(Featured image by Emma Thompson)
This past summer, I had the privilege of studying abroad in London. I was able to travel somewhere that is so much more diverse than all the places I’ve called home. But something happened that snapped me back to reality—the reality that even though we were being exposed to a new culture, some of us were still irresponsible with our words.
Here’s the scene: I’m touring Westminster Abbey with the rest of the students in the program. I take a seat somewhere with my audio guide. After a while, a girl from my program takes a seat next to me. I don’t recall how exactly the conversation took the turn that it did, but here’s where it went:
Her: I’m so pale and I’m actually depressed about it.
Her: When we get back home, everyone else is going to be tan because they spent their summers at the beach and I spent mine in London.
Me: *silence* But in my head: I am so sorry you’re having to spend your summer in London, SO SORRY.
Her: Isn’t it so nice for you to always be tan and not have to worry about feeling pale? It must be so great, right?
Me: *internally screaming*
I guess it’s pretty important to know that I’m Indian; I’m also not ashamed of the color of my skin. What this girl said to me was more concerning than offensive. At first, I couldn’t figure out why it upset me because she was definitely under the impression she was handing me a brilliant compliment. What she’d actually handed me was a microaggression disguised as a compliment, as many are. This girl had seriously failed to notice her racial privilege. That doesn’t mean she’s racist, it doesn’t even mean she’s “bad.” It just means that what she said to me is problematic.
As a disclaimer, I understand my position of privilege, and my goal is not to present this moment as some kind of canon for racial abuse. I understand that it was a very small moment with very little consequence, but I’m relating this moment to the big picture. Because moments like this happen to people of color ALL the time.
I know that girl didn’t mean it. That’s the thing—nobody ever means it. But by being passively unaware of what her words meant to me, and would mean to so many others, this girl was actively hurting me. Intention is irrelevant. We often forget that, especially when we want to defend ourselves for “not knowing any better.” We need to be opening our eyes to what our language choices mean on a larger scale, and not be hiding behind blissful ignorance.
So, to the girl back in London: If you thought what you said was a compliment, I guess I should’ve paid you one back. Something like, “Yeah, I guess it is nice that I’ll never feel the need to get a tan. But isn’t it nice that you’ll never fear airport security because of the color of your skin?”
If being tan meant the same thing to you as it does to me, I have a feeling you wouldn’t be trying to achieve it.
Now… Are you sure you’re still jealous?