In recent times, a lot of us have seen one, two or maybe even tons of post addressing colorism. I am definitely not the first person to write about this issue nor will I be the last one, however I thought it was important to have at least one post discussing the matter on my blog. I’d like to recall some facts and reflect upon the roots of colorism. How deeply engrained is colorism in our community? How did we get exposed to this idea of associating fairness with beauty ? How is colorism extremely gender-based ?
To begin, for anyone who has never experienced or acknowledged colorism, colorism is a prejudice towards people with a darker complexion within a same ethnical or racial group. Within South Asia, colorism wasn’t widely present as we know it today, in fact it was only recent times that this problem took place unlike other issues such as caste system which appeared back in Ancient India ( read more about caste system here). In a study led by Neha Mishra on the global perspectives of colorism, she highlights that Ancient India was a society that accepted the physical differences of each part of India. In fact, many hindu goddess and gods were described black in skin tone and extremely beautiful such as Kali, goddess of power, strength and destructor of evil spirits. In ancient texts, there was no mention of color in order to discriminate, dark skin wasn’t attached to a stigma and was embraced. However, as per any problem in this community, colonialism had its fair share in the implement of this “beauty standard”. Despite, the influence of Muslim rulers in India, British played a major role in the matter as they preferred to hire lighter skin tone Indians for higher positions and privileged them to keep them as allies and prevent rebellion. Thus, fair skin got associated with the idea of power and superiority as the ones who held such values were either Caucasians or Aryans. In fact, Aryans are commonly known for their fairness as opposed to Dravidian who is an ethnolinguistic group known to have darker complexion. Aryans include nowadays Bengali, Sindhi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Rajputs, Sinhalese, Marathi and many other northern languages people , as Dravidian include nowadays Tulu, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam people. The different complexion between these two ethnolinguistic groups is a factor that may explain the tensions between both groups today in many regions such as India or Sri Lanka. The British rule lasted over a century which allowed enough time for dark stigma to be implemented and fair skin be recognized as power, desirability and beauty.
Colorism has been engrained in our community in many ways. Cinema and television are the main way this complexion war has been implanted and promulgated. It is no secret that women are portrayed very cheaply half of the time on-screen but to “aid” the situation we also make the industry exclusive to women with fair skin, locking doors to women with darker complexion in a country where women come in all shades. Not only that, we directly attack their self-esteem with diminishing dialogues based on complexion. We can also acknowledge that colorism is very gender-based as the list of actors with darker complexion who entered the industry is much larger that the list of actresses with darker complexion. Another way colorism has been engrained in our native lands and diaspora are the growing multinationals of whitening creams. Those products that are manufactured back home are not limited to their own borders as the manage to export them into local brown shops.
Fair and Lovely is probably the most prominent skin whitening cream with a market value of 200 millions dollars and a share exceeding 50% of the whole whitening cream market. Other more locally known companies producing fairness creams are Godrej with its FairGlow and CavinKare with its Fairever. These companies bombard local television with problematic ads and produce many shows and awards, thus why many TV channels and celebrities in the industry are reluctant to call them out. Some celebrities even endorse such creams such as SRK, Siddarth Malhotra, Asin, Deepika Padukone, Kajol (who was widely known back then for being one of the few dark-skinned actresses) and many more. Even here, you can notice how the majority of the people endorsing the brand are women as the company was initially fairness cream for women proving once again that colorism is very gender-based. An example of ad that associate fairness not only with beauty but also success is the one telecasted across India in 2003 and commonly known as “the Air Hostess advertisement” , as mentioned by Aneel Karnani in her ”Doing Well by Doing Good Case Study” at Michigan Ross School of Business. The ad showcased a father whom wished he had a son as his dark skin daughter is unmarried and has no revenue for the family. The girl is then shown using the fairness skin. At last, she gets a job as an air-hostess and she makes heads turn , suggesting all of this was possible because of her now fairer skin. You can watch the ad right here. Not only this ad diminish the struggle of working women and discredits their efforts, it also reduces women’s worth to the fairness of their skin and brings up once again the issue of parents wishing a son rather than a daughter (an issue I have mentioned previously in my article addressing dowry, you can read it right here). This wasn’t the only controversial ad Fair and Lovely has put out. In 2002, another ad was aired in households across Malaysia where a women uses the whitening cream in order to catch her love interest’s attention. This sends a false, absolutely disgusting and very toxic message to young girls that the only way you can obtain love, recognition or attention is with fair skin.
If we look at things across seas, America isn’t any better. As if white-washing POC characters in Hollywood wasn’t enough, the amount of celebrities (whether they are South Asian or not ) that have been white washed on popular magazine cover such as Elle, Vogue or Vanity Fair is insane including stars like Priyanka Chopra, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Naomi Campbell and Lupita Nyong’o. This reminds of the Vogue India issue that came out last October celebrating their 9th anniversary. For the occasion, Vogue decided they would celebrate diversity by featuring models from all over South Asia and hopefully showcase the rich culture of South Asia. Ironically, their definition of embracing rich culture didn’t mean embracing the different shades of beauty that composes South Asia as they managed to white wash half of the models on the cover. Sigh.
In conclusion, as overwhelming or unsurprising this article might have been for you, I just wanted to contribute my share in sensitizing the South Asian diaspora and people back home on the issue. I also want to congratulate and show my support to all the women and men who have openly addressed and campaigned the issue in recent times on their respective social platforms. Keep fighting for equality and embrace the melanin in your skin. Beauty comes in all shades and the diversity of skin tones is what composes the beauty of South Asia and its diaspora.
Here are few campaigns or content against colorism (whether it’s in South Asian Community or not) here and here , I would also suggest you to consult the sources and readings section below if you want to learn more in detail !
Sources and readings :
GUPTA, Sherees Gomez. “These talented and driven women are the perfect ambassadors for diversity”, Vogue Years , [Online], [http://www.vogue.in/content/these-talented-and-driven-women-are-the-perfect-ambassadors-for-diversity/], (consulted January 22 2017 ).
KARNANI, Aneel. “Doing Well by Doing Good Case Study: ‘Fair & Lovely’ Whitening Cream”, Michigan Ross School Of Business, [Online],[http://www.un.org/e sa/coordinatio n/DWDG.Fair.Lovely.SMJ.pdf], (consulted January 22 2017).
MISHRA, Neha. “India and Colorism: The Finer Nuances”, Washington University Global Studies Law Review, [Online],[http://openscholarship.wustl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1553&context=law_globalstudies], (consulted January 23 2017).
PROLONGEAU , Hubert. “India’s skin-whitening creams highlight a complex over darker complexions”, The Guardian , [Online], July 24 2015 ,[https://www.theguardian.com /worl d/2015/jul/24/dark-skin-india-prejudice-whitening] , ( consulted September 25 2016 ).