I wanted to be white before I wanted to be brown. Before there was applying henna and taking pleasure in watching it sink deeper and darker into my skin, there were women being scrubbed whiter in the bathtub by their sisters, and the smell of bleach burning the back of my throat and erasing my baby hairs after school. Before I was brave enough to make calls to my grandparents in public, before I raised my voice with the hopes that volume would compensate for fluency and stretch across the ocean to pull me back home, there was the sinking disappointment of being singled out with “where are you really from?”
I never wanted to be white, just to be white. I only ever wanted to be white when I felt betrayed by my body and my brownness in the moments in which it always seemed to speak before me. For those who have never been made hyper-aware of their race, you’d suppose that these moments would be more than just that, moments. They’d be painful memories of violent racism, etched into my skin and the reason as to why I wanted to shed it. Instead, it was exhaustion from the most mundane moments which triggered the longing to escape it.
To be white was to be less weighed down by the expectations and questions that my brown body demanded from white and brown people alike. It was to be lighter, louder, and beautiful.
I wanted to be white in spaces where I always felt the need to explain my presence, validating myself through the people I know. These are places where I feel myself shrink into the spaces between the people who need not concern themselves with scanning the room for others who look like themselves. In these places my voice gets a little softer and my laugh comes from my throat instead of my stomach and stays there. I fiddle with my hair and my phone and I touch one hand with the other for comfort. Being white in these moments, I thought, would remove the lingering unease that accompanies even the most welcoming spaces. As Wesley Morris put it, “for people of colour, some aspect of friendship with white people involves an awareness that you could be dropped through a trapdoor of racism at any moment.” These are the spaces where I learn that I am more “well-spoken”, “prettier than” and generally not “like most Indian girls.”
Being white in these moments, I thought, would allow me to speak a little louder. It is not that words escape me entirely at these moments, it’s just that they bear less weight, expending their force on arguing amongst themselves in my brain before arriving on my tongue, limp and forgettable. Being white means sharing opinions freely, because even saying the wrong thing is never really that wrong. If I was white maybe the things I am most certain of would stop presenting themselves as questions.
Instead, I dilute my words. I have the conversation with myself first. To girls from the home counties I say “fit” instead of “fly” or punctuate my responses with “babe.” I learn to change the rhythm of words that reveal the summers I spent up north in Wolverhampton with my grandparents. I say “Priya” but accept “Bria” or “Maria”. Sometimes I offer my name again but sometimes I avoid saying it altogether and wonder what it's like to repeat something as certain as your name without feeling doubt. I say London instead of Dartford because I already know it’s easier. Anticipating these tiny specificities only to smooth them over before larger points of difference is a skill learned by those who are accustomed to considering their identity through the eyes of the majority. Those who understand that some of their most important relationships depend on this unspoken ability to mould into the acceptable.
It is ironic then, that for all of this contortion brownness often requires, it is viewed through the same rigid lens, over and over again.
If white is a blank canvas, a slate clean of connotations, brown is one stained with the shadows of the people who came before you and the expectation of who you are supposed to be. The rhythm of my voice, lightness of my skin, choice of drink, anecdotes, attire, and all the other million little ways I’ve often tried to perform my likeness only matter to a point and then, still, I am greeted with “I’ve noticed you lot eat with your hands”.
Most days, I wear black. Black is practical. It doesn’t say “look at me,” just, that “I am here.” Black is my safety blanket because black is a statement as much as an agreement. It helps me appear composed and poised no matter what colour I feel inside me that day. My skin settles against black, failing to “pop” the way it does in white, or clash as it does against yellow. Black says effortless and isn’t that what I’m looking for? Less effort. In black I can appear beautiful under the right lighting. Wearing black, I think, will help me navigate the push and pull of invisibility and hypervisibility of being the only brown woman in the room.
At 18, one of the last things I learn in school is that it is impossible to imagine a new colour that does not already exist. I try to think of one anyway and then I give up. I convince my mother that I should wear a black sari to my cousin’s wedding.
Scanning a room full of white people in the hope you will exchange glances with someone who looks like you is like noticing one person in the pub, mouthing the lyrics to the same song as you. So, you would think being in a room full of other brown people at an Indian wedding would be a choir, a homecoming, the antidote. Instead, ironically, it is where I feel like that white girl I once craved to be.
To a white person, being a “person of colour” is just that. A colour.
A visual indication that if you are not this, you are that. For everyone else, the “that” is the sum of all our parts. And I, in my black sari and broken punjabi, feel as though I am missing “that” most when I am surrounded by those who still have all their parts together. Here my black sari is the blank canvas I once wished for, but in a room full of royal blues, emerald greens and burnt oranges, black is the absence of colour as much as it is the absence of legacy, tradition, language and history. Even with my father’s eyes, my mother’s earrings, forehead, and weakness for cheese and onion crisps. Even with a headful of my grandmother’s hairpins, and my aunt’s tendency to erupt with laughter briefly before bursting into tears, I am missing parts.
I am missing words, mostly. I realise this whenever I get into a taxi and am greeted in Punjabi, Hindi, or “where are you from?” In these moments all I can offer is a meek apology for understanding but not speaking. I stitch together my answer, careful not to make eye contact through the rearview mirror, careful to include the fact that my parents were born in the UK, a roundabout justification as to why I should be excused for not knowing my mother tongue. Then I sink further into my seat until the guilt subsides.
I am missing understanding too. I call my mother in the hope of writing down recipes from home that were never meant to be written down, instead passed on through practice and intuition. I try to calculate quantities and decipher a process where they do not exist because I do not understand.
I realise I am missing parts when I am told to go back to where I came from, and arrive to find that I am not from there. Home cannot be a place where you are greeted like a guest. In India I realise my skin is not enough to be welcomed in without questions. Instead it joins forces with my voice, clothes, hand gestures, nervous laughter, and the way I pay attention (because home cannot be a place where you are surprised by what you see) and so, I am exposed as Other. What is it that gives me away before I say a word; as the kind of woman who will post a photo of herself in a sari but hesitate before getting out of the car at a petrol station in the depths of Kent wearing one?
For those raised between cultures, it is rarely as simple as dividing a line between Us and Them. Tracing yourself often means learning that you are a little of both while not being enough to be either. Sometimes this duality feels more like the product of divorce than marriage. You are shuttled between homes which means being gifted with a rich vocabulary, a constellation of words plucked from different languages. But it also means your words, clothing, mannerisms, hobbies and sense of self get divided up between both sides. Too much of one and you become a coconut, too much of the other and you’re supposed to go back to where you came from. Ultimately it results in continually crafting an identity to get the balance right, but the act of picking and choosing itself means you can never feel wholly like you belong to one or the other. This comes with guilt and so visiting each ‘side’ involves an element of performing your identity to fill in the gaps. This comes with guilt too.
Language, food, and religion are all cornerstones of culture that intersect with one another through community.
Community is the front door, rooting you to your culture with the sense of belonging and the nuance it provides. Sometimes I long for community as much as I long to escape it. I realise this when I cross and uncross my legs in the temple and countdown the hours until I can go home like I did as a child. I realise this when I wipe off my lipstick and empty my anecdotes of alcohol, men, and travel around the aunts that aren’t biologically aunts and cousins who are cousins only for lack of a better word. If being around white people leaves me wanting to speak more, being around my brown community often leaves me trying to say less. I modify my language and offer a palatable version of my life instead, as if to stupidly say “I belong here”. It is in these moments that I want to belong and to be more Indian even though I don't know what that means. I want my tongue to wrap around and hold onto the words I always seem to forget, to cook as well as my grandmother, for Diwali to exist outside of Whatsapp like it used to, and to know the cousins who aren’t really cousins well enough to share an inside joke. Where I seek approval from white people, I seek acceptance and a deeper sense of belonging from my own community. I don’t want to wear black anymore. I want to join the women in my family in wearing colours that demand attention, to let my tummy fold and crease like the fabric of my sari itself and let my body catch the light like the earrings that tug down on my earlobes.
Reconciling the fragments of my identity is an overwhelming task of learning and unlearning, building and tearing down. You can’t invent a new colour. When I untwist the shades of my identity and put down the kaleidoscope that shifts and arranges my questions, answers, and laughter depending on who I am presenting myself to, what colour is left? When I let go of the exhaustion of proving my worth, what colour is left? What is the colour of congruence? What is the colour of a joined up life?
In my attempts to connect the dots between who I’m expected to be, assumed to be and who I am, I am searching for my colour only so that I can stretch it. No longer am I trying to escape or dilute it. I am finding peace in the fact that every colour is a spectrum of shades that bleed into one another. I am finding home in the places where blue could be mistaken for green and green for yellow. Where pale pink afternoons fade away into yellow sunrises with gold hoops that stretch into burnt orange saris. My joined up life is the comment underneath a Facebook status about a delayed flight from a friend saying “Fuck that” followed by one from a cousin (who’s not actually my cousin) saying “Koi na”. It is not learning the English word “duvet” until I am 10 years old, yet never forgetting the word “hungry” in Punjabi. It is studying English Literature at uni but still getting confused as to whether it’s “rant” like “ant” or “rant” like “aunt”. It’s remembering the way your grandma says “pasta” like “bastard” and eating biryani in the park in front of white girls. And it’s sitting in the grass and stretching out the syllables of my name.