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Growing Up Dark | Jasmin Thana

Article published:
Black and white photo of a smiling woman of South Asian descent

As a dark-skinned South Asian woman, I have experienced colorism my entire life. As early as an infant, others communicated my inferiority due to my skin color. For the past 30 years, everyone from elders in my inherited family, peers, teachers, chosen family as well as complete strangers, have all told me that my place is below them, simply because their skin was many shades lighter than mine.

As a dark-skinned South Asian woman, I have experienced colorism my entire life. As early as an infant, others communicated my inferiority due to my skin color. For the past 30 years, everyone from elders in my inherited family, peers, teachers, chosen family as well as complete strangers, have all told me that my place is below them, simply because their skin was many shades lighter than mine.

Thankfully, my parents’ positive stories about my rightful place in the world always outweighed the continued verbal assaults on my body. I am beyond grateful for parents who knew, individually and collectively, the importance of teaching me that there was—is— absolutely nothing wrong with my skin color. My parents also taught me to never perpetuate any ill feelings towards other skin tones. Teaching me to love my skin did not mean that I grew up disliking others who were lighter or darker than me.

But the comments still hurt. At a very early age, I began to actively make sure I did not hate who I saw in the mirror. Survival in my hometown of Portland, Oregon meant floating between spaces, cobbling together a sense of self-worth and self-validation, from various people and communities. I sought out positive images of dark-skinned people, which I most easily found in the African-American community. I searched for positive spaces for South Asian Americans that brought light to my experience as a child of South Indian immigrants. I searched for queer writers of color and queer communities of color that were fiercely political and personal. I searched for individuals who were like me with their curly hair, dark skin, South Asian diaspora ties, and inability to fit into boxes nicely. As a youth, I depended on books, magazines, television, and movies. As I got older, the internet became an added tool that made the searching possible. Regardless of the method, I was determined to cultivate images that normalized positive reflections of me.

Over the years, I became skilled at finding multiple resources for all the parts of me unrepresented in widely known stories and images in the U.S. I cultivated community and chosen family that knew my experiences because they were their experiences. We found each other as we tight-roped to dismantle borders of multiple kinds. I gained a sense of comfort. I had no idea how moving away from that community would affect my well-being and force me to reassess my needs.

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Being dark in India

For years, I dreamed of spending several months in my ancestral homeland of India. This year, that dream became a reality and I am currently spending five and a half months in the place where my parents were born and raised. With the many joys of being here, there are also many pains.

As a dark-skinned South Asian, my experience of colorism in southern India media and culture cut deeper than anything I knew in the U.S. As South Asian Americans, our experience and people are ignored so that I had grown accustomed to not seeing us reflected or amazed if we were included. Actually being in South Asia, I was surrounded by images of people who shared my ancestry, but never shared my complexion. A month plus of being surrounded by glamorous very fair-skinned South Asians on television, in films, on advertisements, on magazine covers, among other spaces was impacting me negatively.

While there was always a gap between the images around me and my reflection in the mirror, now that gap extended beyond just me to the shades of brown around me that did not fit into the desired, idealized fair-skinned mold. I slowly began to realize that my feelings about myself unconsciously became more and more negative. For the first time in my life, I knew my own well-being relied on finding a space that celebrated positive images of dark-skinned South Asians. After asking around, I was devastated that my wide network failed to know of even one space that celebrated positive images of dark-skinned South Asians. I began feeling my isolation in ways that were filled with deep hopelessness.

Dark & lovely

Here in India, under the magic of the August full moon, I created the Dark, Lovely, and South Asian blog to fight back. I started this public blog out of my own desperate need for positive images of dark-skinned South Asians.

My first post was a picture of me. The following posts were a few pictures that I keep close in my mind and heart. On August 3, I woke up in the early morning hours with fire on my fingertips. Before I knew it I had typed up contents for a submit page for the site. I copied and pasted the information and quickly asked for support from my personal email. I posted the link on Facebook. I left the computer for a few hours to complete other commitments. Feeling vulnerable, I was amazed when I came back to the computer that there was already one contribution, from a stranger no less, notes of gratitude and many others sharing the URL around.

I remain stunned at the response. Over fifteen hundred people are now following the blog on Tumblr, plus the many who don’t have Tumblr accounts but are visiting the site to absorb images of dark-skinned beauty. The contributions, love, gratitude and solidarity for the site have continued without effort on my part. One person shared anonymously that “This blog gives me hope. I’m south asian and although I’m not dark skinned just seeing all these beautiful people on my dash lessens my self-hate and internal racism. Thank you. I needed a blog like this as did so many other South Asians.” I had absolutely no idea it would instantly have worldwide reach or the ability to reach across generations. On the second day the blog was public, a 10 year old celebrated their aunt for cultivating thoughts of beauty and determination. A mother of four in South Africa of South Indian origin shared the love she has for her, her husband and their children’s dark-skin regardless of negative comments. Contributions of photos and stories have reflected a need to be seen and heard. Through various posts, readers are reflecting on the cyclical journey of self-love, self-acceptance, and healing. The love and hurt that people have voiced simultaneously make the site heartwarming and heartbreaking for me.

Overcoming colorism

While the blog’s focus is on dark-skinned people of South Asian ancestry, colorism is experienced by dark-skinned people all around the world. Our ancestors may have roots in different parts of the world, but our shared experience as dark-skinned people has us connected. The fifth comment received on the blog was from ashesforjustice who said: “i absolutely love this! as a black american woman, i just want to extend some brown-skinned solidarity to you…i can’t wait to see what unfolds here. peace and blessings.” Another note of solidarity came from theblacksmithdaughter who said, “Growing up African-American you think that only black people have this problem. Then you get out in the world and realize dark-skinned people are suffering this way everywhere. This blog is beautiful and I love reading about dark-skinned people the world around claiming their beauty and challenging the haters.” Another anonymous person shared, “I don’t know my ethnicity. I don’t know my father and my mother was adopted. I’ve never had a group of people I was able to identify with. Where I live, if you aren’t caucasian then you’re considered dark skinned and ‘exotic’. People constantly ask me what my ethnicity is and get frustrated when I say I don’t know. I’ve never had a group of people I could identify with before.. Until I found this blog. I just.. wanted to thank you. It’s nice knowing I’m not alone.” In making connections with our experiences, it helps to shatter ideas of isolation and disconnection created by Eurocentric ideals and desires that we don’t fit into.

In as many unexpected and unanticipated gifts the blog has opened up, there have been as many challenges. Colorism has left a harmful residue for many shades of people with South Asian ancestry. I struggled with how to deal with this harm, not to silence it, and to also make room and safe space for lifting up celebrations of dark-skinned people. I am still struggling with how to deal with fetishizing and exotifying comments that have been coming exclusively from white people. Until I have space to figure out how to respond, their comments, that sound like support but actually otherize, remain unpublished. My intention for the Dark, Lovely, and South Asian blog is to celebrate positive images of dark-skinned South Asians, that is inclusive of the diaspora and Indo-Caribbeans who also experience colorism. I am intent and am working hard on holding my boundaries to make sure the space does just that.

I want a place where we are reminded that we exist. I want a place where we are reminded of our resilience and resistance. I want a place that reminds us that even as dark-skinned people we are a diverse people of many stories, many experiences and many shades of dark brown. I want a place that centers dark-skinned people of South Asian ancestry around the world, including Indo-Caribbeans. I want all parts of us, the parts that are marginalized and the parts that are privileged, to be able to reside in this celebration of dark-skinned South Asian people.

Our skin is the largest organ in our body. If we dislike it or desire it to be different than it is, how does that affect our mental, physical, and emotional health, not to mention our own self-love and self-worth? We embody more than the hurt we experience from being told we’re inferior. My greatest hope is that this place has the ability to cause positive ripples and shifts towards self-love for all people of all shades.