Please stop telling my daughter she has pretty skin. Let me explain…
I know you mean well when you tell her, “you have the prettiest skin and the most gorgeous eyes.”
She inherited these big glowing eyes from my side and a sweet golden complexion from her dad’s.
But when you tell her you wish you could tan that color, it makes her not only look at the difference between hers and yours, but what should or shouldn’t be “better.”
You see, my husband and I live in this predominantly white area of coastal California. And coming from New York, we never really knew what it was like to feel so…different.
In New York, we had plenty of cultures meshed together in subway cars, taxi corners, Jewish delis, pretzel stands and bookstores. My neighbor was a Buddhist Chinese man, his neighbor was an Islamic Persian couple, and across the street was a Catholic Irish family. We had a family business down the street from a Cuban restaurant, the barber was Italian and the card store owner Guyanese. It was Queens, land of immigrants.
I’m not saying we didn’t experience difference.
I can remember clear moments when I noticed skin color as a child. My skin color.
There was no pediatric growth spurt that reminded my parents to talk to me about race, nor did I have an epiphany of any sort. It was just there. People were people. But when a white boy in my 2nd grade class circled around me making what he called “Indian” (Native American) noises around a fire, I realized I was not the same as him. That he didn’t know the difference between me and a Navajo Indian because to him, we both just had brown skin. I realized I had something he didn’t.
I had another country my parents called home even as they lived in their new home America.
I had customs that were strange to my American friends, but involved ritual, meditation, self inquiry and a richness that I didn’t appreciate until I was older.
I had an identity yet I was born here. America.
I was a first generation Indian American girl and it was my skin that identified this to him. My brown skin was what gave me away.
So when you point out my 4-year-old girl’s skin color before noticing her smile or witty answers, you remind me of that feeling of solitude, being circled around with alienation, with a sense of not belonging here.
But I do belong here. She belongs here.
This is America. The white, black, brown, yellow skins are who built this country.
Native American land, White Pilgrims, African slaves, Japanese and Chinese railroad slaves. And now more than ever, we need to remember that.
This is a country that morphs my Indian culture into modern-day yoga studios, silent retreats, alternative healthcare schools and fusion tikka masala dishes.
While you say it like a compliment to her, thank you… but let’s rephrase beauty my friend. It’s already so complicated for our baby girls.
Beauty can focus on talents. Kindness. Confidence. The things girls don’t get valued at all the time because we are only looking skin-deep.
Plus there are things you may not know she will deal with…like the division within my own people.
An older family member recently said, “Look how nice her skin is when she’s not in the sun. She gets so dark in California.”
I replied by saying that doesn’t matter and how much better natural vitamin D is for her to be in the sun….but this is the ideology among so many Indians.
If my own people can’t accept their ancestral shades of melanin how do they expect others to?
As “harmless” as this comment is, after years of programming that lighter skin is supposedly prettier in Indian culture (from various reasons including British rule)…even if a darker person has sharper, more attractive features, even if beauty is on the inside… the older generation won’t be quick to change their thinking.
They truly believe and feel that light skin trumps in beauty…especially with girls. As will so much of India, where fair and lovely skin whitening cream infiltrates the market.
So as a momma who wishes to raise conscious kids, I think it’s time we change things up here.
Listen I’m not trying to shelter my little girl. I know that by acknowledging differences, I’m better able to prepare her to live in a multiethnic society. On days like today, honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work on equality, I can talk to her about how her ethnicity is part of who she is and always will be.
That she can embrace her skin color no matter how much sun it soaks up and that when she steps into her brilliance, that’s what people will see first. That when she meets someone, to look into their eyes and link hearts.
You see, I’m trying to instill a lesson on beauty that M.L.K. carved for all Americans…No color is ever better than another. No shade is better or worse. To quote him:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
I saw this awesome book at my daughter’s preschool called Whoever You Are. The author’s message: that no matter where we come from, within our hearts, joys are the same, love is the same and even pain is the same. Love that.
p.s. In just one week, an organization that is dear to me, Kids For Peace, will be starting their Great Kindness Challenge where millions students around the nation will complete hundreds of millions of acts of kindness. To get involved, check out their site: http://www.greatkindnesschallenge.org/