The black creeps out of the ears

Every mother knows this - pregnancy gives you that extra sanction, that lets you smile wistfully at kids on the street, or strike up "Don't you have the cutest smile ever?" conversations with wide-eyed kids. I was no different. I'd stop to admire kids everywhere - on the Metro, Target, Walmart, the restroom line. I'd gush about these kids to my husband, who thankfully did not suffer from the same craziness.

He usually just smiled through my cooing descriptions, but once, just once, he slipped. After I'd told a Mexican toddler she was a cutie, he said rather brusquely - "You do realize your own kid will look nothing like this?"

"What do you mean - this?" I blubbered.

"This equals fair, chubby look. 'Cute' in your words."

I was shocked. How dare he suggest that color and looks were all I cared about? Hadn't I showered the exact same kind of attention on African American kids I'd seen in the mall? When my mother-in-law had suggested I stop drinking coffee, and a friend had told me to eat almonds - all to improve the baby's color - I had laughed outright and said I was happy whatever color my baby was. I knew enough about science and genes and melanin to know my kids would never look like "this". I shut my mouth rather pointedly, and decided never to bother with a sourpuss like him again.

Flash forward: My daughter's birth - She was here, the little bundle I had waited 9 months to meet. She had a pretty mouth, pink, full, a little bow, just like her dad's. When he held her for the first time, I noticed how much fairer she seemed. We analyzed every feature of hers - and eagerly claimed this part and that as our own genetic imprint. Everything about her was perfect, except the tips of her ears, which were a deep reddish brown. I wondered if people would notice her birthmark, and tease her later in life, but decided that long hair would hide it just fine.

There was so much to do - mastering breastfeeding, changing diapers, timing my sleep around my little one - that I forgot about the birthmark. When her pediatrician came in for a final visit before I was discharged, my husband showed him the ears and asked if the birthmark was permanent and if it could be removed.

"Um.. that. That's the actual color of your baby's skin," said the doctor. "Slowly the rest of the body will darken to match it."

My husband and I simply stared. I remember my exact thought at that point - "The black creeps out of the ears." All those almond feeders and coffee abstinence advocates had never told us that my baby would be born a certain color, and the darker color would just spread out from her ears.

Under our ever watchful eyes, that's what her ears proceeded to do for the next 3 weeks. Take over every nook and cranny, till she became an even chocolate brown.

One afternoon, about a fortnight after her birth, I sat down and wept. I sobbed to my mother about all those times when well-meaning but utterly rude relatives had wondered how I would ever get married, given how dark I was. I remembered the stupid jackass TA who would always grade my pretty friend higher during our viva voces or quizzes. Wasn't it enough that I had to go through all this? Does life have to treat her that way too? I asked. My mother listened but in the end, said quite matter-of-factly, "It's your inner beauty that counts, right? And you don't have to saddle her with your own baggage."

I quietened. Though my own experiences had me question the wisdom of her first point from time to time, I had also largely believed it when my parents told me my inner beauty mattered to everyone. And she was absolutely right about the other part too. My daughter didn't have to be like me. Here maybe life would be different for her. Maybe all I needed was a voice of reason in those hormone-crazed days post-pregnancy, but it soothed me a great deal to have my fears out in the open with my mom.

When Karen Walrond had posted about Lisa Lerner, a Jewish American woman who had adopted transracially from India, and who had a hard time dealing with how dark her adopted daughter was, I thought it was time to confront my own demons. Change the Jewish American to Hindu Indian, add a husband, and change transracial adoption to biological daughter, and you would have my story.

My mother has written about her experiences as a dark child in a fair family here. Usha Vaidyanathan, a prolific blogger from Bangalore, wrote about the same topic and how she's thankful that her skin color never came between her and her "milky white" sister. She says:

Perhaps all dark girls in this country have the same story to share. Today most of us do not openly talk about fair skin being an essential pre requisite for being considered pretty...

What a pity we don't talk about it. At least discrimination has a name here. In Asia people go about their covert racism without even thinking about it. If more people like Pissed off Paki wrote about color racism maybe we'd be on track to dealing with it. Or maybe, like my story or Lisa Lerner's, we have only just begun admitting it even to ourselves.

Contributing Editor Priya Ramachandran also blogs at Words on Water


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