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Mixing It Up: Fade to Brown

My favorite color is brown.

I know what you're saying. Brown? Really? Not blue or purple or even a sunshiny yellow?

Nope. It's brown. I love a deep, dark mocha. The color of slightly milky Darjeeling tea, the shade of walnut oak, the rich texture of a Hershey's milk chocolate bar. I favor, hands down, a sip from steaming hot cocoa to apple cider. I love the colors of autumn—the yellows and oranges and penetrating reds—but I prefer the hue of crinkly, dry brown leaves long after they've expired from their branches.

Despite our one-quarter European heritage, my brother and I both came out decidedly dark. We are both brown as brown can be. In the summer, we are even browner—a trip to the mailbox and back might color us a shade or two darker. There are no genetic hints of our pure Austrian grandmother who still pronounces "th" like a "d" due to her overwhelmingly thick German accent. Depending on the setting, most people assume we are one hundred percent Indian. (Though some retail store owners in small towns watch us suspiciously as we finger their merchandise, concluding that we must be shoplifting Hispanics.)

When I look at myself in the mirror, I take great pride in the brown image before me. I have always loved being brown, despite the occasional insults it attracts. In youth, I was asked more than once, "Are you brown because your dad shit on you?" (Of my parents, my father is the brown one. Amazingly, bullies correctly guessed which parent to attribute said defecation to.) And then there was the ever so popular, "Why don't you just go back to your tribe?" Or its more cutting variation, "Are you going to scalp me?" (To which I was forced to explain that my father was from India. He never lived in a tee-pee or wore feathers or hacked away at the skull of his enemies.) And because of my color, I have been called the N-word by children too young to understand its jarring significance.

Though their comments and actions were less obvious, when I grew older, people still had issues with my brownness. I never got parts in plays for characters that were traditionally white. When kids started "going together," my friends kept suggesting that I go with the other Indian or Asian or African American boy in the class, not the adorable, white Scandinavian. Parents acted justified in their spoken discrimination, as if their hipness to multiculturalism exempted them from the invidiousness of racism. Adults often proclaimed in a complimentary yet condescending tone that I spoke flawless English (the only language I've ever known) and asked whether I've ever eaten typically American dishes such as meatloaf. My senior calculus teacher seemed surprised if I ever got a B on an exam—the other Asian brown kids scored in the high 90s without opening a book.

My brownness has even projected political turmoil. In the height of Desert Storm, I prematurely fled the Wendy's counter before picking up my baked potato and side of chili because the men behind me were casting such evil eyes at my back while angrily cursing about "those fucking A-Rabs." As soon as I reached the door to the restaurant, they bust out laughing while yelling, "Where do you think you're going, Darkie?" I was shaking so badly by the time I got to the car, I could hardly get the keys in the ignition. And then there was the delight of travel post-911. On one particular trip, I was flagged as a security risk on each leg of the flight, not to mention, at the ticket counter itself. No matter. I had highly entertaining conversations with all the other brown, now shoeless people who had also been pulled to the side. And on two other trips, my oldest daughter, who at the time was still in size 3 diapers, took her turn at being felt up by a magnetized prod. Even though she was just a brown, drooling infant, she was still required to do her part to combat The War on Terror.

None of it, though—the teasing, mean stares, or singling out—none of it has ever made me wish I were white. I still love me brown.

I married a man who is half Hispanic. He is significantly lighter than me but still possesses a healthy olive glow to his skin and tans well during the summer. In other words, I did not see him as a threat for the genetic erasure of brown skin in my children. I thought our offspring might be lighter, but I knew they'd be at least a little brown. I secretly reveled in the fact that they would probably never "pass" for white.

Mira, who was born six years ago, came out just as brown as I am. It was plain to see that in the making of our lovely daughter, there was no dance of light and dark chromosomes. Mira's flesh absorbed all of my mocha, undiluted.

Two years later, my second daughter, Leela, was born. Oh, she was just as beautiful in every way—the perfect embodiment of ten fingers and ten toes.

Except that she was white.

At first, I didn't lose hope. Some babies are born lighter and then steadily darken as they get older. Perhaps Leela's tanness was dormant and would appear fashionably late.

But a brown tone did not metamorphose. Leela was and is white. There is a slight peachy undertone to her form, and her cheeks are a lovely rose when she plays outside in the heat. But there is no shadow, no tan, no darkness, no brown. If I were to outfit Leela in a Lieterhosen and ship her off to her Austrian relatives who reside in Linz, she'd fit right in. Every sign of brown ethnicity—Indian and Hispanic—has eluded her. She is even fairer than my half-Hispanic husband.

I'll be honest here. Leela's skin color has caused me some distress. Not because I don't think she'll look good in pastel colors, or because I now have to be extra careful about sunscreen, or because she'll likely have to wear foundation to avoid looking pale. I fear that Leela won't empathize with her brown sister's life experiences in a society that still favors the fair. Or worse, that Leela will simply ignore the discrimination that Mira will inevitably undergo. That she'll attribute any injustice that Mira experiences to a host of other factors, but never, particularly in situations when it's otherwise obvious, to her color. I worry that because Leela is white, Mira, in this world where beauty is defined by whiteness, will not think that she's as pretty. Or worse, that she will not feel as valued. That while Mira will have to avoid playing near the tire swing because of the rotten kid who told her to go back to her own country, Leela will continue to romp around as she pleases, without noticing her sister's pained face. And I worry that Leela will have a luxury that her sister will never have—of recognizing only the most obvious manifestations of racism while ignoring its toxic subtleties.

Moreover, I fear that unlike me, Mira won't have a brown sibling to confide in when she faces the hatred of others. I worry that, because of this, she will feel isolated and alone. I worry that Leela won't be able to come up with the quick comeback to a racist taunt, the way my brother did for me. After all, my brother was my partner in brownness. My ally in ethnicity. My first line of defense in discrimination. He was my system of support against racism. I worry that Mira won't have this in her own sibling.

Perhaps my fears about the girls' difference in color are exaggerated. Perhaps I'm too sensitive, too suspicious of the actions of others. I still maintain the hope that the world is a better place. That the perception of a person is not a consequence of his or her color.

Nevertheless, my wishes for my daughters are the same. I want them to grow up to be sensitive to other people. I want them to be advocates for others. I want them to speak out against injustice. I want them to acknowledge when either they or others face discrimination. But above all else, I want them to be sisters who stick by each other despite the fact that their differences in color will likely afford them diverse life experiences.

And I want them to love the colors of the skin they were born in, just as much as I do.

column added on 2008-07-06 :: ::

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