“Why was I not chosen as the mascot for our annual sporting event? Was I not pretty enough? What was wrong with me? Why would they not pick me?” Each year, I became more hopeful and I did not understand then what was happening. I was a victim of Colourism back in the eighties and it continued for many more years to come. I hid this insecurity very well but I want to speak out now.
Firstly, let’s look at the definition of this word “colourism” as defined in the Oxford Dictionary:
Prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.
Whilst racism is the more well known discriminatory behaviour and as if that in itself was not enough to deal with, I grew up having to deal with colourism as well!
Why am I talking about my Colourism insecurity now, after all these years?
After being active on Instagram again after a period of two months or so, I happened to stumble across some posts by a group of bloggers which were speaking out about people of colour being discriminated against, in the blogging space here in South Africa. If you want to know more about that, check out the hashtag #dontshushme
It immediately triggered memories of experiences in my life where I had personally experienced racism and this was very predominant through my career history. However, thinking about that, triggered memories to my primary school days where I experienced colourism and in this post I am going to share my experiences, as best as I can remember. I do want to share my thoughts and experiences on racism as well, but I will do so in a follow up post to this one.
Before I go on, I want to point out that these are my personal opinions based on my personal experiences. Why am I choosing to discuss it now?
Well, firstly, it is something that hurt me on many occasions but it was something that I found was easier to just ignore. But that took a certain amount of energy and pain. It consumed me. I was embarrassed because I was not fair skinned. Every time a fair skinned person was chosen for something, it made me feel a little less pretty. It made me feel insecure, as if I was not good enough because I was not fair enough. If someone else is still experiencing this, I therefore hope that this post will be helpful to them.
I am in no way saying fair skinned people are not pretty and should not be chosen for whatever – but if the only reason they were chosen was because of the colour of their skin, that’s what hurt. That was the issue. That caused the internal pain, the feeling of inferiority. This was me then…I’m letting you in on what it felt like to be that dark skinned girl.
Fair skinned girls = Pretty
I love the school I went to and it instilled in me many values which I am still proud of to this day, so I don’t think that anyone did this deliberately. My primary school days was still during the apartheid era. So even though I was an Indian girl among Indian boys and girls and teachers, I still experienced that “division”.
I think I was eventually chosen as a mascot toward the end of my primary school years but the years before that, I still recall the pain I felt, wondering why I was not chosen and why only the “fair” skinned girls were chosen.
In the magazines at that time, we were exposed to white women in magazines, all thin and slender. There was no such thing as diversity in terms of colour or shape. I grew up thinking that Cindy Crawford is how all women should look. No offence, I still love Cindy Crawford.
I was not fair enough for their sons
I grew up accustomed to feel and think that pretty and beautiful were for fair skinned girls and that I was not good enough. This continued in my teen years and was also prevalent in my twenties. I recall being “rejected” by the mothers and families of 2 guys I dated back then. Even though they were Indians, just like me, I was not like them. Why? Because I did not come from a family who was Hindi speaking. Also, I was not fair like their sons.
This may sound so trivial to you right now, but it hurt back then. In the one relationship, I was kept a secret for some time because I was not a “Hindi” girl. His mother would not accept that he was dating me. It was forbidden! I was not fair skinned and I was also not from a Hindi speaking family. She ironically became “friends” with me when she later on didn’t like a “Hindi” girl he was dating! Even though I had come from a “Tamil” speaking family with a Tamil surname, I was not fair and I was not a Hindi and I didn’t have a Hindi surname.
Let me clarify this to anyone who may not understand: a Hindu, could mean that your family origin is that of “Hindi”, “Tamil”, “Telegu” or “Gujarati” speaking – these are all languages. Hindusim is a religion, one of the oldest. Hindi, Tamil, Telegu and Gujarti are languages spoken by Hindu people and anyone else who may speak it.
Even within the Hindu community, to this very day, there is a caste system among some. It’s real! It’s not nice! It’s discriminatory! It prohibits freedom of choice and the sad reality is that couples who are dating sometimes even commit suicide, because they are not allowed to date or marry the person of their choice. Some have to resort to arranged marriages to this very day and this is not just in India but right here in South Africa too.
Do you speak Indian? No, I don’t. Indian is not a language. I am Indian but I do not speak Indian. I am a South African Indian and English is my home language, so I furthermore do not even speak or understand Indian languages. So please don’t ask me to go back to India because I don’t know anyone from there and no offence to anyone in India.
Are you halaal? (Meaning, “do you only eat meals that are prepared as per Halaal specifications”) No, I am not Halaal.
Yes, a Muslim person is Indian but not every Indian is halaal.
Some Indians are not Muslim or Hindu – they are Christian and raised in a modern western manner and may not be familiar with the customs of traditional Indians. You won’t find a Christian Indian wearing a red string on his or hand, as an example. Depending on the generation, some Hindus and Muslims may also not be familiar with traditional customs as they have been raised in a modern society.
So do not assume that I don’t eat beef or pork. Also don’t assume that I love curry because I am Indian. I worked in more than company, where comments such as “we want some curry in a hurry” were thrown at me, with the expectation and assumption that as an Indian woman, I would make or bring curry to the office.
“You’re beautiful for an Indian.” “For someone that’s dark skinned, you’re beautiful.” I won’t call this a misconception. It’s an insult, no matter how beautiful you think or may have said I am.
I was so insecure, I tried this for lighter skin…
Beauty comes from within. It has nothing to do with skin colour. A person can be attractive in many ways and everyone has preferences. I am not comfortable when people associate beauty with fair skinned people because it’s made me feel insecure growing up. Society made me feel that it was not okay to be dark skinned.
As embarrassing as this is, I will share with you that I once used a skin lightening cream, in my late teen years. I noticed that relatives and neighbours were using this cream from India, called “Shirley” cream and I used it too! They wanted to be fair and so did I, back then! That in itself, should give you some idea about how I felt about my skin and the need to be fair.
The other reason that I wanted to talk about colourism at this stage of my life and more importantly so, is that I don’t want my child to experience this sort of discrimination. I want him to be seen and treated as an individual. I want him to be selected for whatever reasons in school, based on merit. I don’t want him to be “boxed” into a category that will prejudice him in any way.
To my son, one day when you read this, know that a person’s true character is not about how they look. A person should not be defined by their religion, language, ethnicity, income bracket or education level, nor by their past experiences. It’s about how they treat you and how they make you feel. Believe that beauty is skin deep. If you judge a person by their outward appearance, you will miss the beautiful opportunity to know them in their entirety.
With love, Mum.