By Abhi Chinniah
Light skin, dark skin. The song of my childhood. Skin lightening soaps, creams, scrubs that would bleach and scrape my skin. You name it, I was given it. Scraping the dark off was a common conception of beauty when I was growing up. Fair was seen to be more beautiful, superior and in many instances it still is. It took a long time for me to be comfortable in my dark skin, and still at times not usually at my own doing. I feel my colour.
BUT, WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
My parents were both born and bred in Malaysia with Jaffna Tamil Sri Lankan roots. My papa found himself in Christchurch, New Zealand in the 70s. He had a rough time in Christchurch, and was met with a lot of animosity. He will famously tell you about how he arrived in New Zealand with nothing but a thin jersey on his back. It came as no surprise then that after my birth in Christchurch I would too be met by racial intolerance. Being thrown down a flight of stairs age 6 at kindy and being called a “cheeky darky,” will forever be tucked away in the back of my memory. Nor will I forget my mother picking me up that day, carrying me home, just as upset as I was.
This was the beginning.
Eventually, we left Christchurch. I asked papa where the snow was, he laughed and said air conditioning would be my new life from then on! A lack of snow was the least of my worries, it turns out I would be a minority everywhere I went and Malaysia which has a clear hierarchal system for race made that crystal clear to me. You see, in Malaysia, we have the Bumiputera’s also known as the Malays, we have the Chinese and the Indians. Then we have everyone else. And I being Sri Lankan was everyone else. There were at times clear divisions; I was called MUKA HITAM which translates to blackface in my early years in public school. Turns out, being dark and moving to a small Malaysian town with a full-blown Kiwi accent would not bode well for developing friendships. I was bullied, hard by kids my colour and not that I now realize just didn’t understand me. Thankfully there were kind souls, many of whom I still call my friends today.
It did not help that my mother is light-skinned. It was somewhat of an anomaly to people when they looked at my amma and then at me. People would say, “oh she looks like her father, so black lah”, with pitying tones. This of course at the time wasn’t hurtful, it was simply a way of life. It was normal and expected to have comments like this. I think for most of us, it’s only much later we realize it’s wrong. Flippant comments handed out like mints at restaurants; of course, I interpreted it as “you are not better than, because you are not fair”.
Can’t say it did much for my self-esteem.
A decade later, I was shipped back to New Zealand. Time to learn some hard lessons, time to grow up! I was prepared for the onslaught of racism I may receive, it would not matter what I had to offer. I was told most people would not look past the colour of my skin.
My university days were surprisingly free of racism. Experiences were cushioned in the cocoon only student life can provide. But the day would eventually come where I would need to claw my way into the professional world. On a work trip overseas, I was sitting at a table with much older Caucasian men when one of them started talking about a muddy lake in Australia. “Yeah, the colour of the lake was muddy,” he said gesturing at me – I stupidly laughed along. If I had stood up for myself, what would have happened? I would like to think something world-changing but the truth is I would have lost my job.
At a social event, I had to swallow back words as a man who decided he didn’t like me shouted “bye curry muncher” over my head as he left.
I now read situations, and if I can say something, I will.
EVER FELT YOUR COLOUR?
Have you ever felt your colour? It is a strange, inferior emotion. Sometimes I wonder if I looked more stereotypically “acceptable”, would that have opened up more doors for me? Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change a thing about my upbringing and life. I had a great childhood and exceptional parents. We could all look at things a certain way and say it could be different.
I would like to think we are progressing to see beyond skin colour. Change is a long way off. Unconscious bias, conscious, cultural, wherever it falls under the umbrella. Discrimination is omnipresent. It is in our magazines, it is on our screens, led by people who don’t want to understand, don’t know and won’t acknowledge that it needs to be changed. It is so often the people that want to change things don’t have the power to do so.
The best advice I can give is this – with whatever semblance of power you have, you can create change. If you are a woman or woman of colour in an influential position; help other women get ahead. I do not see this often enough. Change perceptions. This is not a competition; there is plenty of room at the table for us all to have a seat. Find your influence; find your power, however small or big.
I found mine when I picked up a camera. And now I will tell the stories of women like me whose marginalized voices are not shared enough.
Light Skin Dark Skin Exhibition
• 22 May – 14th June: Upstairs Gallery, Titirangi
• 13th June: Panel Discussion with Migrant Zine Collective
• 21 June – 5th July: Garnet Station, Westmere
• Available online at www.ramiistudio.com from 14th June