On Brown Pride

I knew about my brownness from a very young age. In India, dark skin signifies poverty, labor, and ugliness. To my grandparents, I was, and still am, a “kalu,” a blackie. During my summers in India, my grandmother would apply creams and ointments to my face to make my skin lighter. She tried to limit the amount of time I played cricket and football; she said that I looked unclean. I rebelled against her; I tried to get my mother to make her stop. But my mother, a fair Indian, told me that “Ma (my grandmother) just wants you to look clean and healthy.” I wiped tears away from my eyes and scratched creams off of my face. I liked my dark skin; it made me look like my father, the best man I knew. When I spoke to him about it, he told me that I looked handsome, that I shouldn’t let my grandmother force me to put creams on my face if I didn’t want to.

“They’ve let the goras (white people, especially Britishers) into their minds,” he told me. I started to wear my brown skin as a badge of honor. It was proof to me that the British could never steal my Indian-ness. I began to feel a sense of pride, a sense of belonging, and a sense of kinship with other dark- skinned people. I kept all of this bottled up; I couldn’t make my opinions known; my respect for my elders was too great for me to ever overtly disagree with them. So I hid away when my relatives would do their “beauty” treatments; I even began playing cricket without my shirt on to get a little extra tan. I brought my pride back with me to the U.S. at the end of each summer. As I grew up, I realized that there was a lot of racial tension between white and brown people in my town. Many of my white peers, who were children of heroic firefighters, vilified brown people as sympathizers with Al Qaeda, and as a response to this, many of my brown friends began to white-wash themselves.

When I would try to speak Hindi to them between classes they acted as if they didn’t hear me, and when I bumped Punjabi music through the streets of Hicksville, they were embarrassed for me. While most of my brown friends tried to distance themselves as much as possible from Indian culture, I did the opposite. I tried to think in Hindi instead of English; instead of buying lunch at school, I brought home-made roti and curry, which I ate unabashedly with my hands instead of utensils. I wore tantra T-shirts with Hindi sayings on them and even kurta pajama (formal Indian clothing) when I was feeling extra Indian. My friend Sandeep confronted me one day in Geometry. “Why you so odee with the Indian shit?” he asked me. “Probably because I’m Indian,” I replied. My friend’s words affected me, but I kept my chin high. I knew my father had my back, that he understood why I needed to proclaim my brownness to the world. And then one day, I returned home from school and saw my father putting fairness lotion on his face. I was shocked; I felt betrayed. “What are you doing?!” I demanded, with as much izzat (respect) as I could muster. “Baba (child), I just want to look clean for the party tonight,” he told me. I nodded, acting as if I understood, and went to my room. I paced for a bit and then looked in the mirror. I looked dirty.