Was that a racist remark or are you just a sensitive brown girl?

You have to accept it. You are a brown girl living in a white society. Nine times out of ten you’re the only person of color in a restaurant, a meeting room, the pharmacy … et cetera, et cetera.

The fact is that you’re not conscious about your color because you’re not carrying a mirror in front of you. You don’t see your skin color. You also don’t see the color of the people around you—you don’t wake up in the morning and cry out, “Oh my god, the man sleeping next to me is white.” Your children are half-Indian and half-Danish so there is plenty of variety in the house to make color irrelevant.

But you are a brown person living in a white society. And you may not see your skin color but now after 14 years of living in this mostly white Danish society you are finally forced to admit that there are others who see your skin color.

You know it sounds naïve but for the longest time you refused to believe that you could be discriminated against. Not you. Look at you. You’re well educated, you’re well spoken, you’re an author, you’re good at your job—not you. It happens to others. The sensitive ones. The ones who see racism everywhere. Those ones.

And then one day someone tells you to your face just how brown you are. It’s a punch in the gut. For a moment, you can’t understand what is happening. You can’t quite string the words in order to say something coherent and smart. The articulate writer has no sentences.

The incident takes place at work when a senior executive tells you that he doesn’t want you on his team, “It’s not because of who you are, it’s because of you’re not. You didn’t grow up like us, you don’t think like us, you’re not like us and you’re going to cause conflict in my team.” You can’t believe it. You keep thinking, not in the workplace. No one says this openly in a workplace. There are laws. There are rules.

But Denmark is not the United States. People can say stuff like this in the workplace and nothing happens. No one is really surprised. No one is upset. People shrug and say, “That guy is an idiot.” Racist is not really a bad word here. And you’re left standing there, your belly hollowed out, thinking, “Oh my god, this is a horrible, horrible feeling.”

Until it happens to you—you don’t realize how devastating a racist remark can be, how long it stays with you, how it never ever goes away. You don’t realize how it can debilitate you and make you feel small. It makes you wary. It takes away your sense of belonging. You thought you were part of this place but they didn’t think so and it doesn’t matter that just one idiot said what he did; it becomes something you believe because you’ve always suspected that you don’t belong. You’ve always known you’re an outsider.

A few years go by and you start to believe that you’re back in the circle. You’re one of them. But the doubt never really goes away. And then one day, when you least expect it, someone says, “With your skin color, maybe you should be cleaning bathrooms” and your body remembers that moment when all the air whooshed out of you as those words punched into your body. Your heart starts to beat fast and instead of saying, “What the fuck?” you think, “Was that a racist remark or am I just being too sensitive?”

You tell a friend and he says, “Oh you know that person, they just mouth off.” And that’s when you realize that you’re expected to make excuses for the racist and forget the racist remark. But this time you have experience. You know that there is no fairness and no justice and nothing is going to happen to this person who made this offensive remark at the workplace. You know this so you think about what to do because you know this time you have to do something. You call a few people and get advice. And they agree with you that if you complain at your workplace, you will be called the sensitive brown girl.

Finally, you confront the person who made the racist remark and the person shrugs and says they can’t remember what they said. The person remembers. You know. They know that you know. Finally, they apologize and then casually say, “But you make fun of your brown skin so I don’t know what’s wrong and what’s not.” They make it your fault. They make you the sensitive brown girl. And once again, you know you’re standing outside—you know you’re a brown girl living in a white society and that this is the way it is.

Amulya Malladi