There was a time in my life when I hated my brown skin.
I wasn’t always like that, and I am certainly no longer there now, but there was a time when I couldn’t stand the skin I was in.
It all started in 1996, grade three; I was about eight years old. Until this time in my life, I had no idea that my skin was the color “brown”. It sounds silly, I know, but I really wasn’t aware of that fact.
Until that time in my life, I thought I was just a kid like any other kid. I liked to play, I hated early bedtimes and I loved my mom and dad. I went to school, played at recess and got homework at the end of the day. To me, life was simple and concepts like skin-color didn’t exist in my world.
It’s true what they say, kids don’t know how to discriminate until you teach them.
One day, in my grade three class at Inglewood Heights Junior Public school, my teacher, Mrs. Arnold, gave us a new assignment. The objective of that assignment was to talk about what we wanted to be in the future. We had to pick a career, then talk about why we chose that career and describe what it would be like in the future.
For me, that was an easy one. I have always loved entertaining people, since I was a very small child. My dad could tell you, if there was a group of people, I would find myself up in the mix, showing off tricks, singing, dancing and trying to get everyone to laugh. If there was a camera involved, I was there for sure, right up in the lens.
I’ve always been a showman type of person. That’s just a part of my nature. So, when Mrs. Arnold handed out that assignment, I got to work on it right away. I wrote that I wanted to be a singer and an actress. I drew a bunch of pictures depicting what my future would be like, hoping that the teacher would be impressed.
On the day that the assignment was due, the teacher strolled through the class, up and down between the rows of desks. She looked over our shoulders as we wrote and colored in our work, bowing over to ask each of us questions about our choices, reasoning, ease of completion, etc. along the way.
When she finally approached my desk, she paused for a moment to observe the pencil-crayon sketches of my imagined future.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” She asked me.
I proudly exposed the whole of my assignment, spread out on my school desk. I wanted the teacher to look at it while I explained.
“I’m going to be a singer, but I’m also going to act and tell jokes.” I said, in that almost serious-kind-of-way that kids do.
“Oh. You want to be a singer?” She replied, with an almost concerned look on her face.
At that moment, I started to wonder if I had done the assignment wrong or if I had picked a career we weren’t allowed to pick. My heart sank a little as she bent down on one knee to get closer to me and my desk.
“That’s a nice career to choose,” she began to say in a consoling voice, “but that’s more like a fantasy.”
“What’s a fantasy?” I asked.
“Fantasies are like dreams, but no one expects them to come true. They are our wildest and craziest dreams. Things we wish could happen but never will.” I’m paraphrasing here, but that was essentially what she was saying to me then.
“I want you to pick a different career, hun. Pick something that is realistic and you can really see yourself doing.” The teacher continued to say.
“Why can’t I be a singer, though?” I asked in protest. I just couldn’t understand why I couldn’t pick being a singer. There was another girl in my class, Amanda, who also picked singing and candy-making as her career choices. I didn’t hear the teacher saying these things to her.
“You need to pick a career that someone like you can actually do.” She carried on.
“Someone like me?” I asked, now really confused. What was so different about me? Until that moment, I never really considered that people had differences that mattered. I mean, I knew people had differences, but I didn’t think they were important enough to be noted.
The teacher looked pained, as if she were really struggling to find the right words to say. She paused, thought for a moment and spoke again.
“Have you watched TV lately? Or gone to the movies? Do you ever notice the actors and actresses? Some people get lucky enough to be on TV or sing records because they have what it takes to do it. But not everyone has that.” She tried to explain.
“If I start practicing from now, won’t I be able to have what it takes?” I asked.
That’s when she stopped beating around the bush and said it straight up.
“Ray, you’re brown. You have Indian features. I don’t see people on TV or in movies that look like you, at least, not here in North America anyway. If you try to become a singer or an actress, you might never succeed and then you won’t be happy. That’s why you have to pick something more realistic, like a doctor or a lawyer. It’s just an assignment anyway.”
Boom. There it was. The moment I realized how many brown kids there were in my class, aside from myself. At the time, there was only six of us. I was one of them and a pair of them were twins. There were about twenty-nine kids in that class.
Me: “So, I can’t be a singer because I’m brown?”
T: “No. You can be a singer but you might never have what it takes to be a success like you want. Then you won’t have a job or money. Think about it, what other things can singers do but sing? Wouldn’t you rather pick something you know you CAN do?”
I didn’t argue with the teacher or protest her discrimination. She handed me a blank worksheet and asked me to do another version of the assignment, one where I picked a realistic career. I chose “Scientist” and left it at that. All of my passion and excitement, for that assignment and for life, just evaporated at that moment.
I looked down and noticed that my skin was actually brown. I placed my hand at the end of the desk and looked at the skin colors of the kids around me. I really was brown. Browner than some and lighter than others, but I was brown. Brown brown.
I went home that day and noticed that my mom was lighter brown than my dad. I noticed that we were brown and our land lords were white. I turned on the TV and realized that everyone on it was white too. Then I sat down and felt hopeless. I didn’t really like the idea of being different like that.
I felt like my brown skin was a curse in a place like Canada, because having brown skin meant that I couldn’t do certain things. I only ever had a passion for entertaining people and so, when that dream got shot down that day, I died with it. Over time I became less and less outgoing and enthusiastic about getting in front of people.
I became fully aware that I was colored, all the time. I started to notice that I had more body hair than other races, that we ate more spices than other races, that we had bigger families than other races. Then I noticed that we were stereotyped too, and it wasn’t a positive thing.
I took it to heart when other, non-brown-kids would call me “Paki” and “Dirty-Indian.” It pissed me off a lot, especially because I didn’t even consider myself or my family Indian. We have Indian in our blood, sure, but most West Indians are mixed with Spanish and African too. Why did being “Indian” have to be such a big deal? Why is that what they chose to call me out on? I was just frustrated, but the truth is simply that kids can be mean sometimes.
Being young, naive and trying to learn how to be by following others, I thought it was important to define that although I had brown skin, I was not fully Indian. When you say Indian, I think of an Eastern Indian person, someone from Asia. But that’s not what I am.
My family is from the West Indies, where people are mixed and pure bloods are rare. The culture itself is a mixed and diverse one, far less restricting than that of Eastern Indians. Every culture, Eastern or Western, is proud of their own uniqueness. I’ve never met any brown person who wasn’t very specific of what kind of “brown” he/she was, at least not in Canada anyway.
Back when I was in school, if you asked other West Indian kids (now people my age) if they were Indian, they were always like, “No! I’m not Indian. I’m Guyanese/Trini/West Indian” or wherever their families were from. A lot of them were born in Canada too.
Growing up in the GTA afforded us the opportunity to learn about and experience other cultures from all over the world. We gained insight into the differences between seemingly similar groups of people. In a way, we all played a part in sharing our cultures with one another by being proud of our own. In being proud of our unique differences, being brown was insignificant. There was nothing wrong with being brown, it wasn’t really different anyway. In fact, that’s one of the things that makes us a community. We’re a community of brown people. It is something to be proud of.
Over time, the city filled with more and more diverse brown-skinned and other colored people. Suddenly, everyone was like me in one way or the other. We learned to live among each other and have formed, deep, meaningful families, groups and communities between us. We’re here to stay.
I remember back in grade three when there were so few brown kids at my school. That silly teacher looked around and thought her world would never change, but it did. My world changed too.
I am so proud to see that so many things have progressed in these last twenty years. Having traveled and experienced life outside of the Canadian community has taught me a new appreciation for the world and for myself. Today, when I look at the world of North America, I see so many beautiful brown people doing exactly what Mrs. Arnold thought we couldn’t do. Thank the Universe that they didn’t have Mrs. Arnold as a teacher.
I am inspired and encouraged by seeing these people. I love seeing them put themselves out there, creating, producing, performing, entertaining and even educating. Watching them has helped me grow.
I’ve learned to love my uniqueness and parts of myself that are “not usual” or doesn’t meet a certain “standard”. I’ve learned that those standards weren’t made by anyone important enough for me to obey them. I love my brown skin, my crazy, bushy hair and my flavorful, aromatic food. Think what you want and feel what you feel, but if you’re smart, you should just feel yourself too.
If the world could be the way I thought it was back when I was a kid, we would all be proud of who we are and appreciative of others, too. Mrs. Arnold, that’s a closer example of a fantasy. I know the world is far from ever being a perfect place, but that doesn’t have to stop any of us from trying to be more perfect people.
The most important thing I’ve learned over time and experience is this: