I have often tried to remember when was it that I first faced the truth about my skin color. When did I first realize that my chocolate brown tone, possibly the average in my country, makes me socially less desirable? The earliest I can remember being affected by it is when, as a teenager, I started discarding certain colors from my closet, because they made me look darker. By the time I was in college, many a concerned matriarchs had reminded me, in terms ranging from subtle to direct, that my fate was darker than the tone of my skin. This experience is priceless. It has given me first-hand insight into our systemic internalized racism, in the form of India’s ‘Unfair’ obsession. Let’s talk about it today.
The History of it
Ancient drawings in the caves of Ajanta and Ellora, glorify the dusky beauty. This suggests that, at least at some point in history, the region might not have been obsessed with white skin. A common theory, on how the idea got entrenched, takes us back to our history of colonization. India has been invaded multiple times, by races that were of lighter skin – the Persians, the Muslims, and finally the Brits. For centuries, the elite in the country, therefore, have been light skinned. The idea took root. If you were fair, you were likely to be successful. As a corollary, another far more dangerous and harmful idea also made its way to the Indian consciousness – dark is evil and undesirable.
Milk and Peaches: Perpetuating the Idea
Along came Consumerism! The wolves quickly sensed the nation’s insecurities with its skin tone. The result: the proliferation of a ‘Fairness Cream’ market, that is worth INR 3000 crore today (that’s close to half a billion USD)! Just in case you are confused by the product, it promises to lighten the skin tone. Many Bollywood celebrities have, at some point, marketed the product, without so much as a passing thought.
Generations of Indian women have emptied tubes of deceit on their faces, in hopes of the promised redemption. The only thing that has ‘lightened’ is the weight of their self esteem.
Then, there is the pressure created by mainstream media. Peer groups, billboards, TV, Ads, Movies – everyone is out there celebrating “Gorapan” (fairness). Indians are a brown race, in love with the white skin. I have often heard white travelers in India complain of the ‘stare’ on the streets. I want to assure them that the intent of the stare is not to discriminate, but admire.
Over the years, the tone of the message has changed. From the outright offensive (“ew, dark, ugly”), it has evolved to the aspirational (“your skin, your choice, you can too, success is bright”). But, nothing else has.
Modern India Turns Racism on its Head
There is nothing that empowers Racism more than Internalized Racism! India has developed a powerful system of oppression, against its own people, by internalizing the supremacy of white skin. There are a thousand anecdotes shared everyday. Recently, a South Indian man was denied an apartment in Delhi, because he looked “too dark to be Indian”! Darker people struggle to find a partner in the country. They have no scope of finding a job in industries that rely on ‘physical beauty’ (modeling, acting et. al.) There is a much grimmer side too. Africans are regularly discriminated against, and recently there have been a spate of hate crimes against them.
On the flip side, a white person can get away with the most atrocious things in the country. In a social setting, they are guaranteed to get royal treatment, for just being pale! This account of a German lady’s experience of blatant racism, in her favor, in the hip, cosmopolitan Bangalore, would help drive my point.
I have often tried to remember the day when the discrimination stopped mattering to me. My entire life I have had beauty experts patronizing me with buckets of bleach, offering to alleviate my “horrible tan”! I can’t remember at what point exactly, I started turning to them, beaming, “Isn’t it gorgeous, my tan?” It really confuses them, yeah! I think it helped when I faced my own racism – the one that I inflict on myself, by being apologetic of my skin color. There is a need for a mass (possibly media) movement in the country, to make people feel comfortable in their own skins. I hope the movements led by Bollywood’s tiny feminist brigade – Nandita Das, Abhay Deol, Kangana Ranaut, bring about the change that the country desperately needs.
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