Girl happy coffee
Racism and colorism are daunting foes threatening our little girl Image Credit: Gulf News

My 5-year-old daughter, Nusayba, twirled around in her princess dress, fixing her silver tiara and checking out her newly applied eye shadow and red lipstick in the bathroom mirror. Then she examined her beautiful, brown skin.

“I don’t like my skin colour,” she declared. “I wish my skin was lighter. It’s prettier.”

Her comment, about a month ago, was a gut punch. Up to that point, my wife and I were confident that we had protected our daughter from the curse of colorism, a toxic inheritance that still poisons our perceptions of self and beauty.

I grew up in a Pakistani immigrant home, where the obsession with pursuing light skin tone was as common as eating dal-chawal with our hands or hearing the adhan for prayer. An auntie at the birthday party would offer comments such as “She’s so beautiful, but, tragically, she is dark-skinned” or “For a girl with dark skin, she’s actually pretty.”

This brutal and gendered colour hierarchy is unleashed as soon as we exit the womb. Even babies aren’t spared. “Oh, so gora-chitta (white)! The parents are so lucky,” you’ll still hear in maternity wards from Fremont, Calif., to New Delhi.

My wife, Sarah, is a Pakistani American who played varsity tennis in the Florida heat, but she was always told by relatives, “Don’t play in the sun too long, or you’ll get too dark.” She resisted the colorism, but the comments still affected her.

Fascination with whiteness

At one point in college when visiting Pakistan, Sarah even bought a tube of Fair and Lovely, a skin-lightening cream that’s popular across South Asia. She told herself that she got it to help “even out her skin,” she told me later. (It was only last year that Unilever, which owns the lotion brand, removed references to “whitening” and “lightening” and renamed the product.)

Raising our three children in the United States, with its long history of anti-Black racism and its rising intolerance of Asians, Latinos, Muslims and other groups excluded from the privileges of whiteness, Sarah and I tried to inoculate our kids from this destructive legacy.

We have always made it a point to connect our children to their desi (a term referring to the South Asian diaspora) and Muslim roots. We also talk regularly about how people in America are treated differently based on their race or skin colour, or because they look distinct from the majority group.

We especially focus on how Black people and people with disabilities have been harmed not just by individuals but also by the structures and unequal ways that our society is set up. We stress that the most important thing is for them to treat everyone with kindness and respect.

For Nusayba, we’ve had to put in extra effort. She is a Stage 4 cancer survivor who received a full liver transplant at the age of 3, after undergoing punishing rounds of chemotherapy. She spent a year without hair, attached to tubes, drained of colour, and now she bears surgery scars on her body. We have made it a point to comment on her strength and courage, and applaud her fashionista swagger, which requires an average of three costume changes a day.

We introduced dolls, children’s books, cartoons and movies that focus on young girls and women of colour with strong, kind and independent personalities. If we watched “Snow White” or “Tangled,” featuring white Disney princesses, we’d follow up with “Moana” or “Mulan” or “The Princess and the Frog.” I tried my best to get her into “Ms. Marvel,” a comic book series about a Pakistani American Muslim superheroine, but she prefers Elsa and Anna from “Frozen.” (To each her own.)

Despite all this, we weren’t able to protect Nusayba. The fortress we built out of love and awareness was vulnerable to the insidious pull of whiteness. The United States, like many countries around the world, punishes darker-skinned people, who tend to make less money than those who are light-skinned and are more likely to be incarcerated and discriminated against in a variety of ways.

Is it surprising that my gorgeous daughter felt inferior in her brown skin? On-screen, there are more Black and brown characters now than when I was growing up, but even the nonwhite leads often have light skin (what my relatives would have called “saaf rang”). Some 80 per cent of Black female lead roles in family films have “light” or “medium” skin tone, according to research by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

And the main characters represented in American pop culture are still overwhelmingly white and male despite our fleeting “reckonings” with racism and sexism after the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo protests. People of colour might get a few more leading roles, but we are still often marginalised and tokenised, relegated to being sidekicks and foreign-accented villains — despite economic imperatives for Hollywood to be more inclusive.

Inheritance of self-loathing

How many girls like Nusayba look in the mirror and see only defects and imperfections? A nose that’s too big, lips that are too full, eyes that should be rounded, hair that must be straightened, skin to be bleached.

This must end here. I refuse to pass down to my children, and their children, an inheritance of self-loathing. Every day, we stress to our children that real beauty is not physical but instead shines from the inside, reflected by a loving and generous heart.

But ever since Nusayba told us she wanted to have light skin, I’ve made more of a daily jihad to uplift her beauty, telling her every day that her brown skin is stunning. Tag-teaming with my wife, family friends and relatives via WhatsApp and FaceTime, we also praise her kindness and her fierce character. We want her to know that she’s loved and accepted, exactly the way she is.

Racism and colorism are daunting foes threatening our little girl, and who knows what messages Nusayba is picking up elsewhere — from friends and at school. As she grows up, we’ll have even less control over the messages she’s exposed to.

We know this is no simple problem to fix, but last week we caught a glimpse that strengthened our resolve to persist in our efforts. In her new pink, frilly “My Little Pony” dress, wearing a silver crown, Nusayba faced herself in the mirror. She took in the princess who stared back at her for a moment.

Then she said out loud, “I love my brown skin.”

Wajahat Ali is a playwright, lawyer and contributing opinion writer

The New York Times