When I tell Americans that Indians prefer fair skin, they inevitably ask me, in a tone half disapproving half slyly pleased, “Oh, so like…they want to be my skin color?” I used to think it was my duty to sweetly answer these condescending questions. I do not think so anymore.
I am dark. My father is darker, could probably pass for black if his features were not so unmistakably Indian. My mother, on the other hand, is fair. And that is really the only way to go if you are an Indian woman. To be anything less than fair is seen as a curse and tragedy, a surefire way to be considered lower-class and unmarriageable. In the North, it is a stereotype of South Indians. I never had a problem with being dark when I was younger—my father’s sister is darker than he is. I thought her skin glowed, it was so black. I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I used to sit out in the sun so my skin would grow to be like hers. And I laughed at that Indian standard of beauty, sure I would never care about the shade of my skin.
But then I turned fifteen, and I sat in a room while my great-uncle demanded to know why my two-year-old niece, whose skin is far, fair fairer than mine, was “so terribly dark.” He thundered this at my uncle in a tone both angry and disapproving. I was twenty and listening as my great-aunt told my mother that I was looking a bit nicer now that I at last looked fairer (living through two Michigan winters will do that to you). Most painful of all, I had to listen to my mother tell me she agreed with my aunt, that she thought fairer was better as well. This from a woman who married a man so dark his complexion isn’t just shades darker than hers, it’s at the bottom of an entirely different paint swatch. What did that say about what she thought of my father? What did that say about what she thought about me? I know they say beauty is only skin deep. But we want even that thin layer of skin to be wholly accepted by the people we love, regardless of its color.
Indians in the U.S. are equally sensitive to the topic of skin color, and as many Indian organizations are dominated by North Indians, it’s just one more thing that sets me apart. I feel judged for it in a way I never used to when I was a child. Back then I only felt judged by Americans for being Indian. Now I feel judged by Indians for being dark. What one country cares about, the other doesn’t. But I can’t satisfy either one. I cannot change the features of my face or the color of my skin. They have made me who I am.