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The Brown Crayon by Priti U

I always hated the brown crayon.

From the moment I sat down to draw, I was paralyzed by this color staring back at me from its bright Crayola packaging.

From ages 3 to 6, I would imagine a scene in my head: maybe it was a picture of my house on a sunny day, maybe it was a double- decker bus, or perhaps a magical creature.

I would eagerly take out all of my colors — blue, green, orange, yellow, and more. My little hands couldn’t move fast enough across the page. Yellow lit up the sun; blue outlined the waves in the sea; green made the grass come to life.

But brown? What purpose did brown serve?

If I really strained my brain, I could think of tiny specks that needed that color. I would scribble in shoes, maybe a moth, a pile of mud, or a wiggling worm.


It never occurred to me to use it for skin color. To me, the only color for skin was the white crayon. Like the brown crayon, it didn’t come out of the package much—but I knew exactly what it was for.

Growing up in England, I never wanted to be Indian. I didn’t like my name and I would never divulge my parents’ names to anyone who asked. I didn’t want to eat Indian food made by my mother’s loving hands. I wanted to go next door and eat fish and chips with Brian’s family. We would often get called racist names at school. Every day, I would rush home to avoid the teens who hung around corner stores or near the park.

I didn’t want to be different — I just wanted to be a normal British kid.

Then we moved to America.

I started 10th grade on a boiling hot August day in Houston, full of nervousness.

I scoured the bleak high school cafeteria and didn’t know where to sit. I felt an intense sense of panic shoot across my body.

From the corner of my eye, I saw a group of Indian girls at a table. They kindly invited me to sit with them.

The conversation went something like this:

Where are you from? She asked

Me: I just moved here from England.

No where are you really from? She enquired

Me: What do you mean?

Indian girl: Where in India are you from? She asked

Me: Oh, my parents grew up in Mumbai. I said

Then she followed up with: Well, what language do you speak?

My parents speak Konkani, I replied

Indian girl: Speak it. She commanded

Me: What? Speak it? No. I said, shocked.

Then she said words that I will never forget: “You are just another one of those Indians who is not proud to be Indian.”

I was aghast. I had spent all my life wishing I wasn’t Indian and here was a group of girls telling me I wasn’t Indian enough.

I soon discovered that some young Indian people in the United States identify overwhelmingly with their Indian-ness. They watch Bollywood movies and some even join Indian clubs in high school or fraternities in college.

That day, I came home from school in tears. I told my Mum what had happened and she looked me squarely in the eyes and said: “Indian is not what you are trying to be. It’s what you are.”

It wasn’t until I lived in India that I discovered how right my Mum was.

In 2004, aged 23, I moved to Mumbai. I lived with my aunts and grandma and began working for a city arts and entertainment magazine.

I immediately noticed something different about the billboards and magazines in India. I would sit from a vantage point in one of those famous black and yellow Mumbai taxis.

Everywhere I looked, I would see brown faces looking back at me.

For the first time in my life, I saw people with my skin color reflected in every TV show and in every department store. I didn’t have to teach anyone how to pronounce my name. I didn’t have to ask for days off when Diwali or Ganesh festivals rolled around.

I didn’t have to feel embarrassed.

I had gone from being a minority in America and England to suddenly being in the majority.

As my two years in India unfolded, I had a better grasp of my family history. I understood my parents more having lived in the city in which they grew up. I got to spend countless hours with my grandmother, aunts, cousins, and those living in the neighboring apartments. I understood what it truly meant to be part of a community.

Nearly 20 years later, at 41, those experiences in India continue to give me a sense of

confidence in my identity that I never thought possible.

Now, when I sit with my young niece and nephew, I say: “why don’t you try the brown crayon?

Your drawing will look just like you.”

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