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Does Indians’ Obsession With ‘Fair Complexion’ Influence Their Racial Attitudes?

Does Indians’ Obsession With ‘Fair Complexion’ Influence Their Racial Attitudes?

  • How do colorism and racism play out in the same ecosystem? Do our preferences of color affect the way we perceive racism?

It just took one Tweet from singer and songwriter Nick Jonas expressing his and his actress wife Priyanka Chopra’s support to the Black Lives Matter movement following the harrowing murder of George Floyd by the police in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020 to stir a hornet’s nest of a very different kind. 

Chopra, along with many other celebrities like Sonam Kapoor, Deepika Padukone among others came under tremendous criticism for ‘promoting’ the Black Lives Matter Movement on the one hand, and on the other endorsing beauty products that promise success to dark skinned men and women by making them, believe it or not, fair skinned.  Many saw a contradiction. 

This obsession with color or ‘colorism,’ a term coined by Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker to mean the “prejudicial preferential treatment of same race people based solely on their color,” permeates through the social fabric of many countries. India, despite its rich cultural diversity being no exception where ‘fair’ is considered more ‘beautiful’ than dark by a majority.

Even liberal minded progressive Indians display a bias in favor of lighter skin. 

Matrimonial ads asking for ‘fair’ suitors, tips to pregnant women to make sure they birth a light skinned child, the absence of people with average Indian complexion on television, magazines and billboards are all a manifestation of this bias. 

Not surprisingly, skin lightening products are a billion-dollar industry in India. Industry analysts in their 2017 research estimated global spending on skin lightening products to triple and go up to $31.2 billion by 2024. India has the highest estimated growth rate. 

Sunil Bhatia, a professor of Human Development at Connecticut College argues, “It is the deep-rooted internalized racism and social hierarchies based on skin color that give rise to the market for these products that have to be dismantled. It is not bias, it is racism.”

According to The Hindu newspaper, in 2010, Indians consumed more than 233 tons of skin-whitening products at a cost of $432 million.

History of Color

How did a people who are predominantly dark-skinned, come to accept the notion of beauty based on light skin tones? 

Dr. Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of History of Religions at the University of Chicago, talking to American Kahani says that there is a lack of clarity in how the belief that to be beautiful is to be ‘fair’ came along. “In ancient India, at the time of the Mahabharata for instance, to be black was to be beautiful. Draupadi, the heroine, is called Krsna — the dark one, and of course Lord Krishna is also beautiful, and dark,” she says.

Historically, the Indian subcontinent has been the melting pot for many cultures enriched by the arrival of invaders, traders and rulers — including the Mughals and Europeans — all fair skinned. The most impactful blow possibly came with the British colonial attitude of ‘racial superiority over ‘dark, brown’ Indians portrayed as ‘savages’ and ‘inferior’. 

We have carried on with this legacy of British imperialism ever since.

Casteism, with its assumption that the so-called lower caste ‘dark’ people, who are mostly out in the sun doing manual labor, are also beneath the ‘fair skinned’ upper caste has associated light skin with ‘power’ and ‘desirability.’

“In ancient India, at the time of the Mahabharata for instance, to be black was to be beautiful. Draupadi, the heroine, is called Krsna — the dark one, and of course Lord Krishna is also beautiful, and dark.”

Change, though in fits and starts, is coming through campaigns like “Dark is Beautiful.” Launched in 2009, it is all about inclusivity — beauty beyond color, says Kavitha Emmanuel, founder of Women of Worth, the Indian NGO behind the campaign that has celebrity endorsement from actress Nandita Das, who never hides her dark skin even in films. And remains undiminished in her beauty. 

Colorism v Racism

Racism, defined as the ‘prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a people on the basis of their membership of a particular racial or ethnic group, to distinguish one inferior and one superior to the other,’ has always been a burning issue in America, the country of multiracial immigrants.

How do colorism and racism, two societal ills, play out in the same ecosystem? Do our preferences of color affect the way we perceive racism?

Most Indian Americans this writer spoke to, irrespective of their cultural background, strongly denounced any parallels between the two.

See Also

“Racism to me is nothing but a preconceived notion about being ‘different’ from someone else. It could be within my own community, different geographies within the same country or between different religious groups. It’s a mental block against adapting something that we do not necessarily understand. I am not unaware of the Indian infatuation with fair skin, but to me, the color of someone’s skin is meaningless in forming an opinion of him, favorable or otherwise,” says Dr. Arun Reddy, a Material Scientist from Wilmington, Delaware. 

Marketing and finance professional from Cupertino, California, Sasha Vyas says: “I, like many others, grew up seeing unfair comparisons being made between girls on the basis of their complexion, hard enough to debilitate your confidence if you were swarthy. That was colorism. Racism, alternatively is a ‘function of awareness, ignorance, and a certain suspicion of another community, and has absolutely nothing in common with colorism that is just about physical attributes, however condescending.” 

Black Lives Matter

Even in the context of the Black Lives Matter Movement which has drawn unparalleled support from the Indian community, there has been cogent understanding of the fundamental differences between racism and colorism.

“Our preferences to fair skin are a discrimination within our own race. Do we start discriminating between people of color from other countries solely on the basis of their dark skin? We don’t. My support for the BLM movement stems from my opposition to racism, and not from any opinion on color”, says Anju Kalra, a marketing research professional from Somerset, New Jersey.

Viji Bapuraj Rao, South Brunswick, New Jersey, makes a compelling argument about peace. Being a victim of racism herself during the Dotbusters’ crimes against Indians in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1987, she implores the need to have ‘empathy’ towards other races. 

Educationist Kalpana Tandon from Fairfax, Virginia, who had a long academic career, talks about being great friends with African Americans and Asian communities and does not even once remember thinking about color affecting this social interaction.  

However, Lori L.Tharps, Associate professor at Temple University posits — “It cannot be overstated that if racism didn’t exist, a discussion about varying skin hues would simply be a conversation about aesthetics. But that’s not the case. The privileging of light skin over dark is at the root of an ill known as colorism.”

Nupur Bhatnagar is a lawyer by training, an entrepreneur and a storyteller. She is rationalist and an art enthusiast who is fascinated by history. She loves to read and watch historical dramas — sometimes even sees herself in them.  Nupur lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children.

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  • Whether we accept it or not, there definitely IS a prejudice in favor of the fair complexion, at least in India. No wonder ‘fairness creams’ are doing such a roaring business ever since I can remember — for more than half a century.The endorsement for such products by Bollywood celebrities is definitely a paradox. Nupur Bhatnagar, the author of this splendidly analyzed piece, makes a fine distinction between ‘colorism’ and ‘racism,’ and it might well be true that the celebrities that promote such products may, in truth, be against discrimination based on the colour of the skin. There has to be a fine dividing line between ‘preference,’ and ‘discrimination’ — or deriding a particular section of the society based on the complexion of their skin. A very thought provoking write-up in the backdrop of the recent developments, starting in the U.S., and now taking the shape of a conflagration around the globe.

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