Colourism and Internalised-Racism:
My Experience as a Second-Gen British Sri Lankan
Article by Nadika Gunatunga
Illustration by Sarah Fay
If you met me now, you would never know I spent more than half my life struggling with the way I feel about my skin colour and identity. It took me years of therapy and practising self love to get to this point. To South Asians, I would be considered “dark” and in my community, dark is undesirable.
My parents immigrated from Sri Lanka to the UK in the 70s seeking a better education and life. They met in Glasgow and moved to a small town in the suburbs of greater London to raise our family. In the 80s, they were one of a few families of colour living in the area.
I first experienced racism at the age of 5 when I started primary school. At the time, my older sister and I were one of about 5 kids of colour. As a child, I was introverted and quiet which made making friends difficult. Adding dark skin to the equation made school all the more difficult. No one wanted me on their team in PE and no one wanted to sit next to me in class. Kids would also call me names, but what hurt the most was being ignored altogether. I managed to make one friend but when she moved away with her family at the end of year 2, I found myself alone every lunchtime in the playground. I dreaded going to school. My parents were worried about it but in typical Sri-Lankan fashion they said, “You don’t need friends, concentrate on your studies”. They meant well but they didn’t know what else to do.
My experiences with Colourism however, started a lot earlier. Colourism is a form of discrimination based on skin-tone. Light skin in the South Asian community is referred to as “fair” and is generally preferred to dark skin. The preference for fair skin was exacerbated following the colonisation of South Asian countries by the British empire. The British ruled Sri Lanka from 1796 to 1948, and during these 152 years, fair skinned Sri Lankan’s were given preferential treatment to darker skinned Sri Lankans. Long after the British left, the preference for fairer skin remained.
Today, the Asian market is flooded with skin lightening products which are extremely damaging to skin. Skin lightening products often contain chemicals such as mercury and hydroquinone. Inorganic mercury presented in skin lightening creams can damage your kidneys, affect reproduction and after prolonged use can lead to neuropsychiatric disorders. Hydroquinone removes the top layer of skin, increasing the risk of skin cancer and can cause fatal liver and kidney damage. Luckily, I never had access to these products, or was ever encouraged to use them unlike many other darker skinned individuals out there.
As a child my family would laugh and call me Kalu Pooka which means ‘Black/Dark Arse’ in Sinhala. Back then, it was pretty normal for Sri Lankan people to make fun of people based on their appearance. If you were shorter than average, balding, overweight or dark skinned, there was always a cousin, Aunty or Uncle who would make fun of you for it. I was told that I shouldn’t stay out in the sun too long and that wearing SPF 50 will stop me from tanning. Of course, which ever family member would say horrible remarks “didn’t mean” for it to hurt the individual’s feelings. You were just supposed to take it on the chin and laugh along with them or perhaps make fun of their appearance too. But these jokes did have meaning and have a lasting impact. They were laughing at me for being darker as to them it was an unfortunate thing.
Being laughed at by my family and being racially bullied at school cemented my hate for my skin colour. I would pray every night to wake up and be white. Eventually my primary school found out about the racial bullying. The racist kids were spoken to, and the school did a special assembly to talk about racism. I started to make friends and things got better. However, my issues with my skin colour remained. I suffered from anxiety and depression from the age of 11 but most of the time I hid it well. Thanks to the free therapy service my university offered, I finally sought therapy in my final year of university at the age of 21. It was the best thing I’ve ever done, and I would highly recommend it to anyone. Having suffered from low self-esteem and mental health issues for many years, it was the start of a long journey of healing.
As I started working, I was fortunate enough to be able to pay to see another therapist to continue with my healing. The NHS does offer free therapy but waiting lists are often very long and patients rarely get long-term treatment. With help from my therapist, I worked through my self-image problems. It was hard work but totally worth it. She asked me to write a list about all the things I liked about myself physically and then I had to read them out to her. Doing this exercise made me see myself differently. It was hard for me to say something nice about my appearance having been ridiculed for it when I was younger. But I started to see the beauty in my dark Asian features. I also started to appreciate and be grateful for the body and the skin that I have.
I knew I had finally started to accept myself when I looked at pictures of myself as a child and realised that the child I always thought was ugly, was cute. It was like looking at myself through a different set of eyes. It almost brought me to tears to think that I thought so negatively about myself before.
Your skin is your largest organ and is extraordinary. The average person has about 300 million skin cells which renew every 28 days. It has about 5 different receptors that respond to pain and touch which protect you from harm. It is one of your first barriers against disease and helps regulate your temperature. How lucky are you to have your beautiful skin? It gives you so much and wraps all the way around you like an eternal hug.
If you struggle with your skin colour, I understand. Try writing down all the things you love about your skin, if you only manage one thing today, that’s ok. Try adding something new to your list tomorrow. Keep looking at yourself in the mirror, keep looking at the beautiful skin that you have and tell your skin you love it and you’re thankful for it. Maybe give your skin a treat with some moisturiser or a face mask? In time, you will love your skin as much as it loves you.
Nadika Gunatunga (she/her) works in the development of Cell and Gene Therapies treating diseases like Cancer. She loves to sing, bake and nerd out on Harry Potter and Disney.
Nadika’s Instagram is @nadika_g