life, motherhood, Pakistan, pakistani, parenting, race, racism

On the desi matter of skin-color, my sons, and the judgments that lie therein

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

13 thoughts on “On the desi matter of skin-color, my sons, and the judgments that lie therein”

  1. If the lady had gone on and on about how cute they are would you have written a peice on that? Beauty is skin deep and that is a far more important lesson to teach. People often tell my kids they are so beautiful but I correct them. I tell them that the best part is that my children are kind and good. Nothing else really matters. I know its not a realistic approach but maybe if we all say it enough and correct people enough people willi realise that suchcomments (whether good bad or ugly) are inappropriate.


  2. Hi anonymous, I try not to answer anonymous but I needed to clarify that she was infact going on and on about how cute they were. The comment and how she chose to praise them was what was interesting. I agree, beauty is skin-deep and its subjective. It's good on you to correct people if you wish, but this piece wasn't about me worrying how cute people find my kids… it was about skin-color and how we are judged for it.


  3. Her comment did not bother me at all and had she gone on and on about how cute they were it also would not have bothered me because I know it comes from a place of good intent. Her words made me think of skin color and the judgments people place on it.

    I agree we should be judged and judge others not on our looks but our character. I definitely spend little [if any] time praising my children on their physical features… Looks fade, but character remains and people have different opinions on what/who is cute and not cute, but if someone gives them a compliment, I take it in the spirit it is intended but can understand why some may wish to correct and remind them to praise their character rather than their looks.


  4. I've seen this mentality out in the community as well and it's so sad. I wish we were past this, but unfortunately we are not. InshAllah posts like these will show people that their “well meaning” comments are hurtful


  5. I have three sisters and we’re all different shades so I know what you mean. Growing up in India our fairest sister–she also has green eyes–was always admired most by others. But thanks to our mother’s balanced attitude we were all easy in our own skin. Your boys will be too, I’m sure. But the desi preference for gora coloring stinks. I tell my kids it’s as ludicrous as our dog Yogi (an adorable mutt who is white as snow) thinking he’s more handsome than my mum’s dog Sully (a black Shihtzu) or my sister’s dog Django (a brown Lhasa Apso) That makes them crack up—but it isn’t a laughing matter when a child’s feelings are hurt.


  6. people are ignorant and not grateful for the fact that child is born normal intelligent person.
    As any religion tells us hurting others feeling is the baggiest sin.May God show them the right path.


  7. Finally got to read the piece. I can relate on so many levels. Fortunately, my parents weren't the type to comment (in a negative way) on skin color. My mother's side of the family is Kashmiri Punjabi, so they are all pretty light skinned. My father's side are Dehli-walay, so they are a mixed bunch. I never thought of myself as fair/gori. Growing up in FL, I spent most of my days out in the sun. I did tease my brother, who is darker than I am, but only because it was the only way to convince him that he was adopted. (I know. Mean. But he was 6½,years younger and sooooo annoying)

    It wasn't until high school when someone said my legs were too white, mainly because of lack of exposure to the sun, that I noticed. At that point I decided I needed to get a tan.

    Khair…fast forward to my married life. My hubby and I have the same skin tone. Both his brothers have darker skin. His eldest brother had a son who is his photo copy, then a daughter who is fair just like her mom. I had a son who is my photo copy, and my younger BIL had a son who is his photo copy and a girl who is just like her naani.

    Then I found out I was having a girl. I was convinced she'd have curly hair like everyone on both sides of the family (except me). The color of her skin was never in my mind. When she was born she had chubby cheeks, and was pink as a peach.

    Then she turned a day old. All the swelling was gone, her hair was dark and STRAIGHT, her eyes dark….and her skin??? Wait! What happened? She didn't match my hubby, my son, or me.

    No one said anything. Everyone kept ooh-ing and aah-ing. I took her home thinking it might be jaundice. Alhamdulillah, it wasn't. Eventually, my FIL (who has a thing about noses) says what we'd all been thinking: “Is ke rang ko kya huwa?” My husband immediately said he was waiting for that comment. All I said was “Haan, tho Daadi pe gayi hai.”

    Then on our first visit to the masjid, she was in her car seat and this woman I know sees her and asks who's baby it is. I say she's mine and she immediately blurts out “Tumhari!! Yeah kis pe gayi hai? H—— ka tho rung bara saaf hai!” OMG! I responded with the same line about Daadi and walked away.

    At that point we decided no one would EVER comment on skin color or physical appearance in our home. I don't even let them say ugly. I tell them that when you make such comments you are questioning/criticizing Allah's creation.

    Eventually my eldest, at about age four was curious as to why we were beige like vanilla and Mimi was brown like chocolate. I told him we come in all different flavors.

    I eventually had two more boys – both lighter in color than my daughter. And my BILs had more girls, also lighter than my daughter. Alhamdulillah, no one has ever made her feel bad (at least not that I know of). On the contrary, most people who meet her tell her how beautiful she is, Masha Allah. Although my eldest has inherited the mean older sibling thing from me, he knows what not to say.

    I have to admit… I stare at her all the time, which she notices. I often wonder if the rishtay walas will be able to look past her skin color and admire her beautiful eyes, or cheeky smile. Or see the past the chocolate into the yumminess inside her heart and mind.

    I also wonder what kind of girls my boys will end up with. If they are as beautiful as you Huma Yasin, I can hope for cute grandkids, Insha Allah.

    Aisha Saeed, I appreciate you writing about one of many skeletons in the Pakistani closet. I think articles like these, plus the way we raise our kids will make a difference.


  8. Im desi and have a white complexion. People say im pretty and don't believe me when I say im desi. They mistake me for an Arab or Turkish. But..I was born with a physical mark that makes me stand up.


  9. Sorry that's me ^^.
    I was saying people tell me im gorgeous but reject me (for marriage) because of that. Besides I get told at parties im so pretty etc. Im in mid 20s and unmarried and that's causing my parents concern. Your sons are lucky to have you and your husband. My parents dont do anything to add to my self esteem. I was told by a doctor btw that why would a guy choose this (meaning me) when he has other options?
    I hv been humiliated by rishta aunties. No one supported me or gives be strength. Im sure my parents want to change it so I can get married but guess what I have learned to and still learning to accept myself. People have a right to their preferences definitely. But I get told im pretty and have a nice family and im nice but desi criterias for marriage. .
    Oh well sorry for ranting. Your post hit close home.
    Im learning to accept myself. And I understand desi culture is beautiful until you come across these shallow thinking.
    People have preferences but why humiliate or hurt somebody else? Say something nice or shut up.


  10. The Asian mentality about fair skin is well known. My mother is dark and women in her family stressed so much about her being able to get married! You must have also heard of Fair and Lovely and Fair and Handsome creams!
    I find it amusing and am glad to be out of it. Neither of my sons pay attention to their skin colour and I will bite off anyone's head who tries to point it out! I'm glad you too have gone past that phase!


  11. your two boys mashallah are beautiful and so are you. Don't let ignorant comments from desi ladies get you down. You are the better generation who thinks and cares about others feelings before speaking. Love you and your little boys!!!


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