Passing

It’s 4 o’ clock in the afternoon. Just in time for my last oat milk cappuccino of the day. As I stroll through the streets of the city that still feels like a newly made friend, I catch myself not just looking for coffee. For me, it’s not only about the cappuccino, – even though I must admit I’m quite picky when it comes to my milk, it always has to be the grey one from Oatly – I long for the sense of safety I find in coffee bars.

The hissing sound of the milk aerating and the unique aroma of the coffee beans ease my ruminating mind. It’s a familiar place where I can unwind and let go of my soft little worries. I just got off the phone with my mother, which left me with more questions than I already had. I asked her why I don’t look more like her and my twin sister. It felt like a stupid question, but I had to say it out loud. It was something that had been lingering inside me long before I was actually conscious of it. 

As I sit down with my grey Oatly cappuccino, which I ordered in my stumbling French, I replay the phone conversation with my mother in my head. Even though she is 250 kilometres away from me, her words hit me hard. She answered that there is no simple explanation that I’m not brown like them. I wear a white skin that covers a story that people do not see at first sight, unlike my mother and twin sister.

Unlike my nephews and nieces, unlike my aunts and uncles, unlike my grandfather and grandmother. Unlike my auntie Jane I’m not hiding from the sun during our summer holidays. The darker she became, the more shame she would feel, the less Dutch she would be. This harsh reality is something that I don’t have to physically face, because I carry white privilege. 

I will never deny the fact that I have privileges because of the way I look. Within the conglomeration of different skin tones within my family, the lighter is still perceived as the better. This manifestation of prejudice is termed colourism, first coined by African American civil right activist Alice Walker as the “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their colour”.[1] The colonial fabrication of colourism is pervasive and still impacts the perception of Brown and Black people today. A lighter complexion will possess an increased likeability and desirability in society. 

That’s why I felt stupid asking my mother about the different colours when we are actually the same. Why would I want to change my pale white skin? It doesn’t change our blood relationship. But most importantly, I don’t have to constantly legitimize my existence, because I pass as the white norm. I don’t have to anxiously worry about the sun making me too dark, because I will only get a light shade of brown. A bit like the colour of my oat milk cappuccino, the part around the heart-shaped latte art. As I am taking my last shot of caffeine, I’m trying to understand why it bothers me so much. 

It’s a question of belonging. There is no clear sign of my Surinamese and Indonesian grandparents in my fair skin. Compared to most of my cousins, who lack nothing in evidence, I am a big question mark. I know that I am a mix of The Netherlands, Suriname and Indonesia, but for the outside world I’m perceived as a white girl. Yet I carry layers within me, a history of oppression. I’m proud to be part of the third-generation migrants, who are breaking the long silence about the Dutch colonialism. 

For a long time, I didn’t feel like I had the right to own my roots, because I thought that skin colour determined to which community someone belongs. I also thought that the lack of the Surinamese and Indonesian culture during my childhood delegitimized my ethnic background. 

Now, I’m trying to let go of these strict beliefs. I’m trying to allow myself to discover how I would tie my mixed heritage together. The threads are still tangled, but one by one I pull them apart and learn more about what it means to carry different cultural worlds inside my body. As I let the now-cold Oatly cappuccino slide down my throat, I realise more and more that the DNA in my blood vessels reaches far beyond this coffee bar. 

Written by Sacha Celine Verheij for Skin Mutts


[1] Egbeyemi, A. (2019). Shedding Light on Colorism: How the Colonial Fabrication of Colorism Impacts the Lives of African American Women. Journal of Integrative Research & Reflection2(2), 14-25.

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