“I spent far too many summers inside and out of the sunlight. There were summers where I didn’t go swimming at all. I constantly tried out many face masks and skin bleaching products. I thought something was wrong with me. I edited pictures of myself to make me look lighter, just so I could be pretty. I hated taking pictures at night and avoided wearing bright colors at all costs. There was time when it got so bad, that I hated even looking in the mirror or would start crying while getting ready for school. I would even try to physically scratch the dark from my face. Yeah, it was pretty bad..”
When 16-year-old Aswathi Thomas, decided to write about colourism – an issue that is dear to her – on her blog, little did she expect that the piece would go viral. Today, her post – ‘I’m Indian, I’m Dark, And I Don’t Care’ has over 100,000 reads and her site has been visited by people from more than 75 countries.
Aswathi, who was born to Malayalee parents, has lived in Texas, US, her whole life. Growing up, she learned to love India’s powerful history and its glorious culture. She is also an admirer of the lipsmacking cuisine. Despite her love for the country, Aswathi has not been oblivious to the cultural flaws either.
“Behind India’s beautiful face, there is a growing disease that our society continually fails to recognise – colourism, which is a term coined by author Alice Walker, and is defined as a discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone among people of the same racial and/or ethnic group. Also know as, internalised racism,” she wrote in her blog.
Aswathi was made aware of her “dark skin” from a very early age. She has had multiple experiences where people made rude comments about her skin colour. The older the she got, the more she realised the importance of shedding light on colourism, an issue she feels Indians generally don’t want to address.
“I’m part of the speech and debate team at my school and just last year I wrote a speech regarding this topic and thought it would be something interesting and important to talk about. I think it’s extremely unfortunate that this mindset is so widespread within the Indian culture. But on the flipside, it’s a good thing that colorism is simply that – a mindset. By talking and facilitating discussions within our communities, great change can be made in how we perceive having a dark complexion,” she says.
Aswathi feels that this mindset is so deeply embedded in Indian culture that a majority of people fail to recognise the adverse effects that colourism has on so many. Simple things like when parents tell their children to not be out in the sun for too long or to eat certain foods that help in brightening the skin are reflections of this mentality. Aswathi is of the opinion that though colourism is something that people of all genders face, it certainly is tougher on women.
“I have an older brother and a younger sister. My sister is a lot fairer than I, so colourism was something she never really faced. My brother on the other hand, does have a complexion similar to mine. However, I think that Indian society places a lot more emphasis and criticism on a woman’s beauty, rather than that of men,” she says.
Despite being brought up in the US, Aswathi feels there are many women of South Asian descent who go through similar experiences. She finds it comforting that there is a solidarity between the people who have gone through such incidents. She is part of a Facebook group known as Dark Skin Women United. Here, she came across and shared many stories of women who had gone through what she has. For this high schooler, it was comforting to know that she could relate to others out there who faced similar problems.
“We as a society have to stop putting people down for the things that make them unique. Whether it be the way their voice sounds, or the type of clothes they wear, or you guessed it, even how dark their skin is. We should learn to love people for all the things that make them who they are, rather than make them feel like they’re any less because of it,” she says in her blog.
The tremendous response to her post has only made Aswathi more determined to write more about colourism and educate people on the harmful effects of subscribing to this kind of mentality.
“I have received messages and emails from people from all over the world sharing their kind words and similar experiences with me and my mind is absolutely blown away! I never thought anything like this would happen, but it’s great to know that my words have impacted so many people,” she says.
As for her future plans, Aswathi wants to major in political science or journalism in college. And her dream job is to be either the chief nightly news anchor for a major news organisation or work as a White House senior staff member.
“As of now, I’m just trying to get through high school one day at a time,” she says.