WHITE SKIN FETISH – A NEVER-ENDING SAGA

Disclaimer – I am a medium beige colour, somewhere in the middle of the Indian skin colour range. A Marie biscuit rather than the peaches of Kashmir, or the milky coffee of South India.

“World is not fair but UB fair,” says the half-page ad in a morning newspaper. It is promoting yet another fairness cream with the slogan: “Ab Star Dikhega….”

Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, John Abraham, Deepika Padukone, Katrina Kaif, Hrithik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan, Preity Zinta, Kareena Kapoor – these celebrities have two striking things in common: First, they have millions of fans looking up to them and second, they have all had the dubious honour of endorsing a skin lightening product.

In a country where racism is bred into us and fair skin fetishized, we are bombarded with aggressive propaganda which equates fair skin with not just beauty, but success and happiness as well. This kind of blatant promotion is both shameful and irresponsible in a nation where the majority of our population is brown and dark-skinned.

A friend of mine who came back from the US of A once said to me, “I never realized this during my decade-long stay abroad but since returning to India and working here I have picked up one core marketing trick – “White Skin works wonders in India”.  It is a common belief, anything and everything associated with something of the white skin is better.  Say, I have a company making “electronics in China” named as “Chandan Das & Co.” and modelled by an Indian girl, and my friend has an identical company making “electronics in China” named as “Charles Dave & Co.” and modelled by a white foreigner; chances are he would double his sales in a year, while I may need to close shop after a few years. Such is the degree of craze for white skin in India.”

A few years ago when I was living in Delhi, a childhood friend of mine once told me, “Every time someone would call me dark, my fair-skinned mother would correct them and tell them I was “wheatish,” one of the many mild alternatives in India for brown skin. It was her way of reassuring herself that her daughter was a tad bit higher in the hierarchy than truly dark people.

(In my personal opinion) – Colourism also has a pervasive impact on job and marriage opportunities. Fair people are perceived as more personable. The description of women in the arranged marriage market often includes skin tone shorthand like: f = fair, vf = very fair, and vvf = very very fair.   Though, I have been told that this practice is not as rampant for prospective grooms 🙂

I was once asked by my dearest friend to accompany him to meet his prospective bride.  Chalo, I said and joined the bandwagon along with his parents and his close relatives to choose a bride for my dear friend.   We all met the girl, and her family.  I personally found the girl to be quite intelligent, smart and attractive.  I was so happy for my friend as he seemed to have made up his mind on her.

After a few days, he comes home quite grief-stricken and distressed and tells me that his parents have rejected the girl because she is “Saanvalee” – (Dusky)….  I jumped out of my skin.  I told him “Bhai woh tere se gori hain” (Bro – she is fairer than you).  He looked at me with sad eyes and didn’t utter a word.   That’s when I realised, India is one of the few cultures where a race that is predominantly shades of brown, places a high premium on being a different colour.  Do you remember in your school textbooks, where a picture of a fair-skinned girl might be labelled “beautiful” and a darker one “ugly”?

It is noticed that the effects of Colourism are far-reaching. Skin colour bias has an impact on self-esteem, beauty standards, and even personal relationships. A serious social problem, its repercussions should not be underestimated.  If a child is born with dark skin and learns that dark skin is not valued by his/her peers, community, or society, he/she may develop a feeling of indignity. It’s difficult for a child to understand that no one’s skin colour is innately good or bad.  Our mind is colour agnostic until society teaches us that not all skin colours are equal.

Sharing another incident narrated to me by an ex-colleague – Her natural skin tone looks a healthy light brown, but when she was growing up, her aunts would shake their heads in disappointment over her complexion.  Some relatives and classmates would sometimes chide her. “You’ve turned black,” they said. She brushed off her relatives’ criticism as being from a different generation, but her classmates’ comments made her feel insecure.

She said “It didn’t affect me right then but whenever I would get dressed to go out, I would remember what they said and put on more make-up.  Especially when I was in high school and college, there were girls who would say these things a lot. They were trying to be helpful but to me, it sounded condescending. And it was duplicitous too because it wasn’t like they were fair or beautiful or perfect themselves”.  As a growing child, it affected her so intensely, causing insidious self-esteem issues.

Intolerance is natural, rejecting the unknown is part of a self-mechanism. However, considering the limitless access to education and information, it is hard to believe that discrimination on the basis of the colour of your skin continues to be so prominent.

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