I read a great essay by Tahmima Anam published yesterday in The New York Times. Entitled “The Beauty Parlors of Bangladesh”, it comments on the changing reality of beauty in a growing South Asian country, and the intersection of class and power in a very mundane setting: the aforementioned beauty parlor. I encourage you to read it, and to consider subscribing to The New York Times; it’s access to writing like this that make my own subscription an incredible bargain, considering it costs about as much as a burger and fries.
But I digress. Good an article as it may be, I’ve read plenty of great essays from the Times. This one stuck out to me, thought, not just because it’s about the country of my birth, but because of a particular quote that struck me, and reminded me of something that I would sooner rather forget.
[…] The beauty parlor is also where women are forced to face the color prejudice that is widespread in Bangladesh. Eavesdrop on a conversation and you’re very likely to hear someone complaining about the color of her skin. She might then be offered a range of skin-lightening treatments. Once, a parlor girl nodded toward the customer next to me who was being embalmed by some kind of noxious white cream, and said, “Her shoulders are too dark.”
– Tahmima Anam, “The Beauty Parlors of Bangladesh”
I was born and raised in Bangladesh, before moving to the United States at the age of 7. My family is not a wealthy one (those that know me have some idea of what a struggle it’s been to go to college). But back when we lived in Dhaka, my parents had educations and jobs to afford something that many middle-class Bengali families could: a full or part-time nanny at home.
“There is the issue of class, first and foremost. The women who work in the salons are from minority communities from the west and south of the capital. They themselves wear no makeup, their hair is never blow-dried, and they shuffle around the parlor looking defeated. The proprietors are paternalistic: In return for putting up these women in small, shared rooms above the premises, the owners expect unquestioning loyalty and long hours.”
My friends occasionally give me shit about this (all in good humor, of course.) I mean, in the US, what kind of middle-class home has a nanny? I take it in stride, but even as unconnected as I am to Bangladesh, I’m aware of the intersection between skin and class, and why it’s affordable to hire a nanny. Part of it was becayse my nannies’ skin was darker than mine.
Despite living there for the first 7 years of my life, I’m not going to pretend that I understand the cultural or historical landscape of my own birth country very well. I have no idea why Bangladesh is the way it is. I have barely a familial connection to the former East Bengal, and neither much of a cultural nor a lingual one.
But I think I was implicitly taught from a very young age that my relatively light skin was “desirable,” in the context of power and heirarchy. This is odd to talk about in my current life, because in the current political climate of the United States, being brown makes you the subject of casual bigotry, and rarely even outright violence, as well as a regular rhetorical target for at least half of the political spectrum. But given what Ms. Anam wrote, I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that I was exposed to, and possibly internalized a prejudice on the basis of skin color at a young age.
Some memories of that time were hazy, but around the time when my parents made it public we were moving to the United States, I remember one day my nannies joking with me and saying “Can I come to America too?”
Do you know what I said to her?
In that irritatingly innocent and precocious voice that belies the unintended horror that can fall from a small child’s mouth, I chirped back:
“No, you’re not allowed to! Your skin is too dark!”
I try to bury that singular memory from that young of an age (and it usually works – my memory is notoriously poor, ask my professors and friends), but it comes back sometimes, like it did yesterday. I cannot even fathom what possessed me to say that; I can only assume I’d been taken in with some notion that those in America could only be light-skinned. I’ll confess to thinking that 25% of Americans surfed on the weekends.
I’d like to think that, in the intervening 15 or so years, I’ve learned to reject that kind of thinking, of categorizing people by color. And one could even chalk up what I said to the cluelessness of a little child. But it is precisely because I think it is wrong to do what I did, that no matter what my age was, it haunts that I said it.
I sometimes think about what may have influenced me in saying what I did to my nanny. Being like three or four years old, you can be impressionable in all the weirdest ways.
I was (and clearly still am, given the content on this blog) addicted to cartoons, and I spent perhaps more time than I should have in my youth watching syndicated cartoon reruns on TV, from all of the old Cartoon Network catalog, through Nickelodean in the pre-Spongebob days, through Clifford the Big Red Dog, and even my first anime, Heidi: Girl of The Alps (I blame Japan and Heidi for my lifelong addiction to cheese.) My first truly memorable portrayal of an African American woman was that of the maid from Tom & Jerry. Clearly I was aware of people of color living in the United States before. And yet I told her, “No.”
It…bothers me. It’s not just guilt, but more a great sense of shame. How could I say something so stupid? How could I say something so incredibly hurtful, and bigoted, and racist, and terrible? How could I hurt someone like that, even if I didn’t intend to?
If I met her now, I probably wouldn’t even know how to apologize; it’s been at least 15 years, and it may not have even been a comment that she remembers. Or maybe my nanny does remember it, in which case apologizing won’t have any effect on easing any pain I caused her, only relieve me of my own guilt – an unacceptable outcome. Or perhaps I’m just full of myself, and she remembers my horrible answer but it doesn’t affect her nearly as much as it affects me.
To be honest, I don’t really have a thesis statement here, or some feel-good conclusion to add. I guess we just have to learn to get comfortable in our own skins, and learn to BE comfortable with the skins of others, but that’s a mere platitude. It’s easy to say that. I guess part of why I wrote this was to solidify that slithering feeling of shame, let it harden into something I can step back from, and read, and remember, and feel – something productive. Or maybe it’s me thinking that talking about this will absolve me in some way, which is bullshit, but it’s the kind of lie we tell ourselves to make us feel better. I hope that’s not it, though. I hope that I’m not that naive, and this is only meant to keep me honest.
That’s what I hope, anyway.