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Writers Against Racism: Mitali Perkins

Mitali Perkins (www.mitaliperkins.com) was born in Kolkata, India and immigrated at age seven to the States with her family. Mitali Perkins 2009 Photo Writers Against Racism: Mitali Perkins

She studied political science at Stanford University and public policy at U.C. Berkeley, surviving academia thanks to a steady diet of children’s and YA books from public libraries.  

 

It’s my first week in this new suburban born-in-the-USA middle school and I’m in P.E. class, waiting to be picked for a team. I’ve been feeling invisible as the only brown-skinned seventh-grader ever since we moved here from Flushing, Queens. Until now.

"Oh, fine, then. I’ll take the black ugly thing," says one of the captains.

Every head swivels. Every eye focuses on me. I’m stunned for a moment. Immobilized. Then, fighting back tears (stupid tears), I shuffle over to my team and we start playing. 

monsoonsummer sm Writers Against Racism: Mitali Perkins

At home, I don’t tell my immigrant parents what happened. In their old world, the darkness of a girl’s skin affects her chances of finding a good husband. I’m constantly fending off my mother’s attempts to lighten my cheeks with "Fair and Lovely" cream. How can I admit that my peers in this new world have also linked the words "black" and "ugly" when describing me?

A combination of those words could echo inside my head for years to come, especially in an all-white context. But they don’t, because they’re silenced by stories. I read voraciously, endlessly, devouring stories of people like me — rejected outsiders, orphans without the help of elders, misfits, eccentrics, wistful wannabes — all heroes who survived and triumphed on their journeys.

Maybe I will, too. In any case, I prefer their company.

Some of the stories prove that the new world and the whole world are both wrong when it comes to associating dark skin with the word "ugly." I toss the Fair and Lovely cream in the trash and hold my head high at school.

Now I write from that outsider’s place, knowing that stories can silence lies in the heads of young people and replace them with joy, love, and truth.

~~~~~~~~~~~~
Mitali’s award-winning books for young readers include Monsoon Summer, The Sunita Experiment, Rickshaw Girl, Secret Keeper, and the First Daughter books. She also posts at Mitali’s Fire Escape, a popular blog where she invites discussion about books and life between cultures, twitters aboout children’s books, and speaks frequently at schools, conferences, and libraries. Mitali lives in Newtonabout, Massachusetts with her husband, teenagers, Labrador retrievers, and ferret.

Comments

  1. George Edward Stanley says:

    “The black ugly thing…” and it’s still there, after all of these years. In these posts we’ve talked before about how verbal assaults can be more harmful than physical assaults. These things just don’t go away. No matter how much we accomplish in our lives, we don’t forget; and that’s why I say, and I do not care how irrational this sounds to people, verbal assaults are crimes, and the people who commit them should be punished. I still remember verbal assaults from over fifty years ago. My dear wife, whom everyone adores, has told me some of her “Detroit” stories about how excited she always was on the first day of school (and we’re talking fourth, fifth, sixth grade) but how she would often be walking down a hallway, all ready to have a good year, and would pass a boy who would say “oink, oink” to her. It’s hard to keep up your spirits after incidents such as that, but she did, even though similar things would happen again and again. I’m especially glad to read your story because I wish more Indians would celebrate all aspects of that nation’s myriad of cultures. A couple of years ago, when our Fulbright FLTA came from India to teach Hindi at our university, I was disappointed that Lawton’s Indian community didn’t support it as much as I thought they would. They were very supportive of the young man who came, taking him under their wings, but when I talked about their college-age (or concurrent-high-school age) children taking Hindi courses (even though some other language might be their heritage language) they all told me, “We all speak English.” Honestly, I do remember the time right before independence when there were proposals to get rid of English altogether. Our university does celebrate “India night” – a celebration of culture (especially music) and food – but language never seems to be a part of it. Of course, that’s my area, and for me India has always been such a linguistic celebration. If we can reach America’s young people, especially white young people, before their parents have poisoned their minds with such notions that only white skin is clean and all dark skin is dirty, maybe we’ll have a chance.

  2. Rukhsana Khan says:

    Hi Mitali, what a horrible experience about the black and ugly thing.

    An aunty who came over to visit took one look at my older sister (who is darker than I am) and said it would be hard to find a husband for her. I think it’s so ridiculous!

    It’s one of the reasons I married outside my culture and all my children married outside our culture too.

    From books I learned not to look at superficial things like skin colour, but at the decency of the person.

  3. The Brain Lair says:

    George – you are right – we remember the verbal – many, many, many years later and we are always trying to live it down. No matter how far we’ve come, no matter what else we do. It sticks there. It also teaches those of us in charge how powerful our words are and we should use them to uplift and change.

  4. Edi Campbell says:

    You say you write from an outsiders place with stories that give children love, joy and truth. I’ve just JUST!! finished “Secret Keeper” (I’ll have a review up tomorrow) and I was amazed at how skillfully, how pridefully you presented Indian culture in the book. The love and joy was certainly there!

    Of course as an African American, I can relate to the taunting you received as being called “black ugly thing” but how often to Indian women and African American and Latino women come together to overcome our struggles and celebrate our beauty? I know that you reach out, Mitali and I applaud you for it!

  5. Andromeda Jazmon says:

    Mitali I really love your books and I deeply respect the work you are doing. Thank You!

  6. tanita says:

    I was absolutely stricken to read this, because every time I see Mitali, I think how cute she is…

    We can be vicious to each other, across racial lines, but there’s the insidious perforation of what we do to ourselves that is worse. Cream bleach. That was mostly before my “time,” as it were, but I both remember girls laying out with their Caucasian friends, and girls desperately and silently applying bleach, trying to lighten their skin.

    Thank you, Mitali, for continuing to write from the outsider’s perspective, and uncovering the love and joy for all of us.

  7. Doret says:

    I didn’t realize light is right is a problem across the globe. When I began to read books by Indian authors including Mitali, I began to understand that kids everywhere will be bullied because of their natural hue. That’s why it should be required for students to read more diverse stories. So students can understand the person next to them a little better, or someone they have yet to met. Requiring students to read outside of themselves won’t stop bully (some kids are just plain mean) but I believe it will create more students who are ready to stand up for wants right. As well as give those who are being bullied something to hold on to.

    Mitali – For some you are an outsider but for many you couldn’t be any more in the loop if you tried. Thank you so much for everything you do

  8. r38e3 says:

    And how grateful we all are that you found this comfort through literature and became a writer yourself. This alone is testament to how important these books are, and your work through your blog clearly passes this on to future generations. Thanks, Mitali, for all that you do!