times when the lights would be turned off in a room and people would say “Where’s Aswathi?” or “Aswathi, smile so we can see you!” Or the times relatives that I hadn’t seen in years would greet me with “Oh my goodness, you’ve gotten so dark!” and then suggest skin bleaching products or face masks for me to use. Yeah, you read that right. Skin bleaching ― it’s actually a thing.
I distinctly remember one specific summer night when, after a church basketball practice, some of us girls had gone out to eat. While enjoying our snow cones, a few girls began looking at their arms and began to complain about how their skin had gotten darker over the summer. I can clearly recall one girl saying to another, “Just be thankful you don’t look like Aswathi,” followed by another girl saying, “Yeah, no offense, but I’m so happy I don’t look like you.” Everyone laughed, but my blood boiled and my eyes burned. Never have I had to bite my tongue so hard. I couldn’t believe that someone had actually told me they were happy because they didn’t look like me. Those eight words have, to this day, hurt me in unexplainable ways.
That night when I got home, I ran upstairs, closed my door, sat on the ground, and cried. I cried like I had never cried before. Hours and hours had passed and there were still tears running down my face. I didn’t want to live. The words and comments those girls had said to me made me hurt in ways I never knew I could hurt before. The things those girls said to me changed the way I saw myself forever.
None of it was truly mean-spirited. The girls at my church are very kind people. But as Indians, ever since we were young, we are embedded with this false idea and mentality that “to be fair is to be pretty and to be dark is not.” Indian media only further adds onto this fallacy by whitewashing (literally) celebrities and actors, along with advertisements that promote the usage of skin lightening creams and products.
But as a young girl, these comments had really brought me down. All those stupid things people had said hurt me and the adverse effects they had on me while I grew up made me see the world, and myself, in a twisted way that I would never wish for someone else.
We as a society have to stop putting people down for the things that make them unique.
I spent far too many summers inside and out of the sunlight. There were summers where I didn’t go swimming at all. I constantly tried out many face masks and skin bleaching products. I thought something was wrong with me. I edited pictures of myself to make me look lighter just so I could be pretty. I hated taking pictures at night and avoided wearing bright colors at all costs. There was time when it got so bad that I hated even looking in the mirror or would start crying while getting ready for school. I would even try to physically scratch the dark from my face. Yeah, it was pretty bad.
But then sophomore year came, and I joined the debate club and wrote a speech (with the help of an awesome coach) about colorism and what I went through, and it made me realize a lot of things. It made me realize that I didn’t need to bleach my skin or hide from the sun anymore. It made me realize that I could wear my favorite color, yellow, and still feel awesome. It made me realize that after years of hating myself, I truly was beautiful just the way God had made me.
That silly speech I had wrote made me change my outlook on so much. I joined groups with people who went through similar experiences as me and shared insightful conversation with people all over the world. One guy even offered me a photoshoot! Through debate tournaments, I met other Indian girls who would hug me after rounds, because they knew exactly what I had gone through. (A little side note: that silly speech and I ended up qualifying for state-level ― and even national-level ― competition.)
My experiences have helped me grow as a person and taught me that the only thing I had to change about myself was nothing.
To anyone who has been shamed for having a dark complexion, what I have to say to you is this:
There is nothing wrong with you. Don’t let others words make you ever think that there is. You don’t have to be fair to be pretty. You are absolutely beautiful just the way you are.
Not everyone can relate to my issues and concerns. Not everyone knows what it feels like to be hated on for having a complexion that’s dark. But we can all relate to being made fun of for who we are. As one beautiful African American proverb so eloquently says:
Beauty is as beauty does. A single monolithic standard of beauty is unattainable ― it makes no sense. Nature, with its phenomenal diversity, provides a model of the range and variety that beauty may assume. Thus, a lily is no more beautiful than a rose; an oak tree no more beautiful than a palm tree; and an opal no more beautiful than a pearl. Each is beautiful in its own way and plays a special role in our world.
We as a society have to stop putting people down for the things that make them unique, whether it be the way their voice sounds, or the type of clothes they wear, or ― you guessed it ― even how dark their skin is. We should learn to love people for all the things that make them who they are, rather than make them feel like they’re any less because of it.
My name is Aswathi Thomas and I can finally say that after 16 years, I love me for me ― dark skin and all. My name is Aswathi Thomas. I’m Indian. I’m dark. And I absolutely do not care.
A version of this post originally appeared on the aswathithomas.wordpress.com.