I was helping my daughter brush her teeth, my arm very close to her face as I whizzed the toothbrush around her mouth.
“You smell like Lella,” she said through an avalanche of toothpaste.
“Really?” Lella is her much adored grandmother, so I took it as a compliment. “I just sprayed perfume, but I don’t use the same as Lella.”
Then it hit me.
On a recent trip to Sydney I bought tanning lotion (you can’t buy such products where I live; Asian countries are obsessed with fair skin and it’s almost a crime to get a tan). The lotion is the same brand my mother uses – don’t ask me why I made that decision, because I always accuse Mum of stinking like a dead animal after she’s applied it. I realised my daughter wasn’t complimenting me at all. She was accusing me of smelling like a rotting corpse.
Putting aside my dented pride, I considered that something positive could come from my daughter’s comment. I might smell like a walking bottle of chemicals, I thought, but I can show her that her lovely Cambodian skin colour (a source of angst with her), is something desirable.
“I put tanning lotion on my skin,” I said. “That’s probably what you smell.”
“I want darker skin, like yours.”
“Because you’ve got beautiful skin.” I pointed to my arm. “I’m so pale, so freckly.”
Having lived in Asia for 14 years, I am well aware of the unfortunate concept that white skin is beautiful, while dark skin is the source of much discrimination, and I don’ t want my daughter to fall into this trap. An Indian friend with rich ebony skin was teased by her cousins during childhood. “Don’t sit too close to her,” they’d say. “Her skin colour will rub off on you.”
When another friend was adopting a child from Malaysia, the agency apologised about the baby’s skin tone. “I’m really sorry, her skin is very dark. If you want a lighter skinned child you can wait longer.”
In my effort to boost my daughter’s confidence about her own skin colour, such that she will pay no heed to such ignorance, I realised that I had made a big mistake. In teaching her to be happy with her skin, I was inadvertently teaching her that I wasn’t content with my own.
So I ditched the tanning cream, choosing to practice what I preach, and I have been walking around ever since sporting pale, insipid flesh. Perhaps it’s better than stinking like a rotting rodent?!
P.S. This week marks the Week of Solidarity with Peoples Struggling Against Racism and Racial Discrimination. Let’s start with skin colour.