The Truth of Who I Am

"Only the truth of who you are, if realized, will set you free." -Eckhart Tolle

Color Me Beautiful

When I was a little girl, I often looked in the mirror and wondered if I was pretty. I’d stare at my reflection and study my features and my full eyebrows and wide cheeks that had been squeezed by aunties and uncles often. It’s a bit embarrassing to write about this because I have never told anyone about this insecure or maybe superficial side of my past self. It’s a truth about me that I don’t want to shed much light on, but I’m willing to bet that if I had such thoughts, then someone else out there has had similar experiences.

Pretty was not something my mother ever talked nor obsessed over. In fact, I could count on one hand and not need all my fingers how many times I remember my mother wearing makeup. She was a firm believer in Vicco Turmeric Face Cream and some Pond’s Talcum Powder. That was it. She noticed, and still does, beautiful fabrics and designs and took pleasure in wearing eye-catching saris and dresses, but I never got the impression that my mother was overly concerned about being pretty. I believe she has never needed to concern herself with being pretty because people around her connect with her gentle, no-nonsense, joyful, spiritual self.

My mother and I. Can you see how she delighted me?

So I’m not even sure why I would look in the mirror and wonder if I was pretty. I’m not entirely sure what in my world set me on a quest to be pretty. I’m not even sure what I was looking for in my reflection that would confirm pretty for me. My ideas of pretty developed in the midst of African people with a side of Indians and Europeans. While I’m not sure exactly how I developed my ideas of what pretty looked like, I do remember the only two Barbie-knock-off dolls that we somehow acquired looked pretty to me, as did the White paper dolls and Snow White and the golden-haired, freckled dolls that my father brought home from various work trips. I used to hold my dolls and stare at them and study their features and blue eyes and think how pretty they were. My best friend in Grade 4 was Vanessa with red hair and pretty freckles and my best friend in Grade 5 was Caroline from Canada. I think the fact that they looked like my dolls and the stars of the fairy tales I liked made me partial to them. They looked pretty to me. But I did not look like them. And I sort of knew that.

I just finished watching Oprah’s Lifeclass on Colorism and I’ve already experienced a range of emotions from sadness to irritation to frustration to anger. So what’s a girl to do but write a blog about it. Colorism is defined as discrimination based on skin color, skin tone, or skin complexion. The discrimination happens within the group and also from outsiders to the group.

Before going close up into colorism, let me take a step back to acknowledge the ridiculousness in the fact that we humans are so hung up on the color or shade of the skin that covers our incredible bodies. Take a step back with me and think about it. Of all the different and amazing, fascinating pieces that make up who we are and how we function and LIVE as human beings, how trivial and ridiculous is it to focus on our skin tones as a marker of anything important? ???!!!  We are ALIVE and able to breathe and move and communicate and connect and aspire and create and LOVE!!! How could the complexion of our skin possibly matter to anyone in deciding how valuable or worthy or beautiful one is? In the midst of the incredible way that humans came to exist on this planet in this solar system, how did we figure out a way to place so much importance to any one organ of our body?

Back to the close-up of colorism…

Colorism is not a new topic of discussion for me. At some point in just about every course I’ve ever taught, we talk about colorism. This video A Girl Like Me starts off the heated, painful, liberating, confusing, frustrating and empowering discussion well. There are 3 seconds of the clip that move me to tears EVERY SINGLE TIME I watch it. The clip cuts deep for many as we try to make sense of the phenomenon.

One of the differences between the discussion on Oprah’s Lifeclass and my course discussions, however, is that her show had an audience of only Black women of varying skin tones while my courses include men and women of varying races, nationalities and skin tones. In both situations, I feel sadness and frustration, but there was far more irritation and aggravation while watching Oprah’s Lifeclass because that discussion centered around why light-skinned and dark-skinned women “do it to each other” and how this is a phenomenon that is now considered a mental health crisis!!!! What????!!!!! Seriously????!!!!! A MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS????!!!!!

I don’t often get indignant when watching Oprah-led shows, but this infuriated me just a bit. I watched another 45 minutes of the show and it continued along the same lines of how the light-skinned women felt and how the dark-skinned women felt. I cried a little and continued to get more annoyed that the focus and the blame seemed to remain entirely on the Black women (and other groups such as Indians and other Asians who got honorable mention for participating in colorism).  The take-away was, basically, “You have to love yourself and stop judging each other, women of color.” As in, “It’s all on you, women of color. Stop doing this to yourself. Just see beauty in your skin color the way it is.”

Do you hear the message? Do you get it?????!!!!!! I’ll tell you why I’m so irritated. The problem seems to be placed right back on us, women!!! This phenomenon is not something that Black or other women of color “do” to each other. We didn’t get born and decide on our own free will to judge ourselves and others based on the color of our skin and the texture of our hair and the shape of our lips and hips and breasts. The show did discuss the roots of the problem being in slavery and colonization. Thanks, Oprah and crew, that was the HISTORY of it, but can we talk about the CURRENT structures that support and promote colorism? Can we change those structures, please? The media with a capital M, for one – and not just what’s on TV or in movies, but EVERYWHERE – magazines, billboards, children’s books, advertizing, comic books,  catalogs, commercials, even porn (which I don’t study deeply). And then there’s toys and and make-up, beauty products, hiring processes and employment opportunities, language-use, tracking and re-segregation in schooling.

It’s no wonder that we can’t just “love ourselves and stop judging each other” because all the other messages seem so loud and consistent and ACCEPTED by everyone. The problem goes far deeper than simply a history that started it. The problem is perpetuated heavily by current structures in our social and professional worlds. It’s NOT us doing it to ourselves. Although we can teach our sons and daughters to be aware and critical, it’s not enough to stop there. And until we bravely explore and challenge and dismantle those structures that influence our minds from a very young age, we are going to make very slow and little progress in solving the problem of colorism. It’s time to stop taking in messages about ourselves blindly and to open our eyes and our souls and notice and refuse to accept the messages we receive on a daily basis.

Since my people only got honorable mention, let me share from my own experiences of being told to avoid the sun so I wouldn’t get “too dark” or watching many, many Hindi and Malayali movies with light-skinned Indian women as the good and beautiful and wanted ones and the darker-skinned women in the evil and undesirable roles. This is still true of Bollywood movies. In fact, with the arrival of a few popular westernized Indian movies, most people’s impression of Indians is that they are light-skinned. The truth is that Indians come in every shade and most are much, much darker than the majority of Bollywood stars  – who happen to get their starring roles BECAUSE they are lighter shades of brown. Lighter skin is what you hope for when you’re having a baby. I remember hearing people ask, when they heard about the birth of a baby (girl in particular), how dark she was. To be fair (no pun intended), all other features were always about the same – brown eyes, black hair, definitely hair. The catalogs and magazines and books I read did not depict characters like me. Skin lightening creams were easily accessible and advertizing like this were and still are accepted as truth:

I let go of looking for pretty in the mirror a while back in my life. I’ve seen so much beauty in women (and men) that looking for pretty felt trivial and boring. Glennon Melton said it well on her blog post, Don’t Be Pretty – Be Beautiful in 2014. She wrote just the words I want to use with my own daughter as she tries to understand pretty. Pretty is something defined for us everywhere we look and sometimes when we are not even looking. Beautiful is what we get to define for ourselves every single day. I leave you with a little timely video snippet from the Golden Globe Awards show (which has been on in the background while finishing up this post). When I learned of these women this past year, I saw so much beauty that it brought tears right out of my heart and soul. And I can see beautiful in each image because it’s me and it’s you and it is US. How we are colored is not who we are nor what we can do in this great big world. Let’s forget pretty and let’s color ourselves beautiful.

Now let’s get to the work of questioning and creating and imagining and doing and loving and changing our world as we know it.

Truthfully yours,

Rhina

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