Your sons are beautiful, gushes the woman behind the bakery counter. I like her. She’s always smiling. The infectious sort of smile that carries over to others through the warmth of her words. She hands a cookie to my eldest and says: Every time I see them come up to the bakery I say to myself ‘there comes those two cuties, chocolate and vanilla’.
I smiled and thanked her and pushed the cart away. I know she meant nothing by her words beyond a compliment towards my sons, and yet, her remarks on their skin color, chocolate and vanilla, linger.
Growing up Pakistani American, I became aware of the color of my skin at a very young age. I knew fair skin was preferred and that dark skin, my skin, was undesirable. In high school I bleached my face. I used skin lighteners. Wore foundation three shades too light and avoided the sun better than any vampire. I knew it wouldn’t make me white, but I knew I had to do what I could to try and get there.
Then I met my husband. He told me I was beautiful. He found my skin perfect. Growing up South Asian himself, he knew the judgments based on melatonin levels but he saw past the cultural standards of beauty and saw me and he loved me. Over time I was able to put that self-judgment behind me. Sure I got comments from time-to-time like the Turkish check-in guy at a hotel who refused to believe my citizenship because after all you are so dark but I found it amusing now instead of hurtful. It’s an amazing feeling to find self-acceptance.
Then I had my first son. I fell in love in a way I never had before. The soft curls, the baby cheeks, and that smile that crinkled his nose- and the laugh… like unicorns singing under waterfalls. I remember taking him to a dinner party. I dressed him up in a black salwar kamiz. Rested him on my hip. Introduced him to a family member. He flashed her a toothless grin.
And I remember the first thing she said.
Before hello. Before congratulations. She stared at him. Then turned to me. This is your son? she tsked. Why is he so dark?
I still remember the feeling. It was a physical pain. Like falling from atop the monkey bars, the cold metal jabbing you before you hit the ground. I took my son upstairs. I locked a bedroom door. And I wept.
I didn’t weep because she didn’t find him as beautiful or because I felt any differently about his beautiful brown skin. I wept because as beautiful as the culture he is born into can be, he has also inherited this unsavory side too. My son is a combination of Pakistan and United States but its his Pakistani DNA that gives him his beautiful pigmentation and it’s his fellow Pakistanis who will judge him for exactly this. While I may be at peace with how people see me, that night I wept that my child may ever be seen as less than, judged as not good enough, for something as superficial as skin.
They are so young right now. Our family is their world and all they know is love. They don’t know the judgments that wait outside the door for them. They don’t know the challenges they will face and the assumptions people will make because of their race or faith or skin color. They don’t know one of them is lighter. They don’t know one of them is darker. I know. I’ve felt the pain. I bear the emotional scars. And while this is issue is not as prevalent [as far as I can see] as it was when I was a child, the issue exists and I don’t want this for them.
But today when the lady at the bakery made her innocent remark, I realized I may not want them to be judged, but this reality is inevitable. I can only shield them for so long. The world will see what they will and judge as they will. This is life. I can’t shelter them forever. I just hope while they are in my sheltering embrace I can give them the confidence and resilience to face any harsh words and judgments in a way that will shield their tenders hearts from the untruths that may be hurled their way.
Parents need to fill a child’s bucket of self-esteem so high that the rest of the world can’t poke enough holes to drain it dry- Alvin Price