- A Brown-Skinned Lady and Her Sunblock
In 1984 I, like every other girl in America, wanted a Cabbage Patch Kid. To impress everyone with my logic—I was one of those brats—I asked for the brown-skinned version, a request my Sri Lankan-born parents could only understand as preposterous: dark-skinned dolls were for black children. That this was pitiable for them—the dolls’ homeliness was a given—was no reason for me, however, to get a doll that matched my skin. At Zayre’s, my father held the boxed toy at arm’s length, wondering was I sure I didn’t want a regular doll?
A month later I bored of her but before abandoning her altogether, I made her over. Applying the ivory-shade foundation I (incompatibly, absurdly) wore when performing classical Indian dance, I deracinated my Cabbage Patch baby, covering her face in stage-strength makeup until she had a glistening beige face atop a cloth brown body.
Twenty-five years later, I noticed that my face was lighter than the rest of me—more fair in the lexicon of my mother—my hands and shoulders most conspicuously. This could potentially be explained as the ordinary outcome of idling on beaches while obsessively outfitted in hat and sunscreen, or the fact that I stroll, bike, and jog in the same [End Page 125] sort of protective accouterment. I am, after all, thirty-four and terror stricken by the inescapability of wrinkles.
Once, for example, I purchased a $125 vial of vitamin-C serum despite the fact that I was making nineteen grand as a grad student at the time, never mind that I was on the pill—the low-dose kind that eradicates blemishes—and that I ate compulsively well—grapes for their collagen, fish for their oils—and never mind that: I had no skin problems whatsoever.
Like many women I feel a keen pressure to look as good as possible for as long as possible, “as possible” in this case meaning “as you can afford.” But as an American of South Asian descent, and thus a deeply raced person, I have to question whether gender-based panic about aging is the sole reason I avoid the sun. With skin the color of a wet graham cracker (I would have failed the old paper-bag test), a graduate degree in critical race theory, and a lifetime preoccupied with color, I have to consider that for me, skin—youthful, poreless, undamaged skin—is never fully divorced from colorism.
A product of the ethnically mottled tenements of Langley Park, Maryland, I grew up drinking milk because I was told it would make me more fair and thus more appealing. When I wanted to punish my mother for some injustice, I would willfully play in the sun, then weep later over how dark I had become. How transformed.
Sucking her teeth, my mother would apply Fair & Lovely cream, purchased at what was only called the “Indian” store. On the pink tube of what was mostly sunscreen back then, silhouettes advanced in lightness and presumable attractiveness from left to right. I tried to pinpoint my location on the Fair & Lovely gradation.
As I examine my adult lighter-than-my-body face, echoes of that former sensibility reverberate, despite the liberating values of Malcolm and Cleaver that I would ultimately embrace as a teenager. Against the backdrop of Do the Right Thing and the rap music that reflected the hallways of my predominantly black (and eventually Latino) school, these sensible preachers of self-love made me bristle with confidence.
When I was halfway through The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the cassette liner to Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet suddenly made [End Page 126] cataclysmic sense. Each illuminated my childhood and everyone in it with raced trajectories, newfound complexity, and, most vividly, power. I felt awakened. And beautiful.
But to be upfront I must mention that this newfound self-regard as a brown person coincided with weight loss, soft contact lenses, and the confidence that coincides with a spot on the pom-pon squad. Though for years I credited Malcolm for my newfound...