The dissonance in my gut: When ideas of skin colour and identity are challenged abroad

In the United States, I’m never really forced to think about the colour of my skin. I suspect very few white, middle-class girls are, although I may be wrong there. This is a privilege, a luxury that, despite its pricelessness, society rarely reminds me of. However, in Bijapur, a small town in northern Karnataka, I was constantly reminded of it. A naturally introverted person, especially while travelling, I really do my best to blend in. Neutral colours, quiet voice, don’t stray from my group. This would be easier if I were not so pale; I give off glare in sunlight. Even at home I can be distractingly pale, but in Bijapur, it drew inescapable attention.

Sitting in a restaurant, the eyes of strangers would stare over my companion’s shoulder and directly at me. Mostly men, unsmiling and unfaltering. On the streets, heads turned. In the car, people peered through the window, some even waved and smiled. They were the best ones, because their smiles felt humanising. As a whole, it was deeply unsettling. Perhaps you remember that scene in Inception when Ariadne is recognised as an impostor by the dreamer’s subconscious, and everyone on the street begins to stare at her? It was kind of like that.

While it was uncomfortable, it was ultimately harmless. I looked away and distracted myself with the fascinating things in front of me. That is, until people began stopping me to ask for photos. Young men and women, parents with children — I was caught completely unaware. With the help of the people I was travelling with, I deflected most of the requests. However, one man, despite my protests, thrust a young girl next to me and began snapping photos. The girl did not speak, did not look at me. I wonder if she even smiled for her father’s photos. I grinned the forced grin of the uncomfortable and waited for him to retrieve his child and carry on.

The idea of draping myself in a large quilt and leaving only two eyeholes uncovered to peer out from, occurred to me. It did not sound unappealing.

No one treated me poorly, or with aggression. Just curiosity, as though I was an interesting bauble to be pondered at and then left alone. As a travelling companion explained, simply: “It’s just a fascination with fair skin.”

But at home, I’m too fair. At home, everyone is trying to get darker, by roasting in the sun and lying in the death traps they call tanning beds. But here, just yesterday, I saw a commercial for Vaseline that lightens the skin. I don’t know what to make of that. There’s dissonance being created in my head — and my gut. This isn’t an easy conversation to have with one’s self.

You see, since arriving, my skin colour has become of consequence to me in a way it never had before. And perhaps that speaks more to the privilege I’ve come from than anything else. What a comfortable life it is, never wanting to hide your skin to avert stares, never really worrying about how someone is going to perceive you because of your skin colour. Here, I am quite aware that my complexion speaks volumes about me to whoever sees me, long before I ever open my mouth to speak. And even then, what a privilege it is that I am generally treated kindly for it.

At the end of the day, I can always return to Bengaluru, where the sideways glances are subtle or nonexistent. Or the US, where the colour of my skin is unremarkable. Most shopkeepers and restaurant visitors at home never noticed or cared that I’m white. And therefore neither did I.

Now, however, I have noticed. And I think that that is a powerful thing: being forced to look your own identity and all the weight it carries. A little embarrassing, yes, to realise how long it has taken you to face these facts, but necessary, and important.

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