The colour of my skin is something I’ve carried as excess baggage everywhere all my life. As far back as I can remember, like when I was about five or six, my relatives’ friends would visit and ask my parents, “Who’s that black child?” In school, my chemistry teacher told me to put a fairness cream and come to school on picture day – all because I was the only dark child in the class. Those are my earliest memories of being singled out for my skin colour.
I don’t think people realize how much being dark can affect your life. I’ve been in a situation where I was denied a job opportunity – not because my skills didn’t match what they wanted but because I didn’t ‘fit’ into that company’s standards as far as looks were concerned.
It isn’t just this though. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard lame jokes cracked about my dark skin. “Can mosquitoes see you in dark?” “I can’t see you in the night.” “Are you the brand ambassador for Colgate?” At first, I would laugh it off, but that doesn’t really work. Then I went through a phase in which I would roll my eyes and think, “Really? Is that the best you can do? Like I’ve never heard that before.”
At this point you’ve got two choices. Either you can wonder whether you’re that bad and let them get you down for the rest of your life or you can give it back. I’ve found that the latter works just fine. I give it back in the same vein. The moment I do that they don’t know what to say. There is no script.
I’ve realized that no matter what I say, people will crack jokes at my expense. I think that fundamentally there is nothing you can do to please people all the time. Take Michael Jackson, for example. When the guy was black, people had a problem. Then the skin pigmentation thing – whatever that was – happened and he became white and people still had a problem.
Even today, I find that people judge you based on your skin colour. They make assumptions about how much money you have, what kind of lifestyle you lead, even what kind of music you like – simply because you’re dark. When I go out to expensive places, I can tell that the people there – like the staff – think that I’m just there because I’ve gotten this once in a lifetime opportunity to be there. It’s obvious from how they talk to me and from their body language. All of this happens despite how well-dressed I may be. It’s only when I tip someone well that they realize I can afford it.
When you stop to think about it, you realize that the fairness industry in India wouldn’t be as successful as it is if the whole question of colour didn’t exist. Of course, this question exists because of us as a society. No child is born learning to differentiate on the basis of colour. We teach them to do so through casual conversations, ‘jokes’ and comments. If we want to change how skin colour is perceived, we need to change ourselves first.