On Being Brown in MLK Jr's America

Mindy Kaling on the cover of Elle magazine.

The third Monday in January may mean a ski holiday for those grew up in the United States in the 80’s. For 28 years, this has been the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the long weekend commemorating his birth, and his fight, as a private citizen, for civil rights for great grandchildren of African descendents in America. He is more than a soundbite and a day off, however, even to those of us who were not on his mind when he was marching or sitting in jail.

The history of race relations in America has been dominated by a black/white dichotomy that often ignores the multi-hues that make up the famed “melting pot.” I’m not saying that the history of slavery, plantations and an agrarian Southern economy is not important. Nor that the resurgence of Hollywood interest in examining this dark period, from Django Unchained to 12 Years a Slave, isn’t artistically and thematically significant.

I am saying that to grow up in-between black and white in America, brown in my case, meant knowing your place was next to impossible. Many of us could use professional support in unpacking the cultural support we grow up in.

I remember moving to Palo Alto, California before it was the home of Facebook or Google. A few weeks into my new school, the teacher sent the three black kids and the one brown (me) to the library to meet with a reporter to talk about the importance of MLK Jr. and the relatively new holiday. This was circa 1987/88.

I was terrified.

All the way down the hallway to the library, I racked my brain about this man I knew nothing about. I had never heard of him before.

The other kids, if they had, said nothing to me, the new girl, about anything.

We were posed around a children’s book, me standing at the shoulder of a girl, who was holding two pages open, one of them with a black and white photo of a man with a wide forehead and regal smile. I scanned the page, desperate for clues.

The caption said something like Dr. King went to jail several times for his beliefs. The reporter asked me later what I thought of MKL Jr.

I dutifully repeated the only semi-fact I had at hand.

“He went to jail for what he believed in.”

I wished there had been more print on the page, or I had a few seconds more to flip through that book and read up on this man everyone was sure I knew a lot about.

The reporter was disappointed that I didn’t have more to say. He (she? A 9 year old’s memories are not that reliable) moved on to someone else.

But the spark had started: I knew I was different from other people. And they were different from me a hereto unexamined fact. What I thought up until then was unclear. Had I thought the whole world was Indian? I knew people looked different than my family; my teacher didn’t dress like my mother after all. I had led an unexamined life, despite moving from India to Canada at a young age.

I went around school, asking classmates, what made this unknown category of black.

“They can’t have red hair,” someone said. The wisdom of 9 year olds only left me with more questions.

Like Harriet the Spy, one of my childhood heroines, I wrote that and a myriad of other semi-facts down.

I wrote it down, despite knowing that with my South Asian man, red was a color I couldn’t aspire to either. The world was no longer as I knew it.

As I grew older, and moved across America, from California to Texas, to Florida, and then North Carolina, part of a family of nomadic academics, my on-the-spot racial education continued. And what I was learning was even more conflicted.

Being Indian, I was part of the “Model Minority” as an Asian. Our type of immigrants were white collar professionals, assimilated into American culture by speaking English, owning homes, sending children to good schools.

My friends in high school and college, whose parents wouldn’t speak to them if they dated a black person, would welcome me into their homes, hold my hand at dinner, and smile hellos to my parents.

“But I don’t think of you as black,” they would say if I mentioned how uncomfortable I felt about being brown in the South.

“But I’m not white,” I wanted so desperately to say. During a classroom enrichment activity, designed to highlight class privilege, I stepped back with all the black kids, even though my parents had taken me to museums. I couldn’t fathom stepping forward and being ahead, in line with all the white kids.

Instead, I wore lots of (hot pink) lipstick to hide my brown lips, complied when a friend asked to see my gums (he wanted to see if they were the same color as his), and fretted I was not as attractive as my white girl friends*, doomed to spend the rest of my life alone. White men, I knew, would not find me attractive. And living in central Florida, then the capital of North Carolina, my future stretched long and lonely.

Which brings me to the recent media storm around women of color appearing on high profile magazines.

In their rush to democratize the notoriously Caucasian magazine industry, and hopefully open up notions of beauty, the editors of women’s magazines are making obvious blunders in whitewashing the very women they’re hoping to honor. There’s Mindy Kaling and Elle debacle, where the gorgeous, regular woman size 8 Mindy was not only cropped, instead of full length, she is the only cover to appear in black and white. Or the speculations that the luminous 12 Years a Slave actress, the rising star, Lupita Nyong’o’s skin had been lightened in a Vanity Fair spread; whether or not it was the lighting or Photoshop, the effect is the same. Lighter, the beauty industry keeps telling us, is more beautiful.

All of which was brought to my mobile device when I cropped out my own toes in an Instagram photo. That’s right; they were too dark for me to think they were lovely. I did the same with my fingers holding the baby (whose face is very white, like his East Asian father’s).

You’ve been reading this blog for a while you know I am an otherwise confident, educated, credentialed published author, mother of two, wife of seven years. And yet when I see my skin, the darker on my hands than my face, I cringe.

Different people have different tributes to Dr. King Jr. For me, as a brown person growing up in America, by starting the process of living black and free, he and all the other fighters in the Civil Rights movement made Gandhi a part of everyday American parlance. A fact I will be forever grateful for as an Indian American adult. Gandhi’s own political consciousness was stirred in South Africa, when he saw the treatment of blacks and browns under white supremacy.

Both demonstrated that people with dark skin can and should occupy public spaces – both literally and figuratively – like anyone else.

A black president, the first Indian American Miss USA (she’s darker than the average almost white Bollywood star), and I’m still a teenage girl, worried my fingers are too dark to be attractive.

From this MLK JR day forward, I vow not to hide my hands or feet from Instagram or anywhere else. A small step to be sure, but if we can resist the assertion of governments to own our bodies, how much more insidious is the beauty industry, in cahoots with the media, gaining our permission, voluntarily, towards self-hatred?

Tupac Shukur immortalized the saying, “the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice.”

I’ll do my part to say I know this to be true.

*For more of these ruminations about growing up brown are in my books; fiction An Unlikely Goddess, and memoir, From Dunes to Dior.

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