Gender & Identity, Life

My family calls me “kalo pakhi” (black bird), and it’s only helped to break me down

I'd rub cold lemons on my face because WikiHow said it would help “lighten and brighten” my skin.

When I was younger, I’d rub the fleshy insides of cold lemons on my face because WikiHow said it would help “lighten and brighten” my skin.

I kept this nonsense up for weeks, praying that the citric acid would dissolve the summer brown on my cheeks. I stopped eventually, not because I became aware of the ridiculousness of colorism based pressure within the desi community, but because I was lazy and eventually ran out of lemons.

Lemon shortage aside, colorism exists across countless ethnic groups, each with its own specific brand of dark skin depreciation. Within the desi community, it manifests in marital eligibility. One of the first questions or comments that families will pose concerns of how “forsha” (fair) the potential bride or groom is, with accompanying nods of approval or clucks of disappointment. It makes false promises to dusky girls via the corporate might of skin lightening creams like the infamous Fair and Lovely and their backward propaganda that tries (and succeeds) to link success/desirability/happiness with being lighter.

It exists in quieter places like when my mother advises my youngest sister to swim after sunset, more upset about how much darker she’s gotten than of the chlorine water dripping off her legs and onto the back seat of our new car. Colorism fed an ugly monster that had lived within me for so long, the one that cursed my father for giving me his hairiness and brown nose.

It fueled frustrated jealousy of my lighter skinned sister and our even lighter-skinned mother, who both existed as walking manifestations of the “after” picture on skin lightening ads.

It cemented inferiority into my subconscious whenever family members teasingly called me “kalo pakhi” (black bird). Never mind that I actually existed in a hazy middle ground in which I wasn’t light enough to avoid such comments, but also not dark enough to truly understand the absolute worst condescensions of homeliness.

But it’s even more than that.

Colorism cultivates and perpetuates anti-blackness in our desi communities.

Colorism makes it easier for racism to settle comfortably in our dialogue because devaluing dark skin is already ingrained into our psyches.

It breeds a complicit youth, who take the lustrous parts of black culture, like music and language and style, but drop the ball in understanding the nuances of racial tensions in American society.

We give ourselves a pass because we too fall prey to hateful discrimination for being “other” in white spaces, while simultaneously forgetting our privilege as non-black people of color. This mentality that continues to persist across generations of Desi Americans only further feeds into the discrepancies of the model minority myth, that insists that we, as a demographic group, are expected to perform better socioeconomically.

But by convincing ourselves that we are somehow better than our dark-skinned brothers and sisters, better than our fellow black Americans, we contribute to the longevity of systemic oppression and white supremacy.

So what do we do?

We start and continue conversations about how the coordinated damage of colorism and anti-blackness work hand in hand in our communities. We work to dismantle the hierarchy of color by letting our girls get darker without condemning their self-esteem and checking our elders when they try to justify their prejudices because of media-based stereotypes.

We let our boys know that unless they’re willing to shoulder the weight of centuries of racial discrimination on their shoulders, they should keep their liberal use of the N-word from their tongues. We loudly speak up against institutional anti-blackness at every level, but we also silently support our black brothers and sisters when their voices are the ones that need to be heard.

We work from the inside out, because our solidarity is hypocritical if we aren’t self-aware or actively working to disassemble the issues that continue to plague our communities to this day.

And then maybe I’ll rest assured that my little sister will be happy enough in her brown skin to never feel the need to squeeze lemon juice on anything but her biryani.