Updated: Dec 31, 2020
I'm ten years old when I ask my cousin whether we count as coloured. We are just learning about the concept of race—how there can be Black and White people, which is simple enough to understand, but then it strikes me that there is no mention of where we—the Indians— fall. This thought jolts me a little—that the Concept of Race can apply to my own life.
We search the word up, our dark heads bent over a computer. The Wikipedia page rattles off a list of identities. We trace our finger down the screen, stopping at ‘Indian’. Surprise coils within us when we discover we do, indeed, ‘count’. Coloured, we say, pushing the word out—the heaviness of the r, the gentle d. It is altogether foreign. So we move on the way children do—with a forgetfulness. We play a game where I’m not Shreya but Amy and she’s not Soundarya but Angela. Pretend white names for pretend white girls. The unease stays in the back of our minds, gnawing at its nails.
Even as we grow up watching white TV shows, listening to white singers, watching white movies about white high schoolers in white high schools—we’ve never felt our coloured-ness. We’ve never taken one hard look at it and said: There you are. There I am. This is me. After all, we live in a coloured country. A limited, endless coloured world. What we see on the screen—distant and untouchable—isn’t our concern. But we imagine it reflects us, or the best we can be. So we grow up with our pretend names, which we insist people call us. On a trip to a village, we pretend we can’t speak our native language. We giggle when the scrawny dark village boys trip over our fake names and our foreign tongues, fawning over our exoticism. We are princesses from England, here on holiday. We are daughters of actresses, heiresses of queens.
On our TV screens, fairness creams promise us white skin—Ponds White Beauty, a woman croons, gives you an irradiant pinkish-white glow, with which you can ace job interviews, pass exams, and date men otherwise unavailable to you. Our local heroines grow whiter and whiter and their lovers sing songs that praise their moon-like paleness. Whiteness is no longer an identity but an aspiration. Most dangerously, it’s reachable to us.
When guests are expected, our grandmothers insist we sprinkle talcum powder over our skin. If we complain, they take our hands and press them to their old, wrinkled cheeks and say look how soft and white it is, don’t you want skin like this sweethearts and oh, we do. Once our aunts are old enough to marry, we watch as their parents glance over pictures of potential husbands, stopping to comment on how fair one is, or to reject a man whose skin—they say—is as dark as a bull’s.
Fairness, we learn, is the highest indicator of beauty, of goodness. We smear ourselves in fairness packs, fairness peels, turmeric, gram flour, lemon, yoghurt—all of which will drain the colour from us. When all else fails, we hide underneath makeup. Our dark faces bleed resentfully through our white masks to form a dying, greyish complexion.
But not everything is that simple. So much about us is coloured blatantly, pridefully. The god we worship—Krishna—is said to be stone-black and the most beautiful man who’s lived. When our painters draw him onto canvas, they wash this blackness over with blue. A god’s splendour, they say, simply can’t be captured on something as limited as a piece of cloth. What they mean is, it makes no sense for a man to be both black and beautiful. Until high school, I picture Krishna’s skin as sky-blue and decidedly supernatural. This is how we see our coloured-ness—a myth to be washed over with paint. There’s a lot of confusion as to who and what we are, who and what we should want to be. After all, why would we want to be coloured? It takes me years to discover no one will ask us this question— our race isn’t a choice we’re offered—but there are answers if we’re willing to see them.
At fifteen, I’m introduced to another word—racism. I learn my country doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and my fake whiteness is both delusional and offensive. My worries escalate—I no longer have to brood over whether I’m darker than my cousin (after nationwide protests, Ponds White Beauty assures me all skin colours are beautiful, but it’s never a bad idea to use their ‘brightening’ creams). Now I’m faced with this larger problem—the terrifying vastness of the real world, how I’m both unique and insignificant within its framework. Our colour sets us apart in ways that are likely to disadvantage us, but it also blurs out when the lens takes in the millions of other people with whom we coexist. In this world, our internalised racism becomes externalised: there’s the threat of erasure on both sides. And unless we ask for and accept the answers to that question—why would we want to be coloured?—there’s no possibility of empowerment.
I’m still grappling with that question, as millions before me have. I struggle to distinguish the silence of denial from the quiet of acceptance. I imagine myself untethered from my race, my culture, my country, and then realise—again—this untethering is only another kind of masking. I detached to escape the colourism that’s been woven into my culture, but I must return to escape the racism of the outside world. It has never been clear to me how much of your identity you’re allowed to claim for your own (and I think—now—of my first renaming, the kind of claiming that’s involved in declaring yourself to be Amy) and how much you must allocate for your history, your lineage. How can we love something we’ve never chosen for ourselves? I sometimes think I would like to be transparent, colourless in the purest sense of the world—and isn’t that desire just another untethering? There are no easy answers, only this perpetual searching.
One day, my brother says to us, I know this is racist, but how can Krishna be black? I flinch; I glare at him, but my grandfather only smiles.
Tell me, he says. What is the colour of the universe?
Nothing. Black. Or White. Blue. I don’t know.
There’s Krishna for you, he replies. Now, who would claim the Universe isn’t beautiful?
Shreya Vikram is a writer based in India. A Dorothy West Scholar, she has been recognised by the Adroit Prizes for Prose. Her work is forthcoming in Smokelong Quarterly, Cobalt Review, Ruminate and elsewhere. You can find more of her writing at shreyavikram.com.
This is Rebecca! She’s just started her first year of art school. She not only loves to make creative content through her drawings but she also loves to listen to music (from R&B to kpop), dance, read novels, binging shows and movies, learning new languages on Duolingo and hanging out with friends.