“Why are you eating chocolate ice cream? You will become blacker by eating that.”
Sounds absurd right? That comment. Hardly a joke? It will probably have you spitting the tea out from your mouth or falling off your chair from reading it. Now, imagine that was shouted at you by your mum, when you were 13, in a crisp hot summer day in August, in the middle of a busy park with you surrounded by people enjoying the blazing heat. It would probably be a defining moment for most people. But for me, it was another bygone comment, that was retorted back with another delicious lick of the gooey chocolate syrup covering my ice cream. I wasn’t even embarrassed, mad or angry. It’s the small things you get used to when you are born with dark skin and growing up in a Bangladeshi family and community.
Did my Mum say it out of hate, resentment or her own embarrassment that she was being seen with me? Did she do it out of spite or neglect? No, it was humour after all, it didn’t mean anything to her. She doesn’t even recall the day or the comment when I mention it to her sometimes, all these years later. Probably because she had said so many similar things, it had slipped her mind. Comments like that didn’t question her unbridle love for me or the high pedestal she has for me in her world. To her it’s an embedded teaching and attitude she was forced to grow up with and did not know any better. After all, being dark skinned meant that I should be used to being a target of humour and ridicule and regardless of age, I shouldn’t take it too much to heart, as it was my misfortune to be born with it, so therefore live with it.
Growing up, questions, jokes and taunts around my dark skin never evaded me. More so from my family and relatives than outsiders. My mum having to explain to everyone, why she as a beautiful fair woman, can have some multi shades of children rather than embrace the beauty of having such a diverse portfolio. The fair ones being the good-looking ones and me and my younger brother, of course not so much.
“Their uncles are dark, that’s where they got it from.” She would explain to everyone who asked. So, I would find myself searching my own roots and blaming family members who I have never met in my life, for inheriting their misfortune and gene. That’s the Asian way, none of this is breaking news. Another forced baggage to carry, growing up in an Asian family, an experience only another dark-skinned person will relate to and understand.
No regard to how the stigma of being dark skin, shapes a person and teaches them to see a part of their body as a curse rather than something to be proud off. You end up wishing, one day you will wake up and shed your skin into a fairer one. All the while knowing deep down that all this trauma you feel is being orchestrated by your own community.
Dark skinned women being judged as not being marriage material, not worthy enough, their accomplishments geared down to nothing, their features never beautiful, only because none of what they are, is coated with white fair skin. “She is amazing, but a bit dark though.” The common sentences we have come to associate with many descriptions around potential Asian brides.
Our first family trip to Bangladesh in the 90s, I remember my parents forced to explain to everyone, how we can be born in England and still be so dark. Being from colonial London should have meant, we should have been fair (imagine that mindset). My younger brother getting the most brunt of the jokes, he was only 7 then, too young to have grown the thick cloak of armour needed to defend his dark skin in our community. He would get extra sensitive. As an act of love and seeing his negative reaction to it all, everyone started calling him ‘the beautiful brother’ a tongue and cheek title, to imply that he wasn’t.
You can imagine the fun they all had when we came across a song called ‘Kala Maya’ – translated ‘Dark Skin Girl’. A song that plighted the struggle of a beautiful dark skin girl and how nobody saw her true worth.
So, this week, whilst the British public have had their jaws dropped down to the ground when Meghan Markle revealed how a member of the Royal, questioned how dark the skin tone of Archie might be. You could hear the pin drop of silence from the Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian community. A rude awakening for many 2nd/ 3rd generation Asians to contemplate some of the ideas and thoughts they still live with. Forcing them to look at their own thought process of the age old colonial idea that white represented beauty and power and how that it is still very much embedded in today’s Asian society.
Spoken words and dialogues may indicate one thing, but actions and attitudes tells us a different story. We see it in the way beauty products are promoted, sold and bought by social media influencers. Light skinned models being used in Asian bridal magazines, filters in social media that lighten your skin shade and euro centrify your features. The fetishizing of mixed raced children or the pride of being mistaken for a middle eastern or anything other than Bengali, cos after all being Bengali means you are dark and therefore not beautiful.
So as people drop their two pennies worth in the Harry and Meghan debacle, I wonder if Asians see their own hypocrisy staring back at their face in this saga? Are they able see the roots of colonialism that continues to shape their own narrative around the different shades and tones of skin in their own people? Will they learn to finally embrace the beauty of their ethnicity rather than uphold old ideas that has for centuries white-washed the roots of their pigmentation?
Lyrics from Kala Maya (translated)
‘The dark face has wisdom which the white face doesn’t have. Nobody wants to understand the pain of a dark-skinned girl.