By Ikya Kandula
A white woman outside of a Whole Foods in a printed kurta, from either her days of trekking through India or her days of trekking through the slightly ethnic section of Macy’s, is a tired trope. It’s a dull arrow that bounces off the bubble we’ve all learned to occupy. A white woman wearing a traditional Indian top outside my local Safeway, on the other hand, is a newly sharpened knife that tears through my protective layer until it hits me squarely in the chest. The sight itself isn’t much different, but the location matters more. My mother has stepped into the same Safeway and many other Safeways since we immigrated, yet my mom embraces a default sense of embarrassment when she leaves the house in the same kurta top. Meanwhile this woman I have never met moves with a palpable air of confidence in clothes that hadn’t been meant for her.
When I was younger, I used to think that my mom had been born hating the way she looked. It wasn’t the right justification, but it was the only one that didn’t require me to keep digging in places within me that already hurt. She tried to wear jeans when we first moved because I had just started elementary school in St. Louis and we hadn’t met another Indian family since we stepped off our plane. My memory doesn’t reach that far back, but buttoned pants were a short-lived phase for my mom. She swiftly switched back into the churidars she had originally packed in her suitcase, so that only a handful of decaying pictures in the bottom of our albums would show that she had tried. I don’t know if she retreated to her old wardrobe because she wanted to feel closer to the family she had left to commence this new life or because she just didn’t feel comfortable in “American clothes.” I never asked, because I spent a lot of my time faulting her for not trying hard enough.
People stared and I hoped only I would notice. Kids asked why my mom dressed the way she did and only in my most angry streaks would I repeat those accusatory questions back at her, trying to stuff the words falling out of my mouth back in as I spoke. I assumed—or rather, desperately wished—she lived in a vacuum, but she became hyper-aware of a room when she stepped in. People masked condescension with a veil of politeness, feeling the fabric on her body and overcompensating with words like “exotic” and “beautiful.” My mother used to feel beautiful when she wore her ethnicity, but now even the word “beautiful” makes her cringe. For as long as I’ve known her in this country, my mother has felt ugly. At my best, I was comforting her. At my worst, I wanted to distance myself as much as possible.
Distancing has never been a viable option, though. I thought that if I didn’t wear who I was and where I came from on my sleeve like she did, I wouldn’t have to fight to feel good or constantly explain myself. Watching my mother growing up made me think that feeling beautiful on my own terms was a luxury and I wanted it so badly. But, the clothes themselves were never the reason my mother walked on eggshells leaving the house. It’s the fact that our skin color is inescapable. It comes with its fair share of innocuous “Namastes” from strangers on the street or Uber drivers eager to play you their favorite Hindi songs, looking for a spark of recognition from the rear-view mirror. That’s not so bad. When your color is noticeable, people don’t feel weird asking you where you’re really from or telling you stories about their time travelling abroad. Of course, there are also plenty of “you’re pretty for an Indian girl,” too. When you’re a darker brown, people are quick to mentally separate you from the fairer members of your ethnicity. Once, a brown guy even told me, “You’re a 6/10 because you have a nice smile, but you’re too dark.”
No matter how much I wanted it growing up, I was never allowed the opportunity of knowing my identity without my ethnicity. As much as I used to blame my mom for fueling her own insecurities through her wardrobe, I’ve come to realize she has no choice. Her clothes have absolutely nothing to do with how people see her; white women can and do wear the same things and are lauded for their worldliness. Instead, the implicit agreement for her moving to this country was that she can never forget her skin color. In a lot of ways, I’ve signed that same agreement. I wear jeans when she refuses to, but I’ll never know a life where I’m not looking at how the undertones of my complexion change as I play with filters on Instagram or if a shade of lipstick makes me look darker than I intend to. It’s not that I can’t thrive under this agreement. In fact, I like the way I look and I like who I am. But, I will always be footnoted with the shade of my skin.
Ikya Kandula is a 22-year-old Indian American and recent graduate of UC Berkeley. She aspires to write more, read more, and learn more every day.