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The 2018 cohort of the Youth Reporting Institute and their work.

The Moment You Realize You’re Brown

Lily Rao (left) tries on various shades of makeup with a friend.
Emmanuel Tobe
Lily Rao (left) tries on various shades of makeup with a friend.

My mom is white. My dad is Indian. This leaves me with brown skin. When I was younger, I didn’t pay much attention to the fact that I was brown-- it was as normal to me as my brown hair. I soon realized that not only were the characters Kim Possible, Cinderella, and Nancy Drew all white, but all of my classmates and friends were white, too.

Kiran Sundar is Indian. Like me, he grew up going to school with very little racial diversity. As he flips through his elementary school yearbook, he remembers an experience that made him aware of his skin tone.

On picture days, my picture always came out darker for some reason along with the two other Indian kids and the two black kids. It was almost like they weren't expecting us. -Kiran Sundar

“I remember on picture days, my picture always came out darker for some reason along with the two other Indian kids and the two black kids,” said Sundar, now 17. “It was almost like they weren’t expecting us.”

Zian Lane can relate. She and I are both seniors at Cardinal Gibbons, a predominantly white high school. Zian remembers one moment in particular when she realized she didn’t blend in.

“I was just like sitting at the top of the bleachers and I just looked down and I was like, nobody’s hair looks like mine, nobody’s arms are brown like mine,” said Lane. “I guess in that way, I was like 'I am different but I still didn’t really get it.' It was maybe about 4th or 5th grade when I really used to hate my hair, and I was like 'I really just want straight hair, is that too much to ask?'”

I feel where Lane’s coming from. In middle school, I hated my brown skin. I thought I’d fit in better and people would finally see me as pretty and popular if I were white. I remember when I was 12, before I would get in the shower, I would take my mom’s concealer and paint my face white, and then I would wash it off right after.

Lane says it wasn’t just at school where she felt left out of place. It was also when she watched TV.

“When I realized I was brown, I was like 'Well, I guess I can’t be Hannah Montana' because Hannah Montana is this major popstar with a blonde wig--and I was like 'I’ll never be that, I’ll never become that.' But then when I saw Cheetah Girls, I was like 'This is my chance, you know?' So it kind of forced me to alter my idols a little bit.”

Lily Rao (right) poses in a Snow White costume with her younger sisters.
Credit Courtesy of Lily Rao / WUNC
Lily Rao (right) poses in a Snow White costume with her younger sisters.

I understand where Lane is coming from. When I was five years old, my mom told me I could pick out any costume I wanted for Halloween. I chose to be Snow White, the princess whose skin was white as snow.  My uncle made a joke about that being ironic. It wasn’t until later that I understood the irony.

Kiran Sundar didn’t see representation in the Bollywood movies he grew up watching. He’s transgender, and when he was living as a girl, he couldn’t relate to the light-skinned female characters. After Sundar transitioned, he started to feel more comfortable in his darker skin, because for the male characters, skin tone wasn’t important.

“If masculinity for them isn't seen in terms of beauty or physically but in terms of strength and power and intelligence or cunning or whatever, then my perception of what my skin looked like changed a lot,” Sundar said.

But this still wasn’t enough. There was no one that represented brown transgender youth, so Sundar had a hard time finding his identity.

“I spent a really long time wondering if I was looking for something that didn’t exist, or looking for something that wouldn’t be valuable, or looking within myself for something that wasn’t there,” he said.

Like Lane and Sundar, I couldn’t just flip on the TV and see myself. Having white as normal or beautiful made it hard for me to feel normal or beautiful. I thought I hid my discontent pretty well, but my mom always knew, and it was hard for her to see.

“It was something that I couldn't easily fix,” said my mom, Carrie Rao. “It wasn't a broken toy or a scraped knee. It was the reality of the world, which is when they look at you they make assumptions that they don't make when they look at me. I think that’s a heartache that's hard to describe.”

I can’t pinpoint one specific moment where I started to love my brown skin-- it’s been an ongoing process. For a while, I had to fake it. I had to fake it for my little sisters. I want them to see me as a role model, someone they can look up to to be reminded every day that brown is beautiful, and that they’re beautiful. At some point, I started to believe myself - I am beautiful in my brown skin.

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