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People

American Sunscreen

AlisaBen
AlisaBen

Strategy & Analytics

A candid look at my childhood in Oklahoma.

My mom likes to tell the story; three sons and one (firstborn, coolest child) daughter later, about praying for me for five long and treacherous years. My mom is religious, married at 17, from Oklahoma, and in her defense, she did graduate from high school before marriage.

Growing up Native American in a predominantly Caucasian (73% population) flyover state was not without its predisposition challenges. I'm also a woman and gay, but this month is about being indigenous, so come back and read more about that in March and June, respectively.I do (barely) have a dad, and he's half Native American. We won't talk about him. Mom likes to tell the story about the first thing she noticed when I was born was my nose. Someone in my family around that Pilgrim-Thanksgiving table usually chimes in,

"that Indian nose."

Over time, I realized this meant the bridge of my nose was flatter and extended lower and is referred to as an aquiline nose, or,

"a hook nose like your dad."

If you knew my dad and felt comfortable talking about my nose.

I hated summer. My white family would be at the man-made beach early in the morning and not leave until dusk. Forget about SPF– this was the 80s/90s, and everyone was all about the baby oil, suntan lotion, and white people trying to be darker. I didn't show signs of sunburn like my lobster-baked cousins– I got darker, and my skin eventually peeled. However, when I got older and traveled outside of Oklahoma to culture myself (not to say Oklahoma doesn't have a unique culture of its own) I realized places like Rio have very different sunburns. In fact, I can get red and return with sunspot souvenirs.

My uncles would call me,

"Chocolate Sister."

My cousins learned to use the same nickname for me, and I hated it. It separated me from them, which in hindsight is a very good thing, but it wasn't inclusive, and I learned to believe that my skin color was less than theirs. I became embarrassed and would shy away from summers opting for winter and ultimately pretending I loved winter, which is a lie. My identity, from childhood, started insecurely and creating things I wanted to be true that simply were not (for instance, that I love winter) to make up for the fact that I was different. I didn't want to be different or have my skin color to be talked about or teased. I wonder if my mom felt that too, and if it hurt her as much as me since she spent so much time rubbing my chalky black elbows and knees raw with lemons during my nightly bath. As she squeezed the lemon around my hinge joints, she would tell me how beautiful my skin color was and how everybody (including models) spent so much money trying to get their skin color like mine.

As I got older, I could apply my own sunscreen. I left Oklahoma and traveled to places like India where being Indian means something culturally rich. Lemons were used for cooking and as a flavorful garnish for alcohol and water. Grew to appreciate my nose, skin, and other parts of my body that age with me. I fought and forged my identity in a place where indoctrination through the homogeneous world of ignorance is bliss. My childhood made me ferociously political and hopeful for change. It mostly taught me understanding and forgiveness.