When was it that I became aware of the colour of my skin? How different it shone in the sun (and the dark) than those around me? Or worse still, that it mattered at all. Was it when my mother asked in jest “What happened to you? You were born fair. All your relatives used to adore you.” Or was it when my friends in school asked if I would be happier if I had fair skin? The prejudice was well ingrained by the time I left school, and over time it only got worse. I was reminded time and again of what others preferred.
Naturally, there was no way for me to be conscious about it I was unless the parameters were defined by those around me. They wrote the rules. Dark is bad and fair is good. The logic of it made no sense but it was never meant to be rationalised, only understood and adhered to. Repeatedly I was ridiculed as if it was a choice and I could undo it if only I realised it. If only I agreed with them and made an effort to change.
A friend in secondary school tried using lime juice to lighten his skin, and came come to me with a confession “It’s quite painful actually, can you see any difference?”. Other boys tried applying lightening cream.
When out for a drink, someone would invariably tell a joke with the punchline being about how some unfortunate soul having dark skin, and I had no choice but to laugh along while my skin glowed fiery red like a charcoal. Is it still a joke when I am the one being laughed at, when the colour of my skin is defined as a tragedy?
Remembering the question my friend asked in school, I would sit at my desk and strain to imagine the pigments in my skin slowly dissolving into whiteness, but not too white as to aim too high and anger the gods. I looked at my reflection in the mirror and imagined a portrait that grew gradually fairer and brighter, until there was only a face without a name.
Crazy! I snapped back to reality and looked down at my hands gripping my forearms tight, squeezing the folds of my burnt skin between my fingers.
All my life I have had to rationalise these encounters, and convince myself that it did not matter. After all what was I supposed to do; dip myself in acid?
But over time I learned that it did. And worse still, I had to accept that these values placed on the pigments on my skin were valid. I accepted my inferior position in society, and had to go well and beyond to beg the ‘other’ to see that there was a gentle soul beneath all this grime, that I mean no harm, that my words and thoughts might have some worth. Please give me a chance, I would plead.
I only wore black, as any other colour only made my skin appear darker than it was. In a group photograph I would be the first to make a comment about “adding more light” because then they would be laughing with me, not at me. Every day is still a struggle to be accepted as an equal. My shoulders are heavy with the sins of my forefathers.
Know my place, I hear them whisper as they glare at me when I step into the lift, as if asking “Why are you here?”.
“You must understand that we don’t encounter the likes of you regularly.”
Oh but you do. I am the gardener ringing your doorbell asking if you’d like the grass cut. I am the cleaner for the whole apartment, politely waiting for the next lift so you won’t have to be sullied by the scent of garbage. I am the labourer hoping to work overtime so I won’t have to take a loan against next month’s pay to afford groceries. I am the servant waiting to open the limousine door on the silver screen. I am the villain that must be defeated. I am the man in handcuffs, escorted out of the courtroom by the police. I am the one walking from table to table, peddling pen and socks nobody would ever want. You just don’t see me.
How can I aspire to be anything more than what I am destined to be, if I do not exist? Where and how can I imagine myself?
I look around and struggle to find my likeness. Not in the imaginary worlds of films, not on advertisements on billboards or social media, not in brochures, except as a problem to be fixed; A tub of cream to help you look less like me.