“You have the most beautiful daughters, like guddis…choti white dolls,” said one aunty to another, as they sat atop a padded white tarpaulin on the ground, rolling puris and boondi laddo, surrounded by other aunties. “I just want to take them home.”
There were three of us sitting on a wooden bench covered in rolls of soft drink label wrapping paper common in wedding sheds, my two cousins and I, aged around 6 and 10ish.
I was not one of the guddis she wanted to take home.
All my life I have experienced colourism in some form – from the casual to the blatant. All occurrences have bothered me in varying ways depending on the context, adding to this giant hate, then apathy, then pity for the bullies over time. I wouldn’t call their behaviour microaggressions because they were not micro to me, and this one experience illustrates that. This one cut deeper than the others and one, which I can only write about some 20-odd years after it happened. I used to think it was because it happened when I was so young and it was my first memory of colourism. Or perhaps because it left me with a sense of shame at not being one of the chosen ones, even though I wasn’t interested in being a “guddi”? But I now realise it wasn’t the age or the shame at all, that etched this memory in my mind so deeply. It was how easily, and so very casually, this adult, a relative at that, rendered me, a child, invisible, simply because I was not considered the right colour, therefore not beautiful and not worth anything to her. She made be feel like an ‘other’, like I didn’t belong. She excluded me. Damn she is rude, I thought to myself back then. For even as a child, despite feeling shame, I knew her behaviour wasn’t right.
I don’t know where in the timeline these judgmental comments started coming my way. Perhaps there in that wedding shed, or earlier, but I do know it happened mostly during the school holidays when I was used to go stay with my grandparents, along with my mother and little brother in Labasa, away from my home in Suva. Suva and Labasa are on two different islands in Fiji, where I am from in the Pacific. My father stayed back to continue working till the Christmas break. Home was safe but outside wasn’t. Relatives in Labasa used to constantly say to my mother but “she was so fair when she was born…”, trailing off. My mother never interjected, asking them to stop, like I wanted her to. Did she agree with them, I remember thinking? I remember being angry all the time. Being rude to my grandmother, if she rubbed me the wrong way – we were not fans of each other. Feeling unworthy, not good enough, was normal during those eight weeks. I remember sitting back in the car one day, as my grandparents, mother and brother went to someone’s house for lunch, because I just couldn’t bear to be around people. I grabbed hold of a packet of jellybeans meant as a gift for the next house we were visiting, tearing it open in defiance and stuffing it in my mouth, not caring which flavour went it, something I usually do care about. Not tasting anything. Feeling sick afterwards.
The holidays stopped when my grandparents emigrated to Australia. Then onwards I’d get the odd comment if a relative came to the house, but by that time I’d have a couple of snarky retorts handy, and overtime they left me alone. Life in my own home was wonderful, full of books, games and love.
But the damage to my self-esteem was already done. At 10 years of age, I was forced to question my worth in a world obsessed with fairness and beauty – at a time when I didn’t have access to any form of empowering media like today; no guidance on recognising bullying, even in school; and no #BrownIsBeautiful role models.
And so I did the only thing I knew that would work. I decided that if I wasn’t beautiful because I was “too brown”, my worth would be determined by my intelligence. I’d show them! I’d show everyone!
Oh, how wrong I was to go down that path, but little Shazia did what she could to cope in that moment in time. It took me 15-odd years to figure out that striving for perfection in any area of life and trying to equate that to your value, your worth, is not the way to grow.
My worth, I now know, is not determined by how I look, my intelligence, or my productivity. It is determined by my existence. I am Shazia, I am here. That is all. I wish someone had told me this when I was a child.
It was this message I wanted to share with girls, when in 2019, a few friends of mine told me how their families were bullying their young daughters for being “too dark”. My friends were finding it difficult to deal with them, especially the older folks. Something I now know my mother used to find challenging as well.
I couldn’t believe this shit was still happening! I couldn’t stand by and see another generation of girls scarred by families with regressive mind-sets, determined to diminish their confidence, pushing them to make unhealthy choices about their lives.
And so, I did the only thing I could – I wrote a story called Kaluti – a story that I had been writing in my head my whole life.
Kaluti, as most, if not all people of South Asian descent who know Hindi know it to be a slur used to refer to women and girls with darker skin. Its variation kala, kaluta, kariya, and kallu, is used for women and men alike, but as we know the patriarchy holds women to a higher, albeit made-up, beauty standard, we are at the receiving end of it more. Fiji, though not in South Asia, is home to a large population of Fijians of Indian descent, where the word is used as commonly as the word for tea (which is cha in Fiji-Hindi by the way, and not chai).
In my children’s book, told in voice of 10-year-old Zia, we see the devastating impact of the word, when her aunty uses it oh-so-casually in reference to her one day. Zia is left reeling – trying to understand what it means, trying to determine if her looks determine her value, wondering if her parents will believe her when she tells them and if they will stand-up for her.
In the almost two-years years since self-publishing this book, now on its third print run, and which is fictional but inspired in part by my own experiences and that of my friends and their daughters, I have listened to hundreds of stories of childhood trauma caused by colourism, told to me by readers. Grown women and men, of different ethic backgrounds, from diverse demographics across Fiji and the diaspora, email me, message me on social media, and even approach me at events or on the street to share their own story of colourism.
An aunty, a grandmother, a mother, sister, father, uncle, a classmate – all take the form of bullies from their past. Some were nicknamed kaluti or the like, as a ‘loving’ pet name by family, only to realise when they were older, what it meant. One of my favourite messages was from a woman in her 50’s who wrote sharing this very experience, expressing how much it hurt her when she found out the meaning and that it became the very definition of her childhood. What made the message special was her wonderment at the use of the word on the cover of a book and to her see Zia “not caring what others said about her because she was enough and important just as she was” – something she had never thought she would never see in her lifetime.
I have loved reading messages from parents who shared how they used the language in the book used by the main character’s parents in speaking to older members of their own families, who were so used to passing judgemental comments. Many parents even checked their own behaviour.
Like most writers, I write different things for different reasons. This story I wrote for the younger me who would have liked to have read something like this when she was questioning her own value at a young age. I was writing for girls like me. I was imagining my friends’ daughters reading this.
But nothing prepared me for what happened after it went out into the world. I was not ready for the avalanche of trauma that came my way from readers. I had to learn to make space for it in my head, in my heart, while carrying my own trauma, which I am still processing. I had to stop and listen because for so many it was the first time someone had written a version of their story – in fact as one person related to me as she shared a photo of her teary 60+ year-old mother reading the book and saying “this is my story”.
I do not often write about my time in Labasa as it is a not a place that holds good memories for me, but determined to make it a proverbial full-circle moment, it became kick-off spot for my first self-organised book-tour out of Suva.
“Oh, she looked so much more beautiful before the school holidays. She’s been playing in the sun for the past few…,” she said, before she stopped short with a look of horror on her face, turning to look at me but saying it more to herself, slowly, “…I should really think before I speak, shouldn’t I?”
The ‘she’ was another aunty of mine, who I did not know very well, and who might not have stopped mid-sentence had she not been listening to my parents promoting Kaluti to her and other relatives, a mere two hours earlier.
I stared back her, amazed. Not because she so obviously was about to engage in colourism about her own daughter, which is still rife in Labasa, and the outskirts where I was sitting at that moment, but because I could see her, like really see her realise in that very moment what she was about to say. And to her see her prejudiced thoughts, anyone’s for that matter, being disrupted, right in front of my eyes, is something I never thought I’d see, when I wrote this story.
I sat there. My fingers playing with edge of the table where the blue Formica was coming out. I thought of the little girl sitting on the bench in a wedding shed completely ignored because she wasn’t the right colour compared to her cousins. I thought of her sitting in a car all alone, angrily stuffing jellybeans in her mouth. I thought of her working hard at school trying to be perfect, so no one could say she wasn’t important. I thought of how scared she used to be of failing, missing out on learning opportunities, determine to get it right on the first try. Then I think of how she got help from the right people; how books, stories and writing became her lifeline; how far she has come; how happy she is with who she is now; and how comfortable she is in her own skin – and that she is finally able to do justice to little Shazia by sharing a part of her story with others, and seeing the difference it is creating, even in a small way, amongst those who need it.
Important note: I eat jellybeans in the following order: red, orange, and white because there is no other order to eat them in. I don’t eat the others.
Shazia Usman is a Fijian feminist activist and writer. Her first children’s book Kaluti, a story of a 10-year-old girl facing colourism, was released in August 2019. For this she was nominated as one of the International Women’s Development Agency’s ‘6 must-read women writers from Asia and the Pacific’. She currently works as a Communications and Media Specialist for UN Women Pacific’s Ending Violence Against Women and Girls programme. Views expressed are her own. Visit her website for her information. Kaluti can be purchased here. Follow on Twitter: @ShaziaUsman
Cover Photo: Hamza Usman