What It’s Like To Have Darker Skin In A Culture That Tells Me It’s ‘Ugly’

“I brought a new brightening face scrub for you to try.” “After this year, quit band to focus on your studies.”

If a stranger were to hear this in passing, they might think that these comments from people in my community were made out of worry about sun damage to my skin, to make sure I’m keeping good hygiene by exfoliating, to make sure I’m not doing poorly in my classes because of my extracurricular activities. And when I was younger, I didn’t think about the deeper meaning behind any of them either.

I’m an Indian-American born in New York and raised in East Tennessee, and my parents are immigrants from South India. I grew up in a mostly white town with Hispanic and Black families, and could count the number of Indian families living there on my hand. While I stayed a little connected to my parents’ culture, I definitely saw myself as less “Indian” and more “American.” I can definitely pinpoint a few cultural similarities between the American South and South Asian culture: Religion holds many communities of people together, family comes first and tradition is valued.

Of course there were still plenty of differences between my white American friends and myself. One perk of having brown skin is not worrying so much about getting a sunburn, while my friends were more aware about reapplying sunscreen when we had field days at our elementary school. I would put on a little sunscreen because I knew it was supposed to keep my skin healthy, but my friends put on more sunscreen to avoid the painful stinging sensation of red and blistering skin. Interesting exchanges would always occur between us regarding my different skin color, either with my friends or their parents. Such as “I wish I could just tan in the sun like you,” or “Your skin makes you look so healthy!” It was an odd experience, because my parents never made a big show of complimenting my skin the way others had. In my eyes having brown skin wasn’t that big of a deal, but I would later learn that this wasn’t the case.

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