How racism shapes what we see in the mirror
I love my skin, though I’ve not always been comfortable in it. That took a long time. After my first experience of racism in primary school, I knew my pigmentation could make me a target. Being called a ‘dirty paki’ once at a swimming pool affected me more profoundly than I realised; I developed the habit of scrubbing myself furiously in the shower after that and I always used to stay out of the sun.
For a long time I was confused, especially in my teens and early twenties. When I started going on holidays I’d see hoardes of white people doing nothing but lying on sunbeds, or on the beach. Back in the UK, all around me they would be talking about sunbeds. They all desperately wanted to be brown, but at the same time a lot of them hated brown people. I recall being on an aeroplane next to a young woman with skin that looked like bright orange leather, it was hideous, but people were saying she looked ‘lovely and brown.’
Burning in the sun made no sense to me. I always thought pale white skin was beautiful. It was brown skin that bothered me, because it had bothered so many strangers around me. Having brown skin sometimes felt like having a target on my back. Growing up in the 80’s, Hollywood might have had something to do with my inferiority complex. There were no Asian stars. All of the starlets and sex symbols were white women, usually with blonde hair. All of the heroes were white. If there were brown people at all they were harsh stereotypes. Brown people were slightly more numerous in movies by the 90’s though, always portraying terrorists.
Before Trump came to power and America’s racists were emboldened, protected and legitimised by the ‘Leader of the Free World’, I thought it would be easier to be black than brown. Eddie Murphy had been one of the biggest stars of the 80’s. In 48 hours he stole the show from Nick Nolte who regularly referred to Eddie’s character as ‘Nigger’ and ‘Spear chucker.’ That was normal in 80’s Hollywood. Eddie was the first black star marketable enough to stand up to his brazen white overlords on screen (but there was no way he could be seen kissing the white girl in Trading Places). In school, the pretty white girls often dated black boys, but they acted disgusted by the brown contingent. Occasionally black students…