Color Me Brown – What Girl, Woman, Other Taught Me about My Brownness
Creative Criticism by Neelam Reddy
Second place winner of the 2022 One Book One Campus Creative Contest on Girl, Woman, Other, hosted by the Utrecht University
– Color –
I was four years old when I learned the color brown.
I was living in St. Albert—a shit town nestled in the armpit of Alberta, Canada. I had just moved there from California and while my parents tried to reacquaint themselves with the country (that’s where they met and fell in love before heading south), I was sent to the local day care to acquaint myself with my new Canadian peers. This was nearly twenty years ago, and like almost all childhood memories, I CANNOT recount every minute detail in high definition. I read somewhere that those “core memories”—the ones where you can recall the colors and scents and the chronological order of events in great detail—only really take form after the age of five. But this is different. I may not have the colors and scents and order, but I do know the words that were said, that perpetually remain alive and well in the recesses of my mind. And that is perhaps more real, more certain than any other “core memory” that formed subsequently. When I see it in my head, it’s like watching it unfold on an old television—the images are grainy (I cannot make out the faces) nor can I tell how many people or things are in this scene (It’s all distorted). But I don’t concentrate on the image itself— it’s the sounds coming from the television, the words that are being said, that matter the most here.
You can’t play with us because you are BROWN, and you are a GIRL
That’s what the kids at day care said. I wanted to play basketball with them, and they said no because there were two things wrong with me: I was brown (I still am) and I was a girl (I still am), ergo a brown girl.
There is a lot to unpack here. We can say this behavior comes from the home—kids don’t just say things like that unprompted. And while there’s truth to that, that’s not the message I’m trying to get across. This was the first instance that I could pinpoint, in my twenty-three years of life, in which my identifying markers (color and gender) were used to create a single definition of me—brown girl.
And it is because of this definition of my identity that I did not belong, could not belong, in the same group as those four-year-old white kids. You see this is where I finally saw color for the first time, and it was my own. This is the first time I can say I learned that color and gender (in my case) are inextricable—I cannot separate my “brownness” from my “girlness”. I am not brown, nor am I a girl—I am a brown girl. The intricacies of this identity are numerous and vast and multi-faceted. Now, what I am saying here is some critical fuckery that no four-year-old would sit and analyze (I certainly did not at the time). This is the stuff tweed-wearing, elbow rubbing scholars would mull over in the corner of their windowless offices and come back to me with some verbose psychoanalytic response to this incident. As an adult, I have no doubt that this incident played an integral role in my bildungsroman—like scholars, I can also now reflect on this incident with much more critical consideration.
But, when you are four you don’t think about those things, obviously. You look at your hands, your arms, your face, and see that the color of your skin is several shades too dark and that the absence of an appendage between your legs leaves a space—an emptiness. You see all these things (or lack of things) and from the perspective of a four-year-old, being a brown girl meant that I could not play basketball.
And that hurt.
I really wanted to play.
When I first read Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, I saw aspects of myself on those pages. Not verbatim, mind you, the novel contained several narratives I could never personally relate to—but it did tell me something about brownness, my brownness.
12 women. 12 lives. 12 stories.
I think that sums up Evaristo’s story, a story of twelves.
Twelve women with lives that are their own to tell.
Twelve lives that are interlaced by shared experiences, but independent in their own right.
Twelve stories that speak for themselves rather than spoken for—uninterrupted voices dictate the pages.
In the span of 452 pages, Evaristo weaves all these narratives—individual and unique on their own—to form the overlooked multi-colored fabric of Britain’s society—the stories of brown girls.
Within these pages, I learned something about brownness—not only the degree of melanin that permeates my skin, but also the social construct it imposes upon me in the world that we live in.
Like Evaristo’s characters, I too, am very aware of my brownness. We learn of our color young. We learn that certain colors suit certain roles, certain places in this world. Like, in the story of Amma, she captures our plight as brown girls with the word “disillusioned”.
That’s a good word.
We are disillusioned every time we get typecast in the life roles that brown girls are supposed to play. Sure, Amma’s situation is different than mine—she’s an actress who’s pigeonholed on stage to roles as a slave, servant, prostitute, nanny— even criminal. All limiting and degrading.
I’m pigeonholed too, just with other (arguably better) expectations such as daughter, wife, and stay-at-home mom (college educated, of course). There’s nothing wrong with those life roles—but that’s it for me. Anything outside of that scope is hard for the world to comprehend, and therefore hard for it to support. Color and gender are one in the same as a brown girl. The color I am says more about who I am supposed to be than who I actually am. It’s drenched in history and tradition and a lifetime of preconceptions.
I see my color before I see me.
And the world sees me the same way too.
A single story is dangerous business.
Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gives fair warning to this phenomenon. A story, funneling a single perspective, is a dangerous one. And it is our (brown girls’) duty to combat single faceted narratives with authenticity—a genuine attempt to relay another perspective and voice.
That’s what Girl, Woman, Other made me think of—authentic voices.
Evaristo tells each woman’s story unhindered by abandoning traditional conventions and adopting a more liberated form of expression. Sentences do not end, nor do they begin with capital assertion. Like a river, words ebb and flow against the current of narrative. It’s free and unending—how a brown girls’ story ought to be.
– Shade –
I was fifteen when I learned that there are many shades of brown.
And I was the wrong shade.
You’re too dark for me— too brown.
He told me this on the dance floor at our high school Model UN banquet. I was hoping he’d dance with me, but instead I got a rude awakening.
The operative word here wasn’t dark or brown even, it was too. I was too much of the thing that defined me.
Ironic, isn’t it?
So much for supporting international relations.
On the ride home, I watched the moonlight reflect off my darkness. I rubbed my arm (maybe I can get some of this brown off). Maybe I can be a few shades lighter at least.
So that someday someone will see me as desirable.
As something beautiful.
I’ve read stories of women with alabaster skin.
I’ve seen advertisements about fair and lovely Indian girls. I read and see everything that is not about me. And it is all about being brown or browner or brownest.
And no brown girl wants to be the brownest.
– Tone –
I was eighteen when my skin tone became desirable—something to touch, to marvel at, to be curious about.
But what I thought was fascination turned out to be fetishization.
I wish I knew better then.
The first sign was his touch—not the fact that he touched me, but how. It was our first meeting in public (safety 101). We had settled into a café table alongside the window, and he rested his hand on my thigh. We talked, and he moved his hand up and down the length of my thigh. He told me he liked my brown girl complexion. What was too dark, was now interesting —especially since I was the first brown girl he was ever with (a point he was sure to make). A touch turned to heavy petting and indiscreet kisses along the nape of my neck and lips. The entire time (for three hours?) he kept his hands on me. I thought I wanted more.
Looking back, I’m embarrassed that I let it happen in front of all those people.
What a spectacle.
What a shame.
What a brown girl.
I invited him back to my place.
Seemed fine, really.
Until it wasn’t.
Thrussst—say that you’re a dirty girl.
(Strange, but not unheard of)
Thrussst—say you’re a dirty brown slut
(Huh? What did you say?)
Thrussst—say that you’re a whore
I felt my lips move, but I didn’t speak. I’m glad I didn’t. I was stunned, to the point of silence. Then, like a wave of unmitigated emotion, I said
He stopped (I’ll give him that). He didn’t insist (thank God). He was disappointed that I didn’t live up to my promise of a fun night.
To me, that was far from my definition of a fun night.
When it was over, I didn’t kick him out. I don’t know why. For whatever reason (maybe guilt?), I let him stay the night. He even held me, resting his hand on the small of my back as we slept—well, while he slept—I didn’t get any sleep that night.
Evaristo tells the story the way it is—there’s no sugar coating it. That’s the way it should be, to be honest. When we cut away at the truth in the effort to provide an “aesthetically” pleasing, more digestible one we do a disservice to others. We don’t even give them a single story; we give them a perforated one. This is where Girl, Woman, Other taught me that a brown girl’s brownness is inherently uncomfortable.
Through her twelve characters, Evaristo confronts her readers with vivid, unapologetic descriptions of her characters’ pain (both mental and physical).
I CANNOT even begin to imagine the horrors that Carole or Bummi or LaTisha endured. And I am grateful I never (hopefully) will.
Evaristo compromises comfort for fact. For the rape and sexual assault of some of her characters, there’s no ambiguity on what cruel acts were forced upon their bodies. She tells each detail, each touch, each penetration, each cry, each pain—unrestrained.
It’s daunting, yes, to read something so raw and uninhibited but in that moment, you appreciate its intention, its purpose in the novel.
– Hue –
I turned twenty-three today while writing this piece and this is what I know so far:
I am a brown girl. Am I okay with it? Have I fully and truly accepted the definition of my identity as such? Honestly—no. I am human after all and while I have come to appreciate the person, I am in the skin that I wear. It would be remissive of me to say that I have completely evolved to complete acceptance of myself. It’s a nice notion to think that over the course of twenty years I would have irrevocably changed to be a person that would whole-heartedly love herself, the hue of her skin. The road to self-acceptance is a long one and I’m afraid I can’t give you a satisfactory ending.
Evaristo does the same too. Her novel gives a sense of unfinishedness. There’s a lot of unknown variables regarding her characters. Some get closure—a full story from birth to end. Others leave you wondering what’s to come next for them. Stories without closure are great—it leaves you desiring something more. And that feeling, that deep desire that burns in the pit of your stomach, is what makes a story that much better.
Stories are inextricably interlocked to create a community of familiarity—it’s not sameness that draws me into Evaristo’s novel, it’s finding the similarities within the differences of her character’s stories. Indeed, it’s a novel—a book bound by pages and printed with ink. But it is also something tangible, something that I or any other woman like myself can recognize as something true and raw and honest.
It’s a story.
Of girls like me.
Girls that are full of colors and shades and tones and hues. Brown girls.
Neelam Reddy is an MA Literature Today student at Utrecht University and the department head of PR/Marketing at RevUU. Having completed her Bachelor of Secondary Education at the University of Alberta, Neelam has moved to the Netherlands to pursue a career in the writing/publishing sector. In addition to her love for traveling and teaching, Neelam is an avid writer. Neelam’s fondness for creative writing can be witnessed in her frequent participation in writing contests. She enjoys writing historical fiction and personal narratives.
- Art By Layla. “Color Me Brown.” 2022, Art By Layla, https://www.artbylayla.com.
- Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TED, 2009, http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript.
- Evaristo, Bernardine. Girl, Woman, Other. Penguin Books, 2019.