(You can find the audio version of this article here.) All my life, I have been accused of having the wrong skin colour. My body’s wrapper—loosening and crinkling slightly around the eyes and mouth now, like the bow-tie-shaped foil around an old toffee that has come half untwirled—has always been stubbornly pinky white from a middle distance and, close up, a pointillist painting comprised of thousands of tiny red and brown dots against a milky background. In the two photos I have of my father, a bald man in what looks like his late forties or early fifties, bending over a wedding registry with my mother, wearing a shiny polyester suit, his skin sleek with the sweat of a Pakistani June, is a blend of almond and olive, with a touch of dove grey: sallow, pale but unmistakably brown. I still remember the smell of that skin: papery, leathery, faintly sour—perhaps from the beer he drank—like ancient, dusty cumin that has lost most of its aroma.
Lovely essay - you write beautifully. I agree so strongly with the comment, "...while racism clearly still exists in the west, I think other factors, especially poverty and ill health, are much more important in determining people’s life happiness." and I often wonder why more people don't even seem to see it.
Love the essay! And I also liked the milk and jaggery story (grew up listening ot variants of it from Parsis and non-Parsis alike) and was a tad disappointed when you mentioned that it's probably just a myth.
Beautifully written, well-argued and resonant points made. Have experienced much the same as a mixed-race person.
Yes! These "colour" conversations have always been confusing to me as well. My mother is Nova Scotian, but my father is Acadian. His nickname in school in the 50s was "the Arab". My nickname in school was "the squaw" (before this word got erased by society). I have an infant photo, 2-3 weeks of age, with black hair and brown skin, lying out in the June sun. As a child, I was constantly told, when seen alongside my blond half-brother and half-sister and very pale mom (my stepdad had black hair that was blond in childhood) people would always say "you don't look like your family, you sure your parents are your parents?" (I didn't know until 15 that only my mom was biological). My entire life, people have asked me "where are you from?" Many have thought First Nation, but also often I've passed for Moroccan, Israeli, Latina, when I spend time in Central and South America, I fit in perfectly.
Finally I had my DNA done with the Human Genome project, and turns out I had a much higher percentage of Middle-Eastern blood than typical for "white" descent people. All Europeans have a percentage of Middle-Eastern bloodlines, mine was just much higher. I also had Denisovan blood, which applies to First Nations of the Americas. So my brown skin finally had some sort of explanation. But still not really an answer. I only met my bio-dad once, my pregnant mother fled the area, he knew I existed, that was it.
So the mystery remains, what is that strange lineage bestowed upon me by my bio-dad, what is that story? Generally speaking Acadians (the first French "settlers" in the Americas) were darker skinned than average Europeans. This people were social outcasts in France back then, labourers, 2nd class citizens. There is great obsession about the ancestral lineages of Acadians. We know that Acadians could not have survived the Canadian winters without aid from the Miꞌkmaq people, and so intermarriage was frequent, the blood lines of Acadians are in that regard similar to those of Manitoba Métis. But with Acadians, there is a darker yet lineage, that dates back to France, and I wish some day that all those genealogists would some day figure out what it is that distinguished the French citizenry between the whites and the darks. Was it a Moor influence? Was it a Jewish influence? What are other options? will we ever know?
Meanwhile, now I'm old, and my skin isn't quite so dark anymore since I spend less time outdoors, my hair is gray, so people no longer ask me "where are you from". I always liked being different, now I don't know what I am anymore.
Iona, I’m so sorry about your parents. It’s difficult to lose them at any age but heartbreaking for a child. Speaking as the mom of a mixed race child (half white from me & half Chinese from her dad), I believe your parents shared your vision of race in our society and would be both horrified by our 21st century Segregation 2.0 & proud of your efforts to combat it.
I can also second, albeit second hand, the confusion that comes from having an ambiguous skin tone. Strangers in China have mistaken my daughter’s dad as her chauffeur, and at least one classmate (an exchange student from Europe) refused to believe she is half Chinese. Yet to Americans, she looks part Asian. Or maybe Hispanic. And on visits to Hawaii, she passes as a local.
This is extraordinarily beautiful. Thank you for writing this.
Your beauty as a person is revealed in the wonderful skill of your writing - Just got your book and I look forward to reading it xx Rob
My mother was born in Korachi! So I'm half Anglo-Indian, half English, and feel a similar reluctance to claim any such heritage, since most people think from my skin (and horrible RP accent) that I'm simply English. And Anglo-Indian is a funny heritage: not "half Indian" as so many people think, but a culture of its own, and one that I don't know much about, except that we seem to be descended from Irish navvies (building the Indian railways?) and that's why my mother's family were Catholics.
I'm muddled because of your name combining a Scottish bit and an Italian bit – I subconsciously assumed you must be bits of both!
Came here from Rajib Khan's blog, It *is* a real pity to old school libertarians/liberals how much salience (superficial) race has acquired. I hope the future reward will justify what we have lost in the present. If that sounds overly religious that is probably a testament to the character of the era we are in.
Why do you identify so strongly with being Parsi but not Scottish? Seems strange to choose one parents heritage over another, especially when raised in the Uk
Good essay. Pleased to meet you. The one jagged stone in there is the opposition to affirmative action, which in North America reads: “I oppose mitigating the damage done by slavery”. But your description of your experience overall is striking, and, I think, worth waiting for the many sequels.
Thank you for this. The phrase I've been using to myself lately is that race is a lie made real. Some people emphasize the fictitious, created, arbitrary, self-contradictory nature of the construction of race, and some emphasize the fact that it is a force that people experience, but I'd say the truth is somewhere that holds both of these. Looking at how we humans accept untrue things as important, even central parts of ourselves, not necessarily with the goal of then purging those untruths, but understanding how that works so we can be aware of the kind of truth that's about importance (like being a true friend) and the kind of truth that's about being accurate (being true to the world as it is, we might say) and hold THAT up as a model for how humans actually are, seems useful to me. One of the ways we can do that is to speak from our own lived experience, as honestly and clearly as possible, like this essay here.
Loved reading this Iona. Looking forward to read more from you!