I’m 11 years old and recently inducted into womanhood—or so it feels on this sweltering summer afternoon at my grandma’s house in Karachi. Lunch is over: the men are fed, the babies are napping, and the children are parked in front of the television.
It’s that time of the day when the women of the family gather in the bedroom. Shades drawn, dupattas shed, fans whirring amid the soft buzz of conversations. Gin rummy in one corner, Bollywood gossip magazines in another, and on the king-sized bed at the center of it all, my grandma and her sisters.
“Come sit with us,” my mother calls out to me. I peel myself away from the replay of the football match on TV in the living room. I have started my period that summer, and maybe this is why I’m being summoned. Maybe they can all just tell or maybe, mortifyingly, my mother has told them.
“You’re a woman now,” she reminds me a few times a day. It is the reason I can’t play cricket anymore with the boys. It is the reason I’m supposed to take more of an interest in makeup and jewelry. It’s why I need to make friends with girls.
I perch next to my mother on the bed. “Aao, beta,” one of my grandma’s sisters says, and makes space so I can rest against the headboard. She asks me about school, about my friends. These few cavalier questions and my responses comprise the longest conversation I have ever had with her.
My shalwar must have shifted slightly as I answered, because suddenly she’s lifting it all the way up to the knee. “Hai Allah, you have such fair legs,” she says. “Almost no hair, and look at the difference in color from your face.”
I’m awkward with my body these days —its secret pleasures and new swells —and this attention, this baring of skin, makes me almost dizzy with embarrassment.
“Well,” my mother’s sister chimes in as she cranes her neck to get a look. “That’s the one good trait she got from her father’s side.”
Everyone titters self-consciously. My father is light-skinned —the color of raw milk —and his mother is even lighter: a lily white from years of careful protection from the sun. Everyone in my mother’s family sitting in this room is darker, and I’m one of the darkest —a deep shade of chestnut to everyone else’s wheatish complexion. Even at 11, I’m constantly offered suggestions that I ignore: scrub my face with besan, eat lots of cream, dab almond oil on my face at night.
“Look, her arms are light too,” my older cousin says as she lifts up my sleeves. “This must be her natural color.”
My grandma’s sister turns to me. “Beta, what do you use on your face?”
“You’re too old to be using nothing. I’ll give you some of this special whitening lotion I got from Dubai.”
My mother protests, but my grandma’s sister is adamant.
“No, no, it’s totally safe. No bleach or anything, all natural ingredients.” She digs into her purse for a tube and squeezes a small amount into my hands. Instructs me to put it on my face and me to rub upwards.
“What a huge difference! Go look at yourself in the mirror.”
I do. I definitely look lighter —a grayed, ghostly kind of lighter that I’m not sure looks better than before. But everyone who has crowded around me to witness my transformation erupts into audible wows. They tell me that I look great. Someone calls me pretty. I’m too brown to blush, but I feel my face grow warm with what I recognize is a transient, lotion-induced pleasure. It’s just . . . it’s the first time anyone has called me that.
Unlearning what I have learned about skin from my brown family is a slow, circuitous process, full of embarrassing regressions and painful memories.
Two of my cousins have babies a few days apart from each other. When they call us to tell us the news, my grandma has an immediate question. Kis ka rang aya? Whose color do their babies have? So cute, everyone says about the lighter baby. Too bad she got her father’s color, they say about the darker one.
The rational arguments against colorism come easy: I take classes in college, go to feminist discussion circles, stumble upon and devour blogs on race. From these emerge logical, historical arguments: colonization and the ways in which it destroyed and dehumanized people of color, that lighter skin was valued because of its association with wealth, leisure and the upper class. I learn of anti-racist movements in the civil rights era, of decolonization struggles all over the world. I learn that standards of beauty —particularly ones that value women based on proximity to an impossible whiteness —are used to subjugate women and especially women of color. All that is rooted in the rational comes easily.
I’m at a family friend’s house at a playdate with two sisters. It’s summer vacation; we’ve just come back from swimming and we decide to play a board game while waiting for my dad to pick me up. I’ve never gotten along too well with these sisters, but it’s been a surprisingly fun day: they have been great about sharing their pool toys and taking turns on the diving board. We decide to play Ludo and as we’re about to start, the older sister tells me that I can go first. Thanks, I say. That’s really nice of you. The younger sister pipes up. We’re being nice to you, she says. Our Mom said to be nice to you because Allah loves dark people.
I fall hard for a girl. She is darker than I am, and she is so, so beautiful. I sit next to her in my postcolonial theory class and spend hours hanging out in the women’s center hoping she’ll show up. She puts up her hand in class and asks questions about how the concepts we’re talking about map onto dark skin and caste. I hang onto her every word, rehearse conversations I can have with her about her brilliant insights. The semester ends before any of these conversations can happen outside my head.
My mother’s cousin wants to get married. What kind of girl should we look for, everyone asks him. I’m not picky, he says, but can you find someone who looks like Karishma Kapoor? I look up who she is, and immediately, just as immediately, understand that he means he wants to marry someone who is light-skinned. He rejects a lot of girls that summer. Their dark skin is a common theme.
My mother and my aunt corner me just before we’re about to go to a wedding. “Can we put a little bit of foundation on you?” they ask. “Just a little bit to smooth out your skin so you look good in photos.” They’re very insistent and I’m not sure why I acquiesce. I sit down, take my glasses off and let them paint my face. “You look so beautiful!” they say when they’re done. “Your face is glowing!” I put my glasses on and look at myself in the mirror. Somehow they have made me look three shades lighter. My newfound consciousness leaves me horrified, refuses to be fooled by the compliments, refuses to condone the artifice. Tears start rolling down my face; it ruins the makeup. I am yelled at, but at least it means that I can wash it off.
I move to the US and this country bleaches me: long days in class and the weak winter sun make the color leech from my skin. Your face has become so pyaara, everyone says when I come back to visit. I have never been called this word – meaning sweet – before, and people keep saying it to me over and over. I know in my bones that it’s because I have gotten lighter. But I can’t stop myself from flushing with pleasure.
Trayvon Martin is killed. Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland are killed, and the names keep rolling in of black people murdered by the police, by the state. I’m starting to grasp the ways in which race works in this country: the ways in which structural inequalities connect to law enforcement connect to the color of skin, the ways in which brown immigrant bodies and model minority myths are used to perpetuate anti-blackness. I go to protests and participate in the collective rage, draw inspiration in living resistance from Black Lives Matter. Suddenly, challenging my family’s racism feels possible, engaging them when they devalue blackness and brownness feels pressing. Engaging my own subconscious when I devalue blackness and brownness feels pressing. I renew my efforts at unlearning.
This summer, I let myself burn. Three decades of my life spent consciously, unconsciously hiding from the sun, spent hearing the voices of my mother my grandmother my aunts in my head, three decades of this and I’m tired. I let myself burn.
Not on purpose, entirely — it just happens. A couple of days back-to-back at the beach, and I darken to a deep, toast brown.
“Wear sunscreen,” my friend says.
I rant about how I’m from the desert. That I don’t need to wear sunscreen because my ancestors paid for this skin with racism and indentured labor. But an hour-long trip on an unshaded ferry, and I find myself sunburned.
Parts of my face turn red, but mostly I’m just darker. Until I splash water on my face, and pieces of skin fall off. As my face dries, spots flake off exposing raw skin. I look like a leopard. A friend is getting married the next day, and I make myself go. Splotchy skin and all, because: fuck beauty.
My skin tone evens out, eventually. It’s the end of the summer, and my skin evens out to a deep, dusky brown that I love, I love.
“I wish I could tan like you,” they tell me. Not just white people but also fair-skinned people of color and light-skinned brown people who are woke. They ask me for validation for own their tans, want to compare shades of skin. I can’t help but bristle. It feels unfair that they get to see and have seen their skin seen as beautiful while I burn, while I burn myself to unlearn what I’ve been taught about color.
But it’s worth it, this burning myself for catharsis. It is a lesson in love.