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ESSAY
Sunscreen Doesn't Make Me White
Michele Pereira

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They were more like bodysuits than swimsuits, really. Partitioning the legs at the knees and approaching the elbows on the top, the suits covered more body than they exposed. They even had a quarter inch of material running the circumference of the neck, suggesting the inklings of a mock turtleneck.

My pale mother, a skin cancer survivor, made us wear them. No frivolity was spared on distinguishing mine from my younger brother’s— no pink frills, purple lace, or body hugging curves— just the straight, black fabric of the suit.

For a while we didn’t mind. It was fun to pretend they were the wetsuits that the surfers wore down on the pier. We caught mock waves jumping off the ledge of the pool onto foam kick-boards. My father, Indian and Portuguese, was dark enough to be exempt from my mother’s sun-related neurosis. Sporting only a pair of red swim trunks, he would join in sometimes, propelling us forward to catch a Maverick. I envied his olive skin, since it released him from the claustrophobia of the suits. My mother, clad head to toe in white sun-gear, first told me he was “olive.” To which I responded, “he’s brown, not green.” This made her laugh. She would watch from underneath an umbrella. She even had sun gloves.

But soon we grew tired of the suits— after all, they were bulky, cumbersome, and restricting. We grew especially tired, though, of the 15 minutes of sunscreen application my mother insisted on before we jumped in the pool, which in Los Angeles was nearly every day. During these precautionary sessions, my father would stroll past the kitchen table, only to see the two of us standing upright, our arms extended outwards, creating a rigid t-shape with our bodies. My mother buzzed in circles around us, forbidding us from moving until every piece of exposed skin was slathered in layers of SPF 50. Looking back, I jokingly think this is how Jesus must have felt on the cross: restricted, betrayed, and powerless. 

At pool parties with my cousins, my brother and I were always poked fun of for the suits, and everything that came along with them. My father’s brother lived just down the street from us, and Nicole was my age, Leland my brother’s, and Aidan, the youngest, tagged along with all of us. It was like having built in best friends. 

“Why do you have to wear those things anyways?” Nickie asked me one sunny July morning as we tread water in the deep end of pool. Nickie sported her new blue speedo one-piece that her mom had picked out for her at Target. She was excited to have a real swimming swimsuit— she was to start competing for the eight and under swim team at our fathers’ athletic club. The speedo model was what “what all the fastest girls wear,” she informed me. I nodded, envying the unrestricted freedom her brown shoulders felt in those spaghetti straps. 

“I dunno,” I said back. “My mom makes us wear them.” Nickie paused for a minute. We tread water in silence. 

“But why?” She prompted again. 

I shrugged. Her younger brother, Leland, swam over. “It’s because she’s whiter than the rest of us,” he said. 

Nickie tilted her head and squinted her eyes, as if trying to see me from a different angle. Perhaps she was trying to reconcile the fact that her mom was just as white as mine, but her skin was a handful of shades darker. 

“Oh, yeah, I guess,” Nickie said. 

Suddenly I felt the blunt sting of a water gun’s jet-stream ping the back of my head. I turned around throwing my hands in front of my face, only to see that my younger brother, Greg, was the culprit. He squealed in delight and splashed through the shallow end of the pool, running towards the steps.

“Oh you’re so going to get it, twerp,” I said, ready to chase him down.

Even at my cousins’ house, protected by the buffer of a mile’s distance between ourselves and our mother, my brother and I were always the ones who had to wear the highest SPF sunscreen—Nickie gloated that hermom didn’t make any of her kids wear sunscreen at all. One time, I came home with a dollop of red sun on my chest; I had “forgotten” to pack my suit and Nickie lent me one of her speedo racing suits instead. I felt so happy and so nimble, cutting through the water with speed and precision. But when I came home, my mother shrieked in panic and called my Aunt Carol. The phone call consisted of a hysterical chorus of “how could you? and “so irresponsible!” and “they could get skin cancer!”. After that incident, my Aunt Carol made sure to act as my mother’s proxy: making my brother and I take time-outs from hockey or soccer to sit in the shade, forcing long-sleeve shirts on us in the mornings when we carpooled to summer camp.

But through all of that, at least I had the solidarity of my brother. Until one day, I found he had graduated from the suit. My mother was lathering up my face behind the kitchen counter when I first noticed his bare, caramel colored torso. There he was, strutting the length of the pool, his orange trunks tickling his legs in the light breeze.

I immediately shrieked in protest, berating my mother with a host of “it’s not fair’s,” and “but why’s!?” I fought against the sunscreen and the injustice of it all. She threatened to not let me swim at all. Her bony hands clamped around my forearms, vice-like in their translucent grip.

Tears rolled down my face. “But my soccer shorts are shorter than the suit,”I yelled at my mother. It wasn’t about the shortsshe said. It wasn’t about the spaghetti strap tank tops, either, or the shirts that showed a sliver of my belly when I raised my arms. It was about the sunscreen, slapped on in obsessive layers before I left for school. It was about the emergency baseball hats and the “just in case” sun shirts zipped in the second pocket of my backpack. It was about every spot and mole my mother took pictures of and monitored yearly, threatening me with the prospect of a knife shearing it off me if it grew too big or too dark. She was afraid. I wasn’t.

Her grip loosened, perhaps feeling pity. “Your skin is too white. Your brother won’t burn like you,” she explained. 

“I hate you!” I screamed back, which I’ve screamed at my mother more times than I care to admit. I hated the infectious, pasty tint she had given me. I hated that I was the “white cousin,” too pale to fit in with my rough and tumble companions. I hated the sterility of it all—the looming punishment of scalpels and needles and hospital gowns should I fail to adequately monitor my color. I hated the distance I felt from my father’s African savannah home, located in Nairobi, Kenya. I hated how ordinary it was to have a white Irish catholic mother from Chicago, one that hovered and screeched and controlled every part of my life—one that never let me forget that I was herdaughter.

I guess what it really came down to was that I hated the skin she had given me.


Michele Pereira is a senior studying English at the University of Pennsylvania. Hailing from a multi-ethnic family, she has always been interested in race, and how it manifests itself in the color of her skin.