Growing up under the hot summer sun of Texas, my mom always had the same warning before I ventured to ride my bike or decided to meet friends at the pool.
“Stay inside, Rudri. If you go outside, your skin will become dark.”
As a daughter of East Indian immigrant parents, the messaging was clear – I needed to do whatever it took to preserve my light-brown skin tone. To become tan or “darker” meant I was less pretty. Since I was a lighter-hued brown girl, the pressure to maintain my “fairness” became paramount.
These views were magnified in the Indian film industry as Bollywood glorified the lighter-brown-toned heroine. I watched many movies in which the much darker backup dancers surrounded the female protagonist, who appeared whiter in comparison. I was reminded of this childhood memory when Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Bollywood and crossover American actress, encountered backlash because she supported #BlackLivesMatter but has also fervently campaigned for “Fair and Lovely,” a skin-lightening cream sold in India since 1975.
With recent protests, South Asians are pushed to confront colorism in their upbringing and reconcile this pervasive viewpoint with the Black Lives Matter movement. More importantly, this reconciliation is fostering conversations between parents and children about colorism, colonialism, casteism and race relations.
Swapna Reddy, mother of two and clinical assistant professor at Arizona State University in health policy and disparities, was very conscious of colorism when she was growing up and during her twenties. “I always grew up kind of wishing I was lighter brown than I am,” she says. It wasn’t until she took a class at the University of Texas at Austin that she placed colorism in a different context. “The idea of light-skinned South Asians and the emphasis of superiority is a colonization of your mind. You essentially convince people to hate something that they can never beat.” It is a form of self-hatred, Reddy adds.
She was determined to eliminate this narrative, especially from her 13-year-old daughter’s upbringing, “From the very beginning I’ve not emphasized, applauded, or praised her skin color as her greatest virtue.”
Reddy thinks the South Asian community has only scratched the surface of this conversation. “By only focusing on the hue of brown, we are contributing to the problem, hating ourselves, and that kind of thinking won’t allow us to form an allyship with other communities of color.” She says one of the most important tools is to have an open dialogue with children about race that is continuous and doesn’t sprout as a result of an incident or event.
Pooja Makhijani, a writer in New Jersey, agrees. With her 8-year-old daughter, “the conversation is ongoing and we have daily conversations that are tied to something happening in the world.” These conversations leave the door open for her daughter to go to future protests or participate in collaborative projects that help combat racial injustice among all people of color. “There are connections between colorism, colonialism and capitalism. All of these things are interconnected.” The exposure to these ideas when children are young is important groundwork to lay for future action.
Some families are purposefully eliminating the shades of brown debate by surrounding their children with diversity. Nandini Deo, a mother of three of South Asian descent, is married to a white man. She said she and her husband chose to live in a “neighborhood that is very racially diverse.” This was intentional, even though it’s more than an hour away from their workplace. “We wanted to be in an environment where there are lots of people who are mixed and can relate to being part of more than one culture,” she said.
A common thread of understanding other cultures revolves around education. Leena Trivedi-Grenier, writer and mother of two school-aged daughters and a young son, “purchased several books talking about different skin colors.” Her oldest daughter was an early talker and understood the concept of people being mean to one another. The books were a way to discuss how her daughter could use her voice to help others. At a simplified level, Trivedi-Grenier started to explain slavery to her. She has bought books with black protagonists and purchased black baby dolls. She has taken her children to a Black Lives Matter caravan where cars are lined up and people are protesting with signs. These moments are a way to talk about race relations in an understandable way, she said.
Sandhya Nankani, founder and president of Literary Safari, a children’s media and studio consulting firm, echoes what other mothers have said about the importance of talking about race early with children, but she also emphasizes that parents have to mirror the behavior they want their children to model. “You have to consciously articulate appreciation of others,” she says. On a playground visit, Nankani would comment on all kids, whether they were black, white, or Asian, so her daughter could see beauty across the spectrum.
Jyoti Gupta, author of the book “Different Differenter” and organizer of The Colourism Project, presents her definition – “Colo(u)rism thrives on a community’s silence, is the practice of creating, or a system that creates, opportunities for people with light skin, regardless of their true strengths.” She encourages parents to speak about skin in accurate terms. “For instance, if a child asks why she is brown? A good answer might be to point to the melanin in her skin or talk about genetics.” Second, Gupta advocates having a comfort about these discussions and letting kids express their opinions with an open mind without being didactic. She encourages South Asian parents to ask their children, “What can we do today about race relations?”
Lakshmi Iyer recognizes the importance of Gupta’s question and the importance of having hard and uncomfortable conversations about race. Iyer observed colorism in marital advertisements in the context of arranged marriages in India. “One of the first things listed in these ads is the color of a woman’s skin tone, and education and salary are listed lower. It is literally like these women are a product being sold on the market and on top of that list is color,” she said. As a writer and mother of three daughters, Iyer says conversations about race happen naturally in her house. This dialogue occurs since she is the adoptive mother of two white children and one biological daughter. “Unless you’re actively talking and including race as a part of your daily life, nothing is going to change,” she said. “A grass-roots effort to change the conversation about race has to begin at home.” She purposefully purchases books that have characters that don’t look like her children in an effort to expand and enrich their minds regarding different races. “I am not afraid to have graphic conversations about what is happening in this country. I explained to my older children what happened to George Floyd and that the only reason he was treated that way was because of his color.” She encouraged her girls to express how they felt about what happened.
Having these stark conversations is an important pathway to create change, according to Nandita Godbole, mother to a teen daughter. But a key element means mothers should be open to what children are facing in their environments at school and other places. She allows her daughter to guide the conversation. She listens, she says. “I’m not telling my daughter what she should think.”
Reflecting on these thoughts shared by other mothers, I’ve realized the colorism conversation has retreated into the periphery as I raise my teen daughter. She is an outdoorsy girl, and not once have I feared that she might get “darker” or “tan.” My hope is that colorism fades into the past, and that allows her to make a more concerted and concrete effort to shift her perspective toward other communities of color and what she can do to dismantle prejudice. This is a small but concrete way to measure my own success.