By Sonali Gupta
How brown is brown enough? Sometimes we’re labeled as too light because we don’t speak our language and wear crop tops, and sometimes we’re labeled as too dark because we’re so vibrant, that it’s practically embarrassing. Why does colorism exist beyond our skin color and extend into the way we interact with our culture? Why do we have to abide by a status quo to be accepted into the Indian communities we identify with?
I was brought up in a relatively traditional Indian household where both my parents spoke Hindi, practiced Hindu traditions, and watched and listened to Bollywood movies and music. As a result, I grew up labeled “dark” because of my fluency in Hindi, basic understanding of Hinduism, and my obsession with everything Bollywood. I’m in all the family WhatsApp groups, I have a Ganeshji idol on my car dashboard, and a strong desire to be Aishwarya Rai in Dhoom 2.
I take pride in the connection I have to my culture and I feel privileged to have been raised with experiences that allowed me to stay connected to it in so many different aspects. However, to some of my cousins in India, I am surprisingly too Indian. They always ask me, “If you were born and brought up in America, why do you know so much about Indian heritage? Once, one of them even told me that he would rather spend time with one of my more “American” cousins since his interaction with me was the same as it was with his friends and family in India. These words followed me far after he left and had me wanting to downplay my “dark-ness” to fit into the American-Indian “whitewashed” stereotype. These thoughts were perpetuated even further by my own parents who subconsciously pushed that same stereotype on me by joking that I’d fit in better by listening to American music instead of playing Desi Girl on repeat. Did you catch the irony? Though these few instances were said as jokes, a small fraction of me wished I was “lighter” so I wouldn’t be an embarrassment to those around me.
But now I observe the other side of the spectrum: people being too “light.” Primary victims of this mindset are girls on TikTok, and the greatest micro aggression of all being “Pooja, what is this behavior?” Although you may be commenting it with harmless intentions on someone else’s TikTok, you are subconsciously perpetuating rigid ideals that these girls must fit the full criteria of being traditional to even be considered Indian. And let’s not even get started on the implicit double standard between girls and boys when it comes to showcasing their Indian ethnicity. Indian girls are expected to know an Indian dance form, dress “appropriately”, and stepping even a toe out of line is unacceptable. They are expected to always be “sanskari” while boys are often given a pass for portraying themselves to be “white washed.” The root of the word, “sanskar”, means values, but what’s the point of even having sanskars if we as a community are always bringing each other down? If a girl shows some skin, or has a tint of an American accent in her pronunciation, she is considered to not be sanskari. But how do either of these things highlight her lack of values? Her clothing is her freedom of expression and she has the right to wear whatever makes her feel most like herself. Her accent is not something she can necessarily control, especially if her family did not integrate the language into conversation when she was younger. Many of my friends are afraid to speak their respective languages because they are embarrassed of getting it wrong or sounding too white-washed. If there was not half as much backlash for having an accent, they might have ended up being able to speak their language fluently, without doubting themselves, and perhaps connecting with their culture in a variety of other ways.
The concept of never being brown enough due to the non physical aspect of colorism our community has implicated on each other needs to be eradicated. We need to reflect on the way we interact with the other Indians around us, because everyone connects to their heritage in their own way. Some dance, some sing, some speak, some write, some silently observe, some are flashy (like me), and some even end up doing it all. No matter how “light” or “dark” you are, you are no lesser than anyone else, and in the end, you are Indian, and no one can ever take your identity away from you.
My name is Sonali Gupta and I’m from the Bay Area. I’m currently majoring in Business Marketing and will be pursuing minors in Dance and Spanish at Loyola Marymount University in LA. I am extremely passionate about the arts and I love to dance and write to express myself. I think art is a healer and I hope that through my work, I will be able to make a difference in my community. You can add me on Instagram @sonali__g