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Maarya Abbasi Philadelphia 2015

“I am my ancestral and cultural memories embodied — here, now. How to understand our contemporary historically-active being-ness, how to translate that, and how to speak this across all our differences is the method that we active-witnesses are similarly seeking. We’re all interested in creating blueprints that call up history, that recognize how history has carved our very bodies, souls, psyches, minds and speech forms — while at the same time generating a “present-speak” that can create now’s and futures full of hope.” 

-Chela Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed

My name is Maarya. In Arabic, this translates to “purity: bright whiteness.” Language is one of the many tools in our ever-expanding toolkit that is used to couch our most subconscious beliefs. The associations of whiteness to purity and cleanliness are historically rooted—in our dictionaries, and thus, sometimes, even in our minds. The question then becomes: what impact do these ephemeral yet traditionally grounded associations have on our perceptions of skin color?

This summer, I traveled to Philadelphia in an attempt to capture meaningful responses to this very question. Utilizing a both constructivist and transformative perspective, I interviewed 10 South Asian women, aged 18-25, on the topic of skin color. Interviews were open-ended, as I aimed not only to understand the individual experiences of every participant, but also to contextualize said experiences within their personal and socio-cultural circumstances. For example, it was important that I asked participants about their background, where they were born, how they negotiated a relationship to their local Desi community (if at all), in addition to learning about participants’ experiences with skin color and complexion, as all of these inquiries are crucial in order to construct a full picture of how these individuals make meaning and engage with the world around them.

Because my interviews were quite open-ended, they averaged around two hours in length, and my participants were able to articulate a number of themes that were relevant to their experience with skin color. Bleaching creams and makeup, Eurocentric beauty standards, caste and social stratification, anti-black attitudes, and internalized racism were brought up and/or discussed by the participants themselves in some way. This not only illustrates both the diversity and depth of the South Asian and South Asian American experience, but also reaffirms the idea that colorism cannot be unpacked without examining race, class, and gender, for it is these identity markers that are intertwined with and attached to the ways in which we perceive and understand skin color.

Part of my ethnographic work will culminate in the creation of a critical consciousness tool and guide on colorism in the South Asian American community, in addition to my thesis work on the topic. With this work, I hope create a blueprint, as Sandoval would say, that will explain and provide methods of resistance to colorism, while also pushing the discourse forward in a way by recognizing the limitations of centering our entire existence on our pigmentation. “Present-speak” is thus not only imminent, but vital.


-Maarya Abbasi