Tan Lines

“I wish I had your color.” “Your skin is so nice.” “I envy your natural glow.” And other things my white friends say during summer.

By Durga Chew-Bose
Illustration by Chris Kindred

Come summer, my reluctance kicks in. It’s as if the sheer persistence of a July day — the sun’s glare, its flecked appraisal of pavement and trees, those bonus evening hours — solicits from me an essential need to withdraw. Thankfully, writing is an indoor sport. Sometimes I go stretches of days without much sun, and even in the swell of midsummer I maintain what could be characterized as my winter pallor. But is pallor a true assessment? Probably not. How might I describe my brownness, my fair brownness that following winter’s gloom appears more fair? What’s the opposite of glowing? Dull? Drab? Run-down? Blah?

These questions are not as good-humored as they seem but fixed instead to my tendency for self-scrutiny, activated long ago when I came to understand my sense of belonging — my who-ness — as two-pronged. The beautiful dilemma of being first-generation and all that it means: a reflection of theirs and mine, of source and story. A running start toward blending in among mostly white childhood friends who were rarely curious about my olive-brown skin, the dark shine of my hair, my chestnut eyes. We were kids, after all. We were each other’s chorus, encountering parents — and the elsewhere that entailed for me—only in consonant environments: a birthday party, ballet recitals, rides to the movies in my parents’ burgundy Toyota Previa.

In terms of family, this elsewhere — my parents’ who-ness — was both abundant yet imperceptible. It was my home, after all. Like the divan and mismatched bolsters on which I would toss my jacket after school, for which my mother would scold me: Hang it up! The bitter taste of cardamom, too, those seemingly inescapable pods that I detested yet never managed to avoid, biting into them by accident at dinner. My friends didn’t know what a divan was or why we didn’t call it a couch. And cardamom, well, cardamom was a flavor they’d never encountered.

These accumulations from life growing up in our house, passed down not merely through memory’s piping but in actions, are re-experienced most in the summer. Despite New York City’s stifling weather, how the air warps itself into a muggy mass, I drink hot tea and eat hot soup. It cools me down. Because in that sly way science naturally alloys with what we inherit, I’ve been told since childhood that hot liquids provide remedial chill. This slight reprieve on especially sticky days, I like to imagine, is a discreet reminder that my parents are not always but sometimes right. That the knowledge they’ve imparted to my brother and me is not purely an expression of love but firm testimony, too — of their own provenance and how what keeps us close does not always reveal itself in facsimile, but over time, in what kindly amounts in kernels. An everyday tip, a turn of phrase and its unusual construction, reminders to not sit on my bed with “outside clothes,” for instance, or how in the summer my body yields to the season’s balm with what I’ve come to regard as heritable agency.

Those beads of sweat that collect on my nose are entirely my Mama’s. The annual, deep-healing effects of humidity on my dry skin; that’s hers as well. If friends come over to my apartment and I offer them “some tea,” those two words conjure my father’s anticipant inflection on scorching weekend afternoons where he sits on our porch having proudly just fixed something without needing to replace it, like the broken nozzle of our gardening hose or the loose legs of a chair.

In my case, inheritance has never simply been what trickles down through traditions but the work required to disallow how quickly those traditions fade. To recover the various genetic dispatches like those from my grandfather Felix, who I met once, long ago, in Kolkata, in a kitchen I think, of which I remember little except for the color green. A tablecloth, maybe. A moss stain on concrete wall. Perhaps the whole memory is enameled green because for no discernible reason some colors naturally coat nostalgia with geography. India, for me, has always been protected in a layer of green.

There is also my paternal grandfather, who I never met, and his wife, my grandmother Thama, who I did. And there is also my other grandmother, who died when my mother was a teenager. Her skin was far darker than mine, a trait I noted as I studied one photo album in particular, confusing the musty scent of protective parchment sheets with what I imagined she herself might have smelled like. I remember foolishly wondering as a child if my much lighter skin was an outcome of brown girls growing up in cold climates. A discordance that epitomized how split I felt between life at home and life outside, overcome and enamored by my white friends and every so often experiencing waves of assimilation met by lulls of wanting nothing more than to seek lineage, move backward, claim the brownness of my skin as I only knew how, through family.

I became more aware of my skin, as most of us do with our bodies, in adolescence, and especially when summer arrived. Halter tops. Collar bones. Shoulder blades. Crop tops. Denim skirts and how their frayed hems trimmed the flop of my thighs. Shorts. A growth spurt marked by how my knees now knocked my bike’s handlebars as I pedaled to the park. Bathing suits. Boys. The convention of boys in the summer; how, suddenly, they memorialized the season. Still, I became heedful of the sun’s currency on my body. The sun’s signature on my skin and how the contrast of tan lines carried merit. That I was expected to feel virtuous was strange to me. I tanned fast. Brown to dark umber in a matter of hours. But what struck me was this: It was as if my white friends were wearing their tanned skin — bathing in it — as opposed to living in it.

The level of excitement among my New York friends has now hit fever-pitch and results in one thing: plans. So many plans. An incessancy of plans. An ambush of them, really. Unspent from winter’s reserve, these nascent leisure hours develop into a vague inertia where we sip slushy tequila or inestimable glasses of rosé, or where I park myself on a roof in Brooklyn and characterize the faraway hedge of buildings as “a view,” and where I squint at my phone or the same paragraph in my book and feel indebted to the car passing below blasting that song.

And let’s not forget the beach. Here, among families and unaccustomed sounds like splashing water and seagulls squawking, we zone out, obscure the sun with shades and funny hats, nap in quick spells, signal over friends and scoot over to make room on our towels and blankets. Summer is many things, sure, but it is certainly the season for scooting over. Plans and scooting over.

As new-to-New York adults, living here without history but with the audacity to claim space, these mini migrations from rooftops to small stretches of sand, to the fire escape at sunset where we climb out and gawk and attempt the impossible — to acquire the sky’s display in a few inches of touch screen — somehow constitute spending time.

Now picture what happens when my skin tans. When it doesn’t. When over the years my white friends have lathered themselves with Hawaiian Tropic and announced with a sense of crusading enterprise their plans to “sit out and bake.” When they’ve spent long weekends at a wedding in Palm Springs or a house in Fire Island, coming back to the city with burns they bemoan only too quickly and quite airily re-evaluate: Well, at least now I have my base layer.

Tracing back to high school and then college, when my white friends would return from spring break, from all-inclusive resort vacations or a week at their cottage. Without fail, the most common occurrence — one that has persisted through adulthood — is this: My friend will place her arm next to mine, grow visibly thrilled, and exclaim that her skin is now darker than mine.

The things I’ve heard: I’m almost as brown as you. I’m darker than you now. I’m working real hard on this tan. We match. I’m lucky I tan easily. You look like you tan easily. You don’t even have to work for your tan!

I’ll stop after these: I’m basically black. I wish I had your color. Your skin is so nice. I envy your natural glow. We could be related! I’m just trying to get as dark as possible this summer.

Since the average white person’s spectrum of darkness is limited, the language of tanning is appropriative at best. An incapacity of words that disguises witlessness as admiration and co-option as obtusely worded praise. Compliments, in some cases, can so quickly feel like audits.

Growing up brown in mostly white circles means learning from a very young age that language is inured to prejudicial glitches. Time and again, I have concealed my amazement because the very semantics of ignorance are oddly extensive and impossible to foresee. Close friends of mine goof. There is after all, no script. As Wesley Morris recently wrote, “For people of color, some aspect of friendship with white people involves an awareness that you could be dropped through a trapdoor of racism at any moment.” Zero notice met with my own, long-harvested ability to recoup, ignore, smile, move on.

Beauty ideals, too, together with health, or at least the jargon of purported health, perpetuate the valuation of skin color — only as long as they pertain to or flatter white norms. Looking “rested,” for instance, “skinnier” even, or enjoying a “healthy” glow.

What leaves me uneasy is the covetous near-pricing of quick-tanning skin, so long as the experience is short-lived or euphemistic — a certificate of travel, a token of escape, vacation, R&R, time off. Proof of having been away. Like the watch you forgot to leave by your hotel bedside, that you wore to the beach as you dozed off at noon and then again at 3 — even that goofy tan becomes, for what it’s worth, a holiday trophy. A mark, in some cases, of status.

As a kid, I accepted the compliments my skin would receive from, for instance, the mother offering me orange wedges after a soccer practice or as I reapplied sunscreen at the local pool. I was, as most children are, innocent to the syntax of difference. To how some adulation obscures the act of othering because the luxury of privilege is so vast that praise conceals bias.

I have two bathing suits. Well, two that I wear. A one-piece, navy. A two-piece, black. A couple of summers ago I was gchatting with a friend as we both shopped online for new suits. Bathers, I call them. It must have been late winter or spring because, from what I remember, we were typing in errant ALL CAPS, singular to anticipating a summer that threatens to never come. Gonna FINALLY buy a bike; can’t WAIT to not wear socks; I wish we knew someone with a POOL. At one point she linked me to an all-white one-piece bather that scooped low in the back. I could NEVER wear this, she typed. But it’ll look SO good on you, especially when you’re tanned.

I’ve come to interpret comments like my friend’s consideration of my skin, how it darkens in these summer months (always first inside my elbows, as a boyfriend once pointed out to me), as plain enough. Depending on my mood, I regard or disregard them because I am aware, with both pain and considerable grit, that the world is narrowly accepting, rarely seeking significance in my many enthusiasms and instead pancaking them into platitudes. She is this. Looks great in that.

That my skin “goes well” with paler shades has never discouraged me from wearing black, which I ordinarily do. That the contrast of my skin against pastels elicits attention has perhaps made me resist those shades entirely. My brown skin, it turns out, means growing accustomed to uninvited sartorial shoulds: You should wear yellow. More red, coral. Mauve.

In the summer, my skin might bronze or redden and even freckle. It silhouettes my scars and turns sweat at sunset into liquid gold. But it might also, as if in defiance, preserve its paleness. It’s okay, I tell myself, because it’s only after a day outside, when my eyes readjust to an interior space, that I’ll catch glimpses of not just myself, but my hands, my ring tan, and the length of my fingers: my Mama’s. Or how my cheeks, now ruddy pink, have rounded my long face, and briefly, there he is in my reflection. My father’s smile. His father’s jawline. My brother’s, too. It’s in these moments that my skin is nobody else’s and belongs to nobody’s compliments. It just glows, completely on its own.

Read Calvin Baker’s pocket guide to race in America: