The Color Brown

Shipra Agarwal

Writer’s Note: It’s been seventy-five years since the British Raj ended, but its remnants live on in sections of Indian society in the form of white-worshiping and self-loathing. They get passed from one generation to the next, much like the family’s gold.

The Color Brown began as a list of “how to lighten your skin” advice I had heard from family, seen in TV commercials, and read in magazines. But it didn’t have an end, a resolution. In subsequent revisions, the mother emerged as a representative of these oppressive voices, allowing me to make the daughter the voice of the resistance, of the change that’s currently underway in the society.

Get out of the sun,
Mother said,
No, not skin cancer, worse—
You’ll get tanned.

She pointed to passersby
To teach me the many
Shades of the color

Fawn is fine;
Buff, better.
Dun ain’t done.
Caramel? Only sweet on one’s tongue.

She rubbed gritty scrubs on
My face; bleached it
With ammoniacal creams.
Stinging eyes, scalding skin.

Fairness cream in a pink tube.
The smell of Jasmine.
A dollop of sticky foundation
(Two shades lighter, of course.)

Feathery puff full of
chalky powder
To soak my sweat and
Complete my humiliation.

But, Mother, my face doesn’t match
My arms!
Nobody cares about
Them arms.

No tea, only milk.
No wheat, only rice.
Eat white, and you’ll be whiter.
Be white and—oh, Child, you’ll thank me later.

Thank you, Mother, for
Wanting a better life for me
than your dark skin
had allowed you.

I bring my naked cheeks to
you today. Will you kiss me?
This daughter of yours who’s not scared
of the sun – or her skin – anymore.

Shipra Agarwal is the 2022 Fellow for the Authentic Voices Program by Women’s National Book Association and Assistant Fiction Editor at Identity Theory. Her stories have appeared/are forthcoming in Witness, FlashFlood, and a BIWOC Anthology. Shipra will be the writer-in-residence at Firefly Farms in Fall 22, where she will continue to revise her debut novel-in-stories. In her past life, Shipra was a doctor who scribbled poetry between patients. Born and educated in India, Shipra now lives in Arizona, and tweets from @ShipAgarwal.