Canada·First Person

I let my skin get darker to prove a point to my mom

Kelly Roche’s mom has always disapproved of her for spending time in the sun. She continues to do it on purpose to prove a point.

As a child, I didn’t understand the relationship between colourism, caste and colonialism

Kelly Roche is pictured with her mother, who used to scold Roche for spending time in the sun. (Kelly Roche)

This First Person column is the experience of Kelly Roche who lives in the Toronto area. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

The browner my skin gets, the more I love myself — despite being told otherwise. 

My mom has always chided me for spending time outdoors in the sun. As a child, I didn't understand the relationship between colourism, caste and colonialism. Or the complex it gave her about "fairness" of skin colour.

Staying light is right, getting dark is bad, I was told. That's the message my mom received growing up in India.

We can thank the caste system for that: people in lower classes of rank and wealth typically worked outside and their skin was darker as a result. With British colonial rule of India, colourism cemented into the discourse.

That internalized white supremacy trickled down from my mom to me, but I've consistently dismissed it and maintained the hot sun feels fabulous on my skin.

Over time, my stance on this has deepened, just like my "tan" and unquestionably caramel complexion.

There's a lot of baggage to unpack when it comes to the skin tone palette in my family. My mom is darker than my dad — an anomaly in South Asia.

They're from different states: my mom is south Indian (Telugu) and my dad's family is from the north (Sindhi). She's Christian, he's Hindu. She's short, he's tall. They're opposites in every way. My dad was light-skinned — so pale in fact that people thought he was white when I was a kid. He's become browner with age, but he's still lighter than my mom.

Who cares?

Everyone, apparently.

Skin-whitening is a multi-billion dollar industry in Asian countries where some people are desperately aiming to become "Fair & Lovely." That's the former name of Unilever's skin lightening cream, which rebranded to Glow & Lovely in the summer of 2020 following public backlash. 

But the idea of skin lightening is still rampant, as is the anti-Blackness —  people with dark skin tones in India are discriminated against and referred to as "kaali" or "Black." They're looked upon unfavourably by many in social contexts from finding a partner to seeking employment.

My paternal grandfather told his neighbours in Mumbai my mom was a maid — not his new daughter-in-law — because of her skin tone. Appalling, yes. Uncommon, no. 

Kelly Roche embraces her skin tone and the darker shade it becomes when she spends time at beaches like this one in Florida. (Kelly Roche)

This worldview didn't change when we moved to Canada. 

One time, I returned from Florida and my mom yelled at me because I would "look dark in all the wedding photos." A family friend was getting married and I'd soon be documented as a very toasty shade of butterscotch. Interestingly enough, the groom was marrying a dark-skinned Indo-American woman. His father is south Indian and his mother is white. He's older and cooler than me and has always respected and loved south Indian culture, meaning he didn't worship at the altar of whiteness. Quite the contrary: he was all about her brownness.

This validated my hot take: there are men who love deep brown skin, and I will still be desirable one shade up the melanin chart despite what my mom thinks of marriage prospects.

Fast forward to the present: I'm 40 and my mom has since accepted my affinity for sunshine and tan lines. I'm not exactly sure how it happened. I think I just wore her out over the years. Regardless, it's an act of defiance and declaration of love: for her, for myself, for our skin. I've recognized being chastised for spending time in the sun was to protect me from the discrimination she still faces.

I acknowledge that getting darker on purpose is a light-skinned privilege I have and it makes me feel closer to her. Spending more time in the sun has diminished the external pastiness that washes over me each winter. Intentionally getting browner is a baby step toward truly embracing my Telugu roots. In an unconventional way, sunlight is helping us heal from the pain my grandfather caused my mom.

Enjoying time outdoors under the sun, for me, means choosing to reject toxic ideologies of colourism. 

I just hope my mom realizes some day her brown skin is beautiful and she's gorgeous exactly as she is. She always has been.

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Kelly Roche teaches journalism at Humber College in Toronto. She leads anti-racism and equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging initiatives in her department.