There are times when the air is so thick and unmoving, the land dry and barren that I can only describe it in a colour: brown. Brown like the ruggedness of a tree trunk, its bark peeling off the way skin does when burnt. Brown like the Catholic school girl’s skirt that remains resolutely in place. Brown, the brown that isn’t rich like coffee or deep like chocolate. A brown that cannot find an adjective other than…brown. Brown is also sturdy, like planks of wood that becomes a bridge. The furniture at home unchanging and unbroken. The heavy temple doors. The old ceiling fans- the new ones are a forcefully cheerful dull-white. Brown like makeshift cardboard boxes, full with nothing, nothing without anything. Brown of the paper that covered notebooks of math, science and every other dreadful nightmare that made school. Brown of the hair of the servants gone brown from black from working in the sun- crying out for coconut oil. Brown of the coconut when it’s not tender anymore. Brown of the skin of my hand which still escapes from being too dark. Brown that is not the skin of crispy chicken and all things fried, because that is golden. Brown not of whiskey or the hint of red in rum. Brown that has a smell that can also be described as…brown. Brown of eyes that never look as attractive as hazel that is called brown. Brown that is not dry sand or wet earth. Brown that is the brown under your feet on white sheets. Brown of those lines of sweat and dirt that form on your already brown neck. Brown that is never altogether too brown or too pale to be brown, but is just brown. The colour pencil that isn’t quite your skin colour and not the additional dark brown. The missing brown in WhatsApp emoticons next to the yellow and white. The brown almost like the colour of roots when a giant tree is uprooted- one that is old, almost ancient and had a sudden death. Brown like the mud vessel used for orange-red fish curry with a dash of coconut milk. Brown that doesn’t quite sound brown with a capital B. Brown which needs just a little something after it to be as brown as it can be. A hyphen to separate, a comma to explain, a semi-colon with more to come, a colon to summarise, even an ellipses with more brown to come.
Brown with a rounded sound and a texture almost too rough. Brown that comes like an afterthought, like umami. brown…
For years in primary school, the ‘skin colour’ crayon bothered me endlessly.I have never made a drawing of myself. Or whenever I did, I never gave my skin any colour. I drew it in stark black outlines on a white piece of paper, large eyes coated with black eyelashes. My skin colour most certainly wasn’t that pink toned white of the ‘skin colour’ crayon, I could tensely finger the brown one, but I couldn’t openly acknowledge I had dark skin, because i knew my friends would only reiterate it. The dark skin on my hands that I constantly hid, sometimes turning my hand palm-up to reveal the lighter shade of skin. In a thriving market of Fair and Lovelys my skin colour was a constant bother as a child. I grew up and out of being bothered about my dark skin however, and I never could draw anyway, so out went the offensive packs of crayons. For years together I hadn’t felt the brown on my skin until it brushed against a sea of whites.
How do you feel the brown on your skin burning like it’s been caught aflame? You’ll see it in the blue eyes against white skin on a bus driver who will take a closer look at your bus pass, the lady at the supermarket who will look into your wallet as you fumble with foreign currency, the flight attendant who will look through you when you ask for help. Sometimes you don’t just feel the brown, but you feel your dark hair pressing into your scalp, you feel brown eyes struggling to lock into blue ones,you feel every dark shadow and pimple and freckle, even your clothes lugged across a continent forcing you to be aware of your difference. When was the last time I felt brown? I felt brown when a girl in college said I looked pretty, my immediate shrug of dismissal made her compassionately tell me that I shouldn’t feel ugly simply because I was dark. It was possible for me to look beautiful even with my skin colour. It was easy for me to dismiss the girl then, her pettiness was just that, petty and parochial, a girl from a small town who didn’t know any better. A few big words in free-flowing English was all I needed to satisfy my own petty vengefulness. But when you are conditioned into believing in the superiority of the White race(wait, White skin) you feel remarkably small when the brown burns into you. My comfortable upbringing, excessive lifestyle, and anything else that made me feel confident and secure back home didn’t matter to those blue eyes. To them, I was something out of the covers of a Nat Geo magazine, both pitied and feared and disliked for my brown skin and foreign features. I wasn’t how people looked like, I was how the poor people from war-torn countries, littered with beggars, famine and hunger, people who didn’t speak English and were grateful to be in their country of plenty looked like.
Did the lady at the supermarket make her kids finish the food on their plates that evening telling them how the brown girl at the store fumbled about with a small bag of groceries and a nearly empty wallet? Racism is prevalent in more than just violence and exclusion and a denial of rights and opportunities, it is in the ‘gaze’, the gaze that burns your skin colour into your flesh. It is in the pity, the benevolence and the innate suspiciousness of the ‘gaze.’