Writer Maya Weaver and her mother.

What Being Mixed Race Has Taught Me About Colorism

Writer Maya Weaver's light-colored skin allowed her a unique perspective on race and racism within her Indian community

Writer Maya Weaver and her mother.

Maya Weaver

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Words by Maya Weaver

Mixed Asian Media: JoySauce is proud to present something very special—a partnership with the ultra talented team over at Mixed Asian Media. In JoySauce’s mission to cover stories from the Asian American and Pacific Islander diaspora, we’ve always considered it incredibly important to include mixed AA+PI perspectives. Since their team already has that piece on lock, we’re delighted they were willing to join forces to help us share even more fresh, funny, interesting, irreverent stories each week. Take it away, MAM!


I spent my summers in high school as a barista and ice cream scooper, spending long shifts accumulating espresso powder and chocolate stains on my apron. I most enjoyed the quiet early morning hours of the opening shift, greeting regulars with their favorite hot mochas and iced lattes, and although I savored the quick moments of cheerful companionship with my favorite customers, life in food service came with its fair share of challenges. One morning, a woman looked at me quizzically as I counted her change and asked, “Are you Mexican?” Stopping myself before I let out an audible sigh of exasperation, I explained, “No, I’m half Indian and half white, but it’s hard for people to tell.” With a chuckle she replied, “Oh these interracial people are the future. Everyone will look like you, and racism won’t exist anymore.” It was odd, for many reasons, to conjecture about a utopian post-racial future to a barista on an unexceptional weekday morning. However, I was already quite familiar with these types of questions and remarks.

Over years of these conversations, I’ve encountered varying responses to my being mixed race, ranging from “Oh cool!” to “You don’t look Indian though.”

As a racially ambiguous woman, the subject of race is an inevitable point of conversation for me. I gladly embrace both sides of my cultural heritage, but as soon as I meet new people, there arises a need to explain myself or justify the racial labels and identities I ascribe to myself. Over years of these conversations, I’ve encountered varying responses to my being mixed race, ranging from “Oh cool!” to “You don’t look Indian though.” Many times, a well-meaning (usually white) person like the woman in the coffee shop will recite the “interracial people are the future” spiel. I bristle at these comments because though kindly intentioned, they show an incredible naïveté and ignorance of the nuances and multifaceted nature of racism.

In my senior year of high school, I wrote a research paper on race relations in Brazil. Like in the United States, a dark history of violent colonialism and mass enslavement pervades Brazilian history, but widespread intermixing of Portuguese colonists, indigenous Brazilians, and enslaved Africans led to the formation of a largely mixed race modern society where perceptions of race are far more subjective and fluid than the United States. Brazil has long been heralded as a “post-racial society,” but hours spent poring over censuses and interviews demonstrated to me that preferential treatment of fairer Brazilians and maltreatment of darker-skinned Brazilians remains alive and well in the larger culture. The most striking revelation for me in the months-long process of composing my research paper was how easily I could apply my observations on race in Brazil to my own Indian family.

Relentless messaging that she was ugly because of her skin color caused damage that lasted long beyond her childhood.

India gained legal emancipation from British colonialism in the 1940s, but the cultural legacy and former power of the English colonizers ensures that proximity to whiteness is synonymous with wealth, education, and prestige in India. Namely, Indian standards of beauty revolve around fairness of skin. On a daily basis, I observe how colorist attitudes inform race-based privileges within my family. My mother grew up as the darkest member of her family and consequently suffered the cruelty of being constantly compared to her fairer-skinned sister. Relentless messaging that she was ugly because of her skin color caused damage that lasted long beyond her childhood. My siblings and I spend hours in the sun during the summer and revel in the ways it makes us look more Indian but share a shameful acknowledgement that we sometimes feel more beautiful in the winter when we are fairer.

Writer Maya Weaver’s family.

Maya Weaver

I observed this reality at a recent celebration of the 50th wedding anniversary of my mother’s parents. I’ve had my share of biracial angst, spending years bemoaning my racial ambiguity and many a tearful hour wishing I could be recognized as South Asian by a stranger on the street or feel fully at place at Indian cultural events. At the party, I felt like an imposter in my ill-fitting lehenga, surrounded by sari-clad aunties making brash comments about my appearance in a language I can hardly understand. I complained on the car ride home until my little sister, who looks more Indian than the rest of my siblings and is much darker than I am, retorted, “At least you don’t have to worry about aunties saying you’re ugly because you’re dark.” No less than a few hours later, my fully Indian 12-year-old cousin brazenly reinforced her comment at the dinner table, stubbornly arguing that half-white Indians were objectively “more attractive and genetically superior because they are lighter skinned.” Sitting down later that night to watch a Bollywood movie, I could hardly blame him for his troubling display of internalized colorism, as I watched him, mouth agape, admire the fair skinned, handsome protagonist raining punches down upon the darker villain in a climactic scene.

White supremacy reveals itself in far more treacherous ways than beauty standards, informing who gets jobs and marriage prospects and who remains trapped in lower classes and cycles of poverty.

For India and Brazil alike, an escape from colonialism or slavery does not mean an eradication of the standards of beauty and power those systems etched into the fabric of the country. While more visible and violent forms of white supremacy are less common today than they were in the past, racism and colorism persist through offhanded comments at family reunions and in the boxes of skin lightening cream hiding in the bathroom cabinet. White supremacy reveals itself in far more treacherous ways than beauty standards, informing who gets jobs and marriage prospects and who remains trapped in lower classes and cycles of poverty. People are right to conjecture that mixed-race people have a special pulse on what emerging societies will look like as interracial relationships become more commonplace. However, my biracial identity has provided me with insight into the reality that racism doesn't simply disappear with the growth of a larger mixed-race population—instead it persists in the form of more complicated iterations, colorism being one of the most prominent.

Is there an easy way to avoid this grisly fate? Obviously not. Racism may be stupid and ugly, but it is not simple. However, half-white people of color have a special responsibility in recognizing the ways in which we can both be victimized and benefit from the structures upheld by racism and colorism. Whether we are dismissed or exoticized, our role in straddling multiple cultures and recognizing the ways we benefit from proximity to whiteness should compel us to bear witness to the nuances of white supremacy and the complex, sometimes invisible systems of power it has etched across the world. This could begin with offering half-white actors stories and roles that capture their experience as a mixed-race person instead of using them to replace darker skinned, monoracial actors who don’t as easily conform to Hollywood standards of beauty. It begins with more comprehensive explorations of racism in the cultures we come from and how it differently informs privilege and status in those places. None of these paths are easy, but truly recognizing the complexity of racism is what opens the path to a more equitable and brighter future.

Published on September 27, 2022

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Words by Maya Weaver

Maya Weaver (she/her) is a student at the University of Delaware, studying anthropology, Spanish, and genetics. A Pittsburgh native, she enjoys learning to cook Indian food, taking excessively long walks around the city, and reading or writing poetry. You can find her on Instagram @mayamweaver.