My grandfather used to get up every morning, tie his sarong and prepare to head out to the small tea estate our family owned. I imagine he would have made his morning prayers, drank a cup of tea – perhaps the read the newspaper or listened to the morning news, before making the a mile or so trek to the estate. I say imagine, because I didn’t get the chance to ask my grandfather these questions. He passed away in early 2013, before I got a chance to see him again. The awkwardness of Skype calls don’t allow for such deep conversation.
I come from a family of farmers in central Sri Lanka. Both my parents hail from small villages outside Kandy. Both sides of my family were highly political – my family collectively has gone through assassinations, property damage, threats and intimidation – yet, they did not let that damper their enthusiasm.
Decades later, here I am – like my family, I am involved in politics and activism. Like my grandfather, I frequently don the sarong and have incorporated it into my public image as president of the students’ union. This is a story about how I got here – it is a story about grappling with questions of identity, dealing with questions of the past and the present. Whether or not we are all involved in politics, I have heard the variation of the same story from other second-generation immigrants and people of colour. This is my story.
Growing up, I didn’t really think about my identity. I knew I was Sri Lankan, I knew my parents spoke Tamil and Sinhala and I knew we were Muslims. That’s about as deep as it got. As I grew up, my parents settled into a working class immigrant neighborhood in Scarborough – it was here where my experiences with brownness radically changed. Going to school in Scarborough was difficult for me – I felt I stood out like a sore thumb, especially as I entered middle school. All the other kids knew the latest songs, wore the latest and coolest brands and were good at sports. I was an uncoordinated nerd who liked Digimon.
People could be cruel, but what sticks with me to this day were the comments about my clothes. Classmates would make fun of my seemingly Wal-Mart brand of clothing. The summer after I finished seventh grade, a classmate had the audacity to finish a MSN Messenger conversation by telling me “to get better clothes over the summer,” I was stunned. All of these kids who directed these pointed barbs at me, were like me – brown and the kids of immigrants. So, I internalized this, I decided that I wanted to keep my distance from brown people, from brownness. Being thirteen, you aren’t equipped with the analytical skills to understand behavior – you just know that people are being mean.
I left Scarborough in Grade 8 and came to a much whiter town called Pickering (it did however, have its fair share of POC) and in high school, things got a lot better for me. In terms of my brownness though, I still kept my distance. Save for a group of friends who I called my “brown crew”, I still hung out mostly with the white kids. “You’re basically white,” was something I heard weekly and something I said weekly about myself. I only talked about brownness when asserting my distance from it. But I knew I was different. My difference is what caused me to get in prolonged debates with classmates over immigration – asserting forcefully that immigrants were not “welfare hogs”. It’s what made me feel disgust when a white student refused to clap during the Black History Month assembly. Still, those just seemed like indignities that any decent person would oppose – I still did not really deeply identify as brown.
When it came to choosing a university, I selected the University of Toronto as a first choice and the University of Toronto Scarborough as a backup. I was pretty explicit about the reasoning for not going to the latter campus – I didn’t want to be surrounded by more brown people.
Then I got to university and things began to change. I met more people, got into more political discussions and entered the realm of student politics. And it is here where I came to understand my identity as a brown person more deeply through the interactions and discussions I came to have inside and outside the world of student politics. (I won’t divulge into details about the intersections of student politics and race – that deserves as a piece of its own, you can read more about my experiences here). Things really hit home when I became president.
It was a weekend in early June of 2014. My executive team and I had travelled up to the Blue Mountains for a weekend retreat and it was going pretty great. But something happened that weekend that transformed me and the rest of my university experience. For the first time in my life, I found myself triggered – not by hearing a traumatic story or watching a movie, but from looking at photo of myself. That’s right – a photograph of myself.
We were taking pictures for fun as a group – fun, candid silly shots that would be posted and tagged on Facebook later for laughs. Someone called me over and I looked into the camera to see the photo I had just taken. The room didn’t have good lighting and so in contrast to everyone else on the executive, who had lighter skin, I came out looking really dark. And this viscerally upset me and I didn’t know why. Perhaps seeing my skin in a dark shade, in contrast with everybody else finally forced me to confront my brownness at a subconscious level. I really do not know what triggered the reaction. I quietly excused myself and went to the basement where I closed the door and sat on my bed. By this time in my university career, I had already known about colonialism and shadeism – I was not the naïve kid I was in high school, I was starting to take ownership of my identity as a brown person. But this still hurt – badly.
A friend (who was white) came downstairs and sat with me while I cried. I told them that I knew why I was reacting and how it was stupid, but that I couldn’t stop myself. This is the effect centuries of colonialism and told that your skin tone isn’t “right” has on a person subconsciously. In our own communities, darkness is constantly put down – when I visited Sri Lanka, everybody had a bottle of Fair and Lovely (a supposed skin lightening cream) in their bathrooms. So I cried.
And then my friend had an idea – why don’t you lead the meetings in your sarong (I had packed it because it is insanely comfortable)? And that’s what I did. I lead meetings with my sarong and I ended up modeling for the very same camera that triggered me. This time though, the picture was a reflection of someone who loves his skin. It was an affirmation of self-love, rather than an object of scorn. Nothing had changed of course; save for differences in the background, my skin was still the same. What had changed was my ability to love myself and what God has given me.
Over the next two years, my presidency served as a platform and outlet for me to explore and love my brownness – not just in private, but in public. I wore the sarong in public when I could, I made a t-shirt of my sarong – I wanted everybody to know that this was my sarong and that I loved it. Wearing my sarong, I realized later was more than just an expression of self-love. It was an act of resilience. Brown people, Black people, Asian people – we typically don’t hold leadership positions, and when we do we are expected to dress a certain way, act a certain way all the time. For me, wearing a sarong drew attention to my brownness – it pointed out that I was different and highlighted the fact that our student political spaces lack diversity. It is affirmation that we, as brown people are here to stay and these are our spaces as much as they are anybody else’s.
And it wasn’t just me. Throughout the past two years, I have seen people of colour pay homage to their heritage in public spaces at the university. We show up to formals in our traditional dresses and we decolonize the dance floor when we jam out to our music. I have loved seeing this and I have loved seeing first and second years engage in this. It leaves me wishing that I had the confidence to do that when I was in first year. The atmosphere and climate has changed radically since I started university.
Movements like Black Lives Matter and United We Dream do not just reaffirm that black lives matter and point out oppression. They are affirmation to young people who are growing up with all these questions of identity; they are an affirmation of love. When Beyonce drops Lemonade and pays homage to her roots and her identity, when Jose Antonio Vargas talks about his struggle as an undocumented person, when Aziz Ansari writes about how he can’t get a role that doesn’t have an accent – these conversations tell young people of colour, that what they are going through is not unique.
A lot of anti PC writers have called this “PC out of control”; they believe that on today’s college campuses we talk about race and difference too much. That those celebrities who choose to highlight such differences in identity are being divisive. Who knows – I may even end up in a thinkpiece for being triggered by a picture. But if today’s PC culture is fostering a culture where young people of colour can feel proud of who they are, of their skin and their heritage – then I’m here for that. I could’ve used that.
Taking pride in our identity comes at the end of, often what is a long journey of introspection, it may involve phone calls and flights – it may involve debates in university. But for the white people that may be reading this, understand that our celebration of our different identities is a practice of self-love. We are just becoming more confident and finding our true selves – talking about race and who we are need not evoke guilty feelings and discomfort.
Going through this process in university not only made me rediscover my heritage and identity. It made me appreciate my family and my country more but it also made me think about my place in the world. How my community continues to practice forms of oppression in misogyny and anti black racism. How we need to do better for our sisters of colour. I came to appreciate the solidarity that came with being a person of colour, while appreciating that we all have our respective differences in identity that afford us different levels of privilege.
Of course – there is no true measure of brownness. Brownness isn’t measured on how many Bollywood movies you watch or the clothes you wear. This was merely my journey with identity, not everybody’s will look the same – some are just starting theirs, others are further along their respective path. But wherever you are on that journey and whatever that looks like – I’m excited for you.
If there is one thing I can take away from my experience that applies to us all – it is that we are enough. That I am enough – that me in my brown skin, in my sarong, sitting outside on the porch – is enough.
We are enough. I am enough.