Race Inequality

Colorism ruined my life growing up in Pakistan

Colorism is a form of internalized racism and has been the absolute bane of my existence.

As an “obsolete” form of discrimination, colorism is used as a weapon to make those with darker skin feel lesser than those with fairer skin. It’s a disease. It’s an ugly, gnarled branch stemming from the oh-so-large tree of racism.

What gives the word “colorism” its inherently toxic meaning is the belief that we can discriminate against others within our own community. Thus, colorism supports the self-rejection of one’s body, culture, and race.

In Pakistan, skin-whitening creams are commonly used among women and it’s considered “the norm” to do so. My grandmothers used it, my friends used it – even my family’s maid used it.

I was only nine years old when I grabbed the “Fair and Lovely” bottle from my friend’s dresser and slathered it all over my face and neck.  I spent a lot of time in the sun as a child – I’d spend days horseback riding, playing tennis, and hiking (I still do), but I was taunted for it. I was compared to Mowgli constantly and called things like ‘Kaali Kaloti’ (dark-skinned woman) by my Pakistani peers. My sister was born with fairer skin, and compared to a sweet, fair “China doll.”

People would compare the two of us and look at me inquisitively with the question “what happened to you?”

Later in life, colorism crept into my personal relationships.

My ex-boyfriend was half Emirati (from the U.A.E) and half Iranian. His other Emirati friends would constantly taunt and mock him for looking “Pakistani,” because apparently, that is an insult. He’d get flustered and annoyed, and project his anger onto me – making fun of my culture, saying I was too “brown,” and declaring he would’ve never gone out with me if I had a “Pakistani” accent.

After moving to Toronto, I faced more colorism, albeit an oddly flattering one.

I was seen as “exotic” for being a woman of color. I seemed too “well-spoken” and “presentable” for someone who grew up in Pakistan and the Middle East. My brown skin was the first thing people saw, and they became shocked when they realized I didn’t have an “ethnic” accent. I won’t deny that I enjoyed the attention sometimes, but the glamorization and exoticization of darker skinned women made me really uncomfortable. Depending on people’s reactions to my skin color, I either reveled in their “ooh’s” and “ahh’s,” or felt ashamed of it.

The only way to combat colorism is to combat your personal demons. That’s exactly what I did. Now, I embrace my darker-than-what-is-considered-beautiful skin because it is beautiful to me.

The darker I become under the sun, doing things I enjoy outdoors in nature, the more empowered I feel – and I would feel the same way regardless of the color of my skin.

Now, when I walk out the front door, the last thing I consider is the color of my skin.

My dear friend Mavra, who can relate to mine as well as many others’ experiences, also went through similar familial and societal discrimination.

After being constantly mocked and teased for being darker than the rest of her family, she began to hear remarks like: “Thank God she has a nice figure and face, her kaali (dark) tone isn’t a setback anymore” once she hit puberty.

As Mavra put it to me: “It’s so problematic that dark skin is automatically linked to being undesirable, but it’s even more problematic that beauty is measured not only by color but also the size of her breasts, the slenderness of her waist, the smallness of her nose and the symmetry of her face.”

The idea of people discriminating within their own communities is truly incomprehensible to me because it alienates us from the people we assume we can relate to and understand the most. And unless we can move past this, darker-skinned women will continue to be mocked, taunted and bullied within their own communities, leading to feelings of unworthiness and self-consciousness that stay through adulthood.

As a young adolescent, I loathed the color of my skin because of societal pressures.

It took me many years to unlearn the backward things my community taught me about beauty. I salute every woman who’s fighting colorism, racism, and objectification every day.

All that I have left to say to those who discriminate and those whose self- esteems and self-worth have fallen prey to this pernicious mentality is this: be “kaali” and proud, don’t let that word get you down!

By Asma Elgamal

Asma Elgamal is our Head News + Society Editor at The Tempest. She's currently a student at Harvard University.