All shades of brown are not the same

Photo by Ashlen Sepulveda

“I’m really attracted to Middle Eastern girls now. I was talking to a girl from Azerbaijan recently.” I stared at the screen, partially in horror and partially sighing. There were so many things wrong with this. It’s precisely statements like these which had made me so hesitant to jump on the Tinder bandwagon. My skepticism had been confirmed, and my Tinder stint didn’t last long.

First of all, let’s start with the apparently not-so-obvious: I am not Middle Eastern.

My parents are both immigrants from Delhi, who have lived in the Western hemisphere for the last twenty-five years. I’ve grown up in a Punjabi household that has been an eclectic reconciliation of the seemingly incompatible Hinduism and Sikhism. My family has lived all over the States and abroad. Our most recent “home,” Chicago, is the first time we have stayed in one place for more than four years. I identify as American, Indian, Punjabi, Sikh, and Hindu. But not Middle Eastern, as my picture supposedly implied.

After a polite but sassy lecture suggesting this boy familiarize himself with a map of the countries surrounding the Caspian Sea, as well as some general tips for talking to “ethnic girls,” this boy responded with the second worst possible thing he could say to me: “Just chill, you know what I meant.”

No. I actually don’t know what you meant. Did you mean that I look Middle Eastern? That there even exists a particular Middle Eastern ‘look’? The “Middle East” has been one of the most cosmopolitan intersections of global trade for centuries, and a melting pot of crossing ethnic groups and traders. Would he have praised my Lebanese, blond-haired, green-eyed best friend for her “Middle Eastern look?” Probably not. Yet I, with my dark eyes, hair, and skin, was assumed to fit the mold.

Let’s give him a fleeting benefit of doubt and pretend that a homogenous Middle Eastern physical identity does in fact exist. Maybe he meant that he genuinely was into “Middle Eastern girls now.” Well thank heavens I caught him at the right time, right? I felt so honored to have caught him when he was paying attention to us ethnic girls.

Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. This also wasn’t the first time my identity had been mistaken for a Middle Eastern one.

When I had first moved to Chicago in 9th grade, I remember joining the Indian Students Association. At the first meeting, a group of girls questioned my identity by saying, “We thought you were Persian!” One of the boys there had somehow assumed my Persian identity and had done the gracious service of announcing my ethnicity to everyone for me, which explained the issue of the new Persian girl from Kentucky turning up at the meeting with samosas. As if moving from small town Kentucky to a competitive high school with five thousand students on the North Shore of Chicago wasn’t hard enough.

The Persian identity followed me to Swarthmore. “My friend thinks you’re really pretty, he asked if you were Persian.” I remember rolling my eyes, wondering what people were misinformed of: the diversity of the “Indian” physical look, the “Middle Eastern” look, the general inappropriateness of telling a woman of color that you are into women of color, or the fetishization of “exotic” women.

While this stranger on Tinder was clearly politically incorrect, I’ve faced other instances in which the situation is hazier. A guy I was interested in once reflected as to whether his recent trip to a South Asian country neighboring India had influenced his attraction to me. I distinctly remember feeling ambivalent about this, right up until he mentioned how the women there were all kind of pudgy due to the lack of access to proper healthcare and nutrition. Poor women are ugly because they can’t afford SoulCycle and makeup — thank you for your insight!

It’s not just me. Other women face this too. A close white friend of mine is dating another woman of color, who is not Indian. “I feel like he might secretly be into ethnic girls,” one of his friends said of their relationship. How would the subject of this conversation — the “ethnic” girlfriend — feel about this?

I casually brought up the subject with a few of my friends. Lulu Allen Waller ’17 and I mutually agreed that preferences for certain physical features are definitely expected, but it’s a bit strange to comment on how you think someone is attractive just because of that one feature. However, I don’t think it would be controversial if someone complimented someone for their beautiful eyes, for example. Why is it that skin color is irksome?

I can’t speak for other cultures, but I can explain some of the dangers as a growing woman of Indian origin. First of all, the various comments I’ve received from males about how they are into “dark-skinned girls” bring back deep-rooted cultural insecurities about one’s skin shade.

In Indian culture, centuries of British imperialism have created a unique standard of beauty for women. To be beautiful is to be fair. It’s a sign of purity and wealth; the less dark her skin, the less time a woman spent outside working. Indian marketing, just like in America, features extreme photoshopping, where women’s skin shades are often lightened dramatically. During this conversation with my friends, Shaina Lu ’16 affirmed that in Taiwan, just like in India, an entire market exists for skin lightening features.

One summer, when I was particularly tanned from lovely days at the pool and beach, was ruined when I went to India and a great aunt greeted me in surprise as to how dark my skin had gotten. It was one of the first times that I, who has inherited “fair” skin by Indian standards due to my north Indian roots, felt as though I should have forgone afternoons in beautiful Illinois with my friends. In India, skin color is the most pervasive determinant of “beautiful.”

American culture has a similar relationship with weight that Indian culture has with skin color. I have a few friends who have been blessed with genes that give them never-ending legs and model-thin figures, but unfortunately only a small percentage of the population can maintain this without starving themselves. While this pressure exists in Indian culture as well, it is run-off from Western media. The pressure causing anxiety about the way one looks in the US is dominated by ridiculous standards to be stick thin.

So, imagine if the next time that a young teenage girl was flirting with a boy she liked, he told her, “I love how thin you are, I’m really into skinny girls right now!”

It’s a lot different from saying, “Hey you have beautiful eyes.”

When a guy compliments my darker skin color, it makes me feel as though I am beautiful “for an Indian girl.” “I’m not usually into Indian girls, but…” was the start of a “compliment” I received once early in my Swarthmore career.

Note that this person was himself a person of color.

I don’t think the comments I’ve received have ever come from a place of disingenuity or maliciousness. I think people are simply not aware that compliments focused on the physical manifestation of my ethnicity can be underlaid with these deep rooted cultural insecurities. Although slightly hyperactive, my sass is not coming from a place of anger, but rather from an effort to contextualize and widen perspective beyond what is often assumed to be acceptable. Is it Tinder man’s fault he is the way he is? Perhaps he could have paid more attention in geography class (Azerbaijan is not the Middle East!), but he probably doesn’t even realize that the problem transcends him.

Tinder man isn’t totally off the hook, but the media is majorly at fault. Although I cannot personally speak for other identities, we are all familiar with the stereotypes of the voluptuous Latina woman, or the doe-eyed Korean teenage girl. As Swatties, we’re particularly attuned to the controversy of stars like Katy Perry and Selena Gomez, who take cultural traditions and redefine their context, often fetishizing women of color.

Selena Gomez had a serious misstep on the Ryan Seacrest show. “It has kind of a tribal, Middle Eastern vibe,” she said of her song, “Come and Get It.” For the record, her song features a tabla, a traditional Indian percussion instrument with Punjabi lyrics in the background. The music video shows Siddhars (men who wear the Sikh turban) playing tablas.

I understand that perhaps the song is influenced by various cultures. However, it’s also believable that, considering my experience with people generalizing Middle Eastern and Indian culture, she, like so many others, was clumping them together, not realizing the continental divides. All shades of brown are not the same.

I don’t have a problem with pop stars being inspired by Indian culture and the influences being present in their art. My problem comes in instances like this one. Because of her complete generalization of the musical influences of her own song, it almost seems like the Indian influence in her song was there solely for the purpose of making her seem “exotic” and sexy.

Take the sari, which Lady Gaga wore on stage. She had taken an outfit from the Indian designer Tarun Tahiliani and ripped off the bottom half. Yes, she looked hot. The sari is a universally flattering piece of clothing.

However, consider the cultural history: the traditional sari bears a woman’s midriff not for onlookers to admire, but for a much more practical reason: to survive in a country where temperatures reach 117 degrees and there’s not the luxury of air conditioning.

I myself misuse another Indian tradition: using kohl and kajal. I use kajal to line my eyes because I like the way it makes me look.

Little girls in India also have kohl lined eyes, but not for aesthetic reasons. It’s to protect the delicate young eyes from the sun and be a coolant. Even more interesting is that kajal lined eyes are also thought to be protectants against “buri nazar,” which literally translates to “bad glance.” Quite literally, kajal is thought to protect little girls against ill wishes and lustful eyes, the same eyes that might ironically fetishize deeply lined brown Indian eyes.

There’s also the nose ring. My mom made me swear to her I would never get a nose ring. Apparently at one of the Sikh rituals at a family wedding, the pandit (priest) implied that the nose ring is significant on the newly wed bride the same way it is for female cows who are owned in India — as a sign of her newly domesticated life. My aunt, the bride, who was an anthropology major at Bryn Mawr and now lives in liberal Palo Alto, was outraged at the pandit’s comparison. I understand that the women who wear nose rings in America are doing so for aesthetic reasons, but I wonder if they still would feel as trendy knowing this background information.

Iggy Azalea’s video for “Bounce” also features a misuse of traditional Indian culture. She is adorned in the video like a bride. Again, I have no problem with a white woman wearing a sari; my heart is warmed when my non-Indian friends are dressed up in the beautiful Indian garb that has been passed on to me, because I see them appreciating the culture I come from.

My moment of disgust arises when the video showcases Iggy sitting on an elephant while wearing an elaborate gold headdress, similar to those placed on Hindu deities in temples to represent their holy status. It gets worse when she is dancing in the midst of a Hindu temple with the pandit (priest) while he performs a sacred religious tradition.

Iggy Azalea has taken the Hindu religion and elevated herself to the status of a white God in a country in which centuries of imperialism have bred deep-rooted anxiety over colored inferiority beneath white supremacy. Moreover, she has made one of the leading world religions “sexy,” perpetuating the cycle of fetishism, exoticism, and giving Tinder man a reason to compliment me on my exotic, dark skin.

Even without the fetishism, assumptions about identity based on physical characteristics create an “othering” mindset. Lu, who is Taiwanese, and I have grown accustomed to the question, “No, but where are you really from?” I know now that usually people aren’t interested in where I’m literally from (which by the way is Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Louisville, Germany, Chicago). They’re interested in why we physically look different from them.

I am not saying those differences should be ignored. I just wish that the treatment of those differences came with a bit of caution. Complimenting someone on their beautiful skin or eyes can be flattering, but generalizing your lust for “ethnic” or “dark-skinned girls” compares us to the latest fashion trend.  Artists like Selena Gomez integrating world beats is cool, but smashing all the various “brown” people into a single cohort is ignorant. Shakira wearing a sari while dancing bharat natyam with authentic classical Indian dancers is an appreciation of Indian culture, but Lady Gaga sexualizing the traditional Indian sari by ripping half of it off is not. Using kajal on my waterline feels benign; lusting after young Indian girls for their “exotic” eyes perpetuates fetishism. Like most social conventions, it’s a fine line that can be crossed by varying degrees, as demonstrated by the range of irksome comments I’ve received.

Just so you know, if you tell me that you’re into “dark-skinned girls,” I won’t be flattered. Instead, deep cultural standards about beauty that regard fair skin as ideal will stir up self doubt; you think I’m beautiful for a “dark-skinned girl,” as if my physical appearance must be judged to a different standard than women who aren’t of color. Instead, just try flattery with a good laugh or a great meal. Authentic Indian food preferred.

1 Comment

  1. Your article is very enjoyable to read. It hits the point of appreciating girls/women/boys/men on certain judged criteria is only not correct.

    I liked your analysis and a creative mind on way to a bright future.

    Keep it on…..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix

Discover more from The Phoenix

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading