My daughter and I were waiting in the emergency room when she told me. I looked at her, my spunky, carefree eight-year-old. Her long legs dangled off the edge of the examination table as she tried to negotiate the crinkling paper beneath her. Above her head hung a broken cuckoo clock, its arms frozen in an awkward salute.
We were here because she had fallen down the stairs, running to show her older sister a Lego creation. My husband and I heard a cry, followed by the sound of a hundred plastic bricks raining down on the landing. We found her lying on her shoulder, her sister by her side, a rainbow wreckage in their wake.
The ER physician had ruled out major injury, but ordered x-rays, so for the last hour we'd been waiting, my daughter and I, in this windowless room, with its bored buzz of fluorescent lights. Seeking a distraction, I'd asked about school. It was a conversation we had daily, so I'd expected no new updates. She might tell me again that she loved learning about Wilma Rudolph in social studies, or that she could imagine how her bones would look in the x-rays because she had studied the skeleton in science.
Instead, calm but serious, like the narrator of a blurry black and white film, my daughter told me what had happened a few months earlier on a playground near our house. A girl had approached her.
"Your skin looks like poop," she'd said. "You need to take a shower."
Revisiting the moment as we do with memories, my daughter paused, then continued.
"She said that about the poop and my skin, and once she said, 'You need to cover your whole entire body with clothes so that I don't have to see your skin anymore.'"
I felt like I had fallen down the stairs too.
My first instinct was to steady myself, stay quiet. I did not want to alter the temperature of our conversation by emphasizing one word over another or changing my tone. As my daughter's eyes searched mine, I worried that my reaction might change her memory, lay heat over her serene recounting of the playground incident. I had to let her infuse those moments with her own meaning.
But behind my calm veneer was this thought: it was our fault, mine and my husband's. Our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were all born in India; our daughters inherited their brown complexions. But my husband and I were born in America, as were our daughters. We speak English at home, not Gujarati. Hinduism plays little part in our lives, and we celebrate a secular Christmas with more gusto than Diwali. Yet while we are both Indian and American, our skin color seems to make us outsiders in our birth country.
I tried to imagine what my daughter was doing moments before that girl approached her. Running across the asphalt? Climbing monkey bars until her hands callused? Laughing, maybe? I knew that kid, that girl with the blonde hair that glittered in the sunshine, that girl who occluded my daughter's worldview by letting her know that she was different. That girl was born with porcelain skin and blonde hair, attributes I'd long ago internalized as the epitome of American beauty.
I knew that girl because I went to school with so many like her.
When I was in fourth grade, my parents moved us from a diverse, middle class neighborhood in Houston, Texas, to an affluent one. Our new home, with its pale pink brick and the fragrant magnolia tree in the front, was barely affordable for them. But the public schools in Spring Branch were among the best in Houston in 1984. My new school had better teachers, more computers, newer textbooks, and it had me: a minority twice over, neither white nor Christian.
Everything about me was wrong in my new school. My hair was black, not blonde. My eyes were mud-colored brown, not blue or green, like shiny marbles. I banged my feet on the ground in classical Indian dance classes instead of stretching my legs into graceful jeté's at ballet lessons. A vegetarian, I hid my plate at birthday parties after squeezing ketchup onto dry bread while everyone else ate hamburgers and hot dogs.
"What's that dot on your mom's head?" one of the Courtneys in my class asked when my mother came to school for the event I always dreaded: "International Day."
Mom thought I wanted her to wear her sari and talk about India, and I never had the heart to tell her how Courtney asked me that question in front of her friends – not as an inquiry but an accusation. Unlike Courtney, her friends, and even my own friends, I never attended Bible study or Young Life or church. Jesus was not a part of my life; Krishna and Ram were. So many gods, such weird faces. Gods with elephant heads, even.
"You're going to hell," my friends told me, concerned.
I am already in hell, I thought. I wished I had the courage to say that out loud.
In high school, my handsome chemistry partner Ben disagreed when I said that my eyes were mud-colored.
"They're like onyx, never-ending," he said, his own green eyes looking into mine, in a moment of kindness that I've carried with me for 25 years.
Then, during my college years and beyond, the popular perception of Indian-Americans began to change. Yoga arrived, and I heard even non-Indians chanting schlokas, or Indian Vedic poetry. I learned that Queen's Freddie Mercury was of Indian origin. Padma Lakshmi and Priyanka Chopra were Indian supermodels who represented American companies. Later, I read Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri and the New Yorker's Atul Gawande with an attenuated sense of pride. Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari performed for full theaters and launched television shows, bringing Indian-Americans into public consciousness as never before.
Now, people asked about my Indian heritage with curiosity, not condescension, even if the dialogue felt uncomfortable sometimes. (Yes, I had seen Bend it Like Beckham. No, I didn't know the best Indian restaurant in the city.) I left Texas, convinced that its conservative culture had shaped my childhood experiences. My husband and I picked names for our daughters that everyone could pronounce and spell. And I chose a profession that enabled me to speak for those who had no voice.
Still, I felt different. I tried to be nice to everyone, to fit in with the beautiful ivory-skinned women at work and in my daughters' schools, women who smelled like lilacs in glass bottles and welcomed me into their world. Did they see my skin as my defining feature? I was doing that to them, wasn't I? I was guilty of seeing color too, of making assumptions about how "they" saw "us." Did I really assume that confident-looking white people would never like me?
Then, this. "Your skin looks like poop. You need to take a shower."
Sitting in the ER with my daughter, I could no longer blame Texas or the 1980s. I put my head in my hands and acknowledged a conclusion I resisted when I read Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me : prejudice was ubiquitous. People think bigoted things. Even second graders. Even me.
I never told my parents about the comments I endured as a child. I worried about hurting their feelings, about desecrating the sacrifices they made to come to America. My daughter knows, though, that I have lived in her world. I wondered if she would tell me more as we sat in that room, waiting for someone to take pictures of her insides, where everyone's colors are the same. Looking into her onyx eyes, I hoped she wouldn't need a Ben in high school to convince her of her beauty.
"How do you feel about what that girl said?" I asked, trying to sound neutral. I expected tears. I was ready to tell her that people can be hurtful, that they come to regret it, that what that girl said wasn't true. I wouldn't tell her that it took me 40 years to learn those lessons, and that I was learning still.
"I'm okay," she said, her voice matter-of-fact. "I think she was just jealous of my tan because, you know, I don’t have to go get a tan. I already have one, natural."
My girl loves her natural tan.
I took her into my arms, lifting her off the now-torn paper on the examination table. I held onto her, not only for her, but for the little girl I had once been. Her serenity steadied years of disquiet in me.
The doctor finally entered the room and reviewed the x-rays. "Your daughter looks perfect," she said.
"Yes," I answered. "Yes, she does."