Personal Essays The Irritations Of Having Brown Skin In A Western Country

The Irritations Of Having Brown Skin In A Western Country

My brown skin is a source of endless fascination for the summer months. I am about as useful as a paint chart to my white friends.

It’s coming up to that time of the year when my skin colour is suddenly of interest to white people. My brown skin becomes a barometer during the summertime when white people come up to me and measure their tan against my all-year-round-no-change brown skin.

It’s always done in the same way too. They put their arm against mine and point back and forth between my arm and their arm.

Summer may be about two months away but I have now learnt that this is a phenomenon that will happen to me every year without fail when the season finally arrives. As part of this tedious and completely useless learning experience I now psyche myself up before it actually happens.

Growing up in my home country my skin colour was never the subject of a complimentary comment. Instead I was told that I was too dark. To go from that to having people tell me that that my “golden skin tones” are “beautiful” and they wished they hadmy golden look was a massive ego booster.

I am about as useful as a paint chart to these people.

The people who have been to the Mediterranean during the summer holidays are worse than the ones who stay in Britain and acquire their suntans from the feeble British sun while lying out in their own gardens.

The former types come up to me and say things like, “Look, I am almost as brown as you”. The ones who did not have the luxury of leaving the country for their suntans hold their arm against mine and declare forlornly that they are almost my colour.

I am about as useful as a paint chart to these people. You know how you walk into a paint shop and stare at the chart with all these colours on it trying to differentiate between something labelled, as an example, ‘pure gold’ against ‘light gold’? That is what I represent – a summer paint chart.

I haven’t been able to figure out why MY brown skin ACQUIRES THIS FASCINATION for THREE months every year.

I am reminded of the movie ‘Groundhog Day’ when Bill Murray is forced to live the same life everyday. The only way for me to escape this paint chart business is to sit out in the sun myself so that I become dark enough that no white skinned person would be able to rival me because it would be unsafe for them to even try without getting sun burnt.

Tan aspiration and appreciation is a weird phenomenon that engulfs English people. I have never been able to figure out why white skin is acceptable for 9 months of the year but brown skin becomes a focal point for three months. There is even a song written about this. Noel Coward in 1931 wrote a song titled ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’.

The following are the most interesting lyrics from the song:

“The natives grieve when the white men leave their huts, 
Because they’re obviously, definitely nuts!…

Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, 
The Japanese don´t care to, the Chinese wouldn’t dare to, 
Hindus and Argentines sleep firmly from twelve to one 
But Englishmen detest-a siesta. “

Amusing as it all sounds, in recent years I have come to quite detest these comparisons of skin tones because it makes me feel like a cultural appeaser. Instead of challenging the way I was being treated, as some sort of seasonal brown person, I was instead allowing myself to be foolishly brainwashed into feeling like an acceptable ethnic minority. I can’t see the “golden bits” in my skin try hard as I do. The only time I have any sort of gold is when I apply bronzing blusher to my face.

The reality is that living in a Western country turns minority populations into a ‘pick and mix society’. The dominant race chooses what it wants. When it comes to Indians our food, sarees, Shahrukh Khan and, again, skin colour are admired and adopted. You won’t believe the number of English women who fancy Shahrukh Khan.

The dominant (WHITE) society chooses which parts of me are acceptable & which parts areN’T.

Living in a ‘pick and mix society’ means that I do not get to choose those traits which will act as a buffer for me against discrimination. The dominant society chooses which parts of me are acceptable and which parts are not. Quite often I suffer from a ‘double whammy’ which is a pakka English phrase meaning that a person has suffered two misfortunes at the same time.

In my case the ‘double whammy’ occurs because of my skin colour and that I am female. Whether it is the workplace or in social settings discrimination happens to people like me all the time. None of the “your skin is beautiful” empty talk helps me at these junctures.

As an example, two years ago I was picked to go on a year long management course for female minority people. The course was hailed as a breakthrough in that it was positively helping those who had been marginalised due to their ethnicity and gender in the work place. When I graduated I and many other colleagues had a rude awakening. The course was no more than a tick box exercise under the heading of ‘diversity’. There was no benefit to it when we were back in the workplace.

So as summer beckons I know what to expect but this time I will challenge perceptions. The Western world since Donald Trump’s election has, sadly, strengthened and legitimized racism. After the death of Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Texas, I think the fight against racism can take many forms and strategies. Mine will be to emphasise the relation between my skin colour and my race. My brown skin is not disembodied from me and my culture.


  1. Tarini says:

    amazing article, I loved the “pick and mix society” part the most, How you expressed such a huge issue so simply is so beautiful to me.

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