For the Love of Brown
“I don’t want to look like another race.”
This statement has stayed on my mind over the past few days. It irks me to my core and signifies (at least to me) that there is an issue with having darker skin. That is a problem.
As a first-generation Mexican American woman, with a fabulous brown complexion, I get fired up when people make comments on the “darkness” of one’s skin color. It is unnecessary and inappropriate. It is a “tool” used to make others self-conscious or feel inferior to lighter skinned people. It is disgusting.
Growing up, I was the darkest in my friend group. Neither my skin color nor race was ever an issue. I have a memory of my childhood friend asking me why my skin was different than hers. I told her, “It’s just the way God made me.” She nodded in agreement and never mentioned it again. I went to a predominantly white school and, fortunately, did not feel out of place.
I started feeling a shift when I went to high school. I went from a graduating class of fourteen to a school with hundreds of students. The size of the student body was shocking, but I did not have issues regarding my ethnicity. I was excited that there was a more diverse student body and potential friends that I could connect with. I was wrong. To my disbelief and surprise, I felt the most microaggressions at the hands of Latino students. I kept it moving.
It would be years later that I would reflect on my upbringing and notice the microaggressions that were aimed at myself or other non-white students. Statements that I brushed off or responded to with, “You’re an idiot.” Regardless of my response, I would shut it down. It was always a stupid boy trying to cut me down when I would ignore their advances or show no interest in them. It was juvenile, sick, and there are moments I look back and wish I would have said something different. Wish I would have realized what was happening in the moment and called them out for their blatant racism.
It was the naivete of my fifteen-year-old self that rejected the idea of someone being racist towards her. The denial that it could happen to me or recognize that it was racism. Honestly, at the time I thought these boys were just that: boys. I thought they were not clever enough or mature enough to accept rejection and move on. Telling me that they changed their mind and did not want to date someone with a “green card” sounded idiotic to me.
When I was twenty-seven, I started dating my now ex-husband. When I first met his parents, things were good. There was acceptance and kindness all around. It was only after we got engaged a few years later that the masks came off and I experienced racism at the hands of his parents. It was jarring and caused rifts between my partner and I, and at times between his parents and us.
I recall becoming enraged when my ex would dismiss his mother’s racism as being “out of touch.” He even repeated the sentiment to our therapist. I remember that session because we spent thirty-minutes explaining what racism was and how her actions were racist. It took him thirty minutes to concede and admit he was turning a blind eye to it because he did not know how to handle it. He thought it would be easier to side with the “majority,” than to speak up for the minority. It still blows my mind.
The deterioration of our relationship was evident in our daily lives. We drifted apart and became enemies faster than it took us to fall in love with one another. On top of the deception, ignorance, and what I was seeing at the time as bigotry from my partner, the constant reminder that I was different than him and his family was too much.
My last trip to visit is parents would be Memorial Day weekend 2017. It was the last time I saw them and the beginning of freedom for myself. It was on that trip that the final blow came. I decided that it would be the last time I would subject myself to his mother’s racism. It had been years of her micro aggressive commentary. Years of, “Why do Mexicans name their kids Jesus?” Years of, “Oh good, they have a section on the menu with your kind of food.” I had had enough.
The topic of my skin color had been discussed on a previous occasion, and not in a good way. I remember not responding to it. I was waiting for my partner to intervene and say something. To be the hero in the moment and point out their wrongdoing. I was left to drown.
This trip had overall been pleasant. As pleasant as it can be when you are constantly reminded that you are different. On the last day of the trip, I wanted to enjoy the sun a little while longer and work on my tan. This became a problem. I had never seen a group of people band together in opposition to tanning. I ignored their opposition and went on my merry way to sit outside. A few minutes later someone brought me a sweater to wear, in the heat, because “I was dark enough” and they did not want me to get darker. What in the actual fuck?
I refused to wear the sweater and engaged in a back and forth about how it was wrong to make such a request. I remember saying something to the effect that their request was out of line and racist. I was met with resistance and gaslighting. It was my fault I felt that way. They were doing nothing wrong. I looked at my ex for support and found a blank stare.
Stunned, I composed myself and decided to move inside. I started to count down the minutes before we would leave, and I would let my ex have it. The comments continued about the darkness of my skin. I was told that I had “negro” skin – yes, negro skin – and that was the reason why I was dark. That I should not aim to be darker, but work on blending in with their family. THAT WAS THE MOST LUDRICOUS THING I HAD HEARD ON THAT TRIP. LUDRICOUS.
In that moment, I knew this was not my “family” nor did I want to be part of a family that worked hard at diminishing others. I did not want the rest of my life to be filled with anger or racism. I was no longer going to be subjected to hatred. I wanted out, especially after my ex’s failure to speak up and say something. I don’t know what I was expecting. He did not speak up for me when we were fiancés, how could I expect him to speak up for me now as his wife. The ending was on the horizon.
Fast forward to present day, I was having a conversation with…an acquaintance [?] about a dress I plan to wear to an upcoming event. The dress is this hot pink number that I think will look good with a fresh tan. I really want it to look good. It is a summer wedding, and this is the time to wear something fabulous, right? [Don’t worry, I cleared it with the grooms, and they are fine with bright colors at their wedding!]
In that conversation she disapproved of tanning. She continued stating that culturally being darker is a negative thing (keep in mind, she herself is dark skinned). I was astounded by this, not because I had never heard of it, but that she agreed that being dark is a bad thing. I will admit that I do not understand the cultural aspect of it. I am not even going to attempt to explain it away or dismiss her feelings. The issue I am having is the comment of not wanting to look like another race. That is where it gets murky.
Her cultural belief that being dark skinned is bad is rooted in racism.
As I stated before, I am not going to try to explain her culture. I do not know what it is like growing up being brainwashed into believing that dark skin is bad. I cannot pretend to understand that kind of oppression and I do not want to shame her. You cannot convince someone that their beliefs are wrong. Her beliefs are different than mine and I cannot and will not force her into loving her dark skin or debate her on how wrong I believe her stance is. I will not turn a blind eye to it either.
Rather than attack or shame her, which seems to be what a lot of people consider “jumping into action,” I decided to take the route of least resistance. I shared my favorite summer memories were those of laying out by a pool and tanning with my girlfriends. How I recently spent time up in Northern California and embraced the heat and enjoyed the day with my friend out by her pool. I chose to express myself through self-love and appreciation for my dark skin.
“I don’t want to look like another race,” will echo in my mind for a long while. It isn’t something one forgets. The statement is rooted in self-hate and prejudice. It is sharing the idea that to be dark skinned is to not be enough. That being dark skinned is ugly. I hate it.
The statement awakened something in me. It is the reason why I am writing this post. The thought of someone hating themselves for their skin color is baffling. It is heartbreaking. However, I am not that naïve fourteen-year-old girl. I understand that all people of color have had to endure hatred for their beautiful brown skin, for their sheer existence. Our skin color has been weaponized and used as a method to make us feel inferior and sell an agenda that we are not good enough.
I have had the good fortune of having parents that taught their children to embrace their differences. They sent us to a predominantly white school, so they felt it was important to emphasize that our differences were beautiful. That we are worthy. They taught their children to love themselves not only for what is on the outside, but the inside too. My parents built the foundation for our self-love and appreciation. This is not to say they did not mess us up, they did. My parents are far from perfect, but the good that they instilled in us has allowed us to be brave in this world.
We need to do a better job to break the stigma. We need to do better to love ourselves and others. It is not about embracing our differences, it is about sharing our love for our differences, including our skin color.
Photo Credit: All pictures are Mari Rey originals.