This first-person chronicle is the experience of Kelly Roche who lives in the Toronto area. For more information on CBC’s First Person Stories, please see frequently asked questions.
The darker my skin becomes, the more I love myself, even if people tell me otherwise.
My mother always blamed me for spending time outside in the sun. As a child, I did not understand the relationship between colorism, caste and colonialism. Or the complex it gave him about the “fairness” of skin color.
Staying clear is good, sinking is bad, I was told. This is the message my mother received growing up in India.
We can thank the caste system for this: people of lower rank and wealth classes usually worked outdoors and their skin was darker as a result. With the British colonial rule of India, colorism became cemented in discourse.
This internalized white supremacy was passed down from my mother to me, but I always rejected it and maintained that the scorching sun felt fabulous on my skin.
Over time, my positioning on it deepened, as did my “tanned” and unmistakably caramel complexion.
There’s a lot of baggage to unpack when it comes to my family’s skin tone palette. My mother is darker than my father – an anomaly in South Asia.
They come from different states: my mother is from South India (Telugu) and my father’s family is from the North (Sindhi). She is Christian, he is Hindu. She is small, he is tall. They are opposed in every way. My father was light-skinned – so pale in fact that people thought he was white when I was a kid. He’s gotten browner with age, but he’s still lighter than my mom.
We do not care?
Skin bleaching is a multi-billion dollar industry in Asian countries where some people are desperate to become “Fair & Lovely”. This is the former name of Unilever’s skin lightening cream, which was renamed Glow & Lovely. in the summer of 2020 following a public reaction.
But the idea of skin lightening is still prevalent, as is anti-Blackness – dark-skinned people in India are discriminated against and called “kalior “Black.” They are viewed unfavorably by many people in social contexts ranging from finding a partner to looking for a job.
This worldview did not change when we moved to Canada.
I once came back from Florida and my mom yelled at me for “looking gloomy in all the wedding pictures.” A family friend was getting married and I would soon be documented as a very toasty shade of butterscotch. Interestingly enough, the groom was marrying a dark-skinned Indian-American woman. Her father is South Indian and her mother is white. He’s older and cooler than me and has always respected and loved South Indian culture, which means he didn’t worship the Altar of Whiteness. Quite the contrary: it was all about her browning.
It validated my hot point: there are men who like dark brown skin, and I will always desire a shade in the melanin chart despite what my mom thinks about marriage prospects.
Fast forward to now: I’m 40 and my mom has since accepted my affinity for the sun and tan lines. I don’t know exactly how it happened. I think I just wore it down over the years. Anyway, it’s an act of defiance and a declaration of love: for her, for me, for our skin. I recognized that being reprimanded for spending time in the sun protected me from the discrimination she still faces.
I recognize that going darker on purpose is a privilege of light skin that I have and it makes me feel closer to her. Spending more time in the sun has reduced the external humidity that invades me every winter. Going intentionally darker is a small step towards truly embracing my Telugu roots. In an unconventional way, sunlight helps us heal from the pain my grandfather caused my mother.
For me, spending time outside in the sun means choosing to reject the toxic ideologies of colorism.
I just hope my mom realizes one day that her brown skin is beautiful and looks gorgeous exactly the way she is. She always has been.
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