Colourism

Colourism, or discrimination based on skin colour, is a disease which exists within a large number of ethnic communities. Prejudice against darker skin tones has been a cause for concern for many years and for some reason it’s grown to become taboo to talk about; one of those topics that we sweep under the rug. But as much as we may try to conceal it, the problem still exists and it continues to fester and spread. Now whilst I know that colourism exists within many ethnic communities, I can only comment on what I’ve been exposed to growing up in a South-Asian, primarily Indian, environment where colourism is rampant.

Colourism amongst Indians largely exists due to the ancient and outdated Indian caste system that has existed for centuries and which has always allied fair skin with rich and well-to-do people and dark skin with poor, lowly manual labourers.

Let me tell you about an Indian wedding that I went to on the weekend. Sitting in the Gurdwara with the groom’s party, we were all impatiently straining our necks waiting for the blushing bride to make her grand entrance when lo and behold she finally arrived. She looked very pretty I initially thought, as I managed to catch quick glimpses of her between people’s heads and shoulders. But as she came closer it became apparent that her face didn’t quite seem to match her brown neck, chest and hands… at all. And that was because the bridal makeup artist had plastered a sheer matte white foundation on to the poor girl’s face! She had been ruined! And on her wedding day of all days. I hoped to God that the makeup artist was not expecting to be paid after turning her client into a walking corpse bride! And yet strangely enough everyone was still in awe of her the closer she came, incessantly complimenting her flawless makeup! I whispered my thoughts to my Auntie, right before I was elbowed in the ribs and told to be quiet. And the adoration of her beauty continued, uninterrupted.

After a short while it clicked in my head. It’s because she looked white, therefore she automatically looked beautiful: of course! It’s a known fact that whiteness is synonymous with beauty in an overwhelming majority of ethnic communities all over the globe. And that got me thinking, had the makeup artist applied a foundation that actually matched the bride’s skin tone, would the same people still be incessantly complimenting her incredible beauty? Sadly I think not because she would’ve actually looked brown, not white. Shocking I know, a brown Indian, what madness!

The sad truth is that the biggest compliment you can pay a person within a community like mine is to tell them that they don’t look Indian, that they could pass for a white guy/girl. ‘Wow he/she’s Indian?! But they look like a gora/gori, they’re so handsome/beautiful, such fair skin!’. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve heard comments like that and it always results in me involuntarily rolling my eyes. Indian people these days are chastised for looking Indian…no really, has the world gone mad?! Just look at all of the controversy that surrounded the current Miss America, Nina Davuluri: a stunning Indian girl who was was criticised mainly by her own community for being too dark to be considered as an American beauty icon; so much for communal support! We’re lead to believe that we’re superior if we’re lucky enough to be born fair-skinned, anyone darker than us is beneath us and that is just not acceptable.

Indian women have always been heavily chastised for being too dark due to the caste system mentality, as well as the Bollywood film industry which also propagates ‘white is right’ ideology. Hindi film actresses are considered to epitomise Indian beauty and yes you guessed it 9/10 of them have very fair skin. Even the ones who were initially brown when entering the film industry seem to have magically whitened as their careers have progressed. So how can the average Indian woman be anything but insecure when she looks to the silver screen and realises that she doesn’t even moderately resemble any of the beauty icons that are supposed to represent South Asian women like herself? Surely if she doesn’t look like them, she doesn’t look beautiful and subsequently she’s ugly. And Indian soap operas are no better. Always using fair-skinned actors and actresses to play the kind, sweet-hearted innocent characters and making use of their dark-skinned counterparts to play the evil and malicious roles. As hard as it is for some people to believe, a person’s exterior skin complexion is not reflective of their inward self; having dark skin does not mean that you’ll subsequently have a black heart and being white doesn’t mean that you’ll be inwardly pure and chaste! Jheez!

But it’s that very backwards, ignorant mentality that skin bleaching companies have used to their advantage and built their million dollar corporations on. For example, Fair and Lovely, endorsed by most Bollywood actors and actresses, rakes in millions because so many people are lead to believe that unless they bleach their skin with cosmetic products like their favourite actresses, they’ll be considered ugly and will be shunned by society.

My grandma’s generation is possibly the worst when it comes to colourism. Whenever we all get together she constantly nags my younger cousin, aged 13, to start washing her face properly with soap twice a day because she’s convinced that her granddaughter’s dark skin is a result of her uncleanliness. Therefore she believes that all my cousin needs to do to correct her darkness is to wash her face more often. ‘We’re North Indian, we’re Jatt, our people are not supposed to be so dark’. I’ve heard her say so many times, ‘it’s because she drinks so much tea… let’s just pray that she’ll grow out of it in a few years’, and it’s so difficult to listen to. But sadly I don’t think that my grandma will ever fully understand just how ignorant and bigoted she can sound sometimes.

What never fails to make me laugh however, is that on the flip-side you get the Western world, in which people relish in getting sun tans and deliberately sunbathe to get darker. Fake tanning before big social events; the perception of beauty is just so different it’s mind-boggling! And yet one thing that the Eastern and Western spheres have in common is that neither groups of people preach to their communities that being just the way you are makes you the most beautiful version of yourself…but why not? Why’s it so taboo to love yourself and not aspire to be a shade lighter or darker?

Why be ashamed and self-conscious of having brown skin? So many people would kill to have that very complexion that you loathe, look at the cast of Jersey Shore, they’re constantly baking in sunbeds to be browner! Whether your complexion is pale or you’re brown skinned, you’re blessed and you’re YOU. So why try to cover yourself up with creams and makeups that guarantee to alter your skin tone in 30 days or you’ll get your money back? Do not feel the need to change. People need to realise that we are who we are and there should be no reason to want to look like anyone else. We all need a bit of colour in our lives for heavens sake! And once we’ve all accepted that and can safely say that we’re all on the same page, that’s when we’ll see a real change. That’s when skin tone hierarchies and racial self-hate will finally be eliminated from within our communities.

At the end of the day we’re all people regardless of the colour of our skin so what is with all the hate and prejudice? Regardless of whether your skin is brown, white, yellow or purple, you’re beautiful. And don’t ever let anyone try to tell you otherwise, or they’ll have me to answer to!

58 replies

  1. Real beauty comes from within. A person’s value is in her/his soft skills. It is a pity that society still tries to ‘sell’ us beauty ideals.
    As you state in your last paragraph: we are all people…

    • Colorism is rampant in Filipino culture, as well. I’ve grown up in the U.S., where white people want to be tan. Imagine my surprise when my grandma yelled at me for getting too dark in the summers! -_- I hope as time progresses, these outdated standards of beauty become passé & everyone can be admired for their own unique beauty.

      • In the 21st century, this should really be passé. Due to overrated beauty ideals, women and men with very fair skin nearly burn themselves in order to get a ‘nice’ tan. Others would like to have fair skin and start to bleach.

        We cannot see real beauty – we can feel it.

  2. Awesome post. Can totally relate to this. My mother is extemely light-skinned, to the point of where you cannot even tell she is East Indian. My dad – not so much. My siblings and I are most definitely more like my dads side of the gene pool so we’re all more of a “medium brown” if you will lol. Whenever my mom would introduce me to someone at a social gathering they’d kind of look taken aback and go “this is your daughter?! *pause* she must have gone on her father. Bothered me for years until I realized it’s all nonsense!

  3. I can’t tell you how ridiculous Indians can get about complexion. My sister was darker than me, so she constantly had to listen to the incessant advice about how drinking chai can make you dark. And yes, the soap thing sounds familiar too. WTF??!!
    I wish people would just stop!

  4. here, here, well said, yes, the world has gone mad… and i’d just like to throw in the
    “Repunzel, Repunzel, let down your golden hair” children’s story that we all grew up with.
    What are brown haired girls taught to think having been subjected such indoctrination?

    • I agree with you completely Niki, we’re taught to aspire to certain beauty ideals from such a young age, it’s so damaging but seems so innocent until you grow up and realise. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Beautifully said! I don’t have the typical Indian features and although my family has always thought this was great, I grew up wanting to look more Indian. I am highly offended when people tell me I don’t look Indian. Interesting how people thinks it’s okay to even say things like.

    • One of my cousins is exactly the same. To look at one would guess that she’s European, her features and complexion are not Indian at all and she’s constantly trying to tan and grow her hair so that it’s long and thick, (in a typical Indian fashion). Ultimately it never seems to be good enough to look the way that you do and it’s so sad. Thanks for you comment.

  6. Thank you for the follow! This is the first post I have read of your’s and it blew me away. As a white male, this is a subject I wish I had a better understanding of. Thank you for the insight. You have definitely gained a new reader today.

  7. I am from India and it is a reality here! Little girls are often teased in school and are boycotted (by their so-called fair skinned friends) if they are not fair-skinned. India still believes in arrange marriages! And while ‘arranging’ a marriage, the guys family always wants a “fair, slim, tall” girl; no matter how their dear son looks like! A lot of emphasis is given on outer beauty rather than inner beauty. And it’s always the girl who has to face such rejections.
    Luckily I am from an Indian family who doesn’t believe in all this. But this is a harsh reality in India and it’s quite prevalent. Times are changing here as well but on a very very slow pace. Hope things get better in the future esp. for the girls!

    • So true Garshita! Particularly when it comes to matrimonial matters, every family really does seem to want the ‘fair, slim, tall girl’ as you said. It’s a sad reality for a lot of Indian girls, both those living in India and those living in other countries. Lets hope that more families start to open their minds like yours… it’ll definitely be a slow process but lets hope that one day it won’t be a problem.

    • I’ve heard that most South-East Asian countries are infected with the disease of colourism. It really is so ridiculous that it’s so antithetical in the West, the world is a crazy place! Thanks for your comment Philip 🙂

    • Very true, it’s just one of the harsh realities that we all have to deal with I guess. Hopefully over time the issue of colourism will be less prevalent, but a lot of closed minds will need to be opened in order for that to happen! Thanks for stopping by

  8. Hi
    You made a very relevant point about the Indian fixation for all things white – you can see this even applied to food items such as white rice, white flour (maida), sugar (again white) 😛
    Personally I think Indian skin color is the best in the world. I always tell this joke : When God decided to create humans, he mixed all ingredients together and baked it..Out came very dark skinned humans. Seeing this God exclaimed, “Oh my creation has got burnt” Then God set out to re work his mixture and baked it again. Out came very white skinned humans. God said, “Oh no, my creation was not cooked properly!” He again set out to work the third time, diligently mixing ingredients for his set of perfect human beings and guess what came out – The Indians! And then God clapped merrily and said, ” Yes this is perfect! This is what I was looking for!”

    • Thanks for your comment Surbhisarna. Ultimately I don’t believe that any skin colour/complexion is superior or above the rest. Whether someone is very pale or very dark-skinned they should be considered to be beautiful and should not feel any obligation whatsoever to change or feel lesser than anyone else. Plus, how grey and boring would the world be if we all looked exactly the same? We need to celebrate diversity 🙂

      • Yes agree with you that diversity needs to be celebrated and variety adds to the beauty of this world, be it color, religion, ethnicity or language. Diversity reflects the creative expression of human beings 🙂 My joke was in the context that as Indians we need to be proud of who we are and celebrate what God has given us 🙂

  9. Wow. It was bold of you to be this honest on your post. I agree, we should not equate being “white” as the only way to be beautiful. We kind of have a similar thing going on in the Philippines. And I think it also has to do with social status. Rich = white, Dark = poor…
    Whitening products are so rampant and girls would use lighter shades of foundation to conceal their brown complexion. But you know what? We actually consider “looking Indian” as one of the kinds of “beauties” a girl could have. Sometimes when we talk about a pretty girl, one would ask, “Is she the ‘mestiza’ type (western looking/the term came from a Spanish influence), ‘chinita’ (Chinese looking/chinky eyed), or ‘Indian’ type? It used to be that we don’t ask if she has “Filipino beauty.” But recently, we’ve been using the term “Filipina beauty” a lot, which is kind of an improvement. And after Venus Raj, there seem to be more appreciation for dark skin and Filipina beauty! I look a bit Chinese and funny how I really appreciate dark complexion. I hope the rest of us would come to appreciate it too! 🙂

    • Oh wow I had no idea about the different types of beauty regarded in the Philippines, thanks for enlightening me Riz 🙂 I’m glad to hear that Filipina beauty is a term that’s catching on now, it’s good to hear that steps are slowly but surely being taken in the right direction!

  10. I just read your blog aloud to my parents and my sister… being born in a typical Brahmin family wherein people are extremely fair and have grey/green eyes… my sister who is slightly on the darker side faces a lot of bashing from my family which just boils my blood…Your blog did make her feel a bit better!! 🙂

  11. Beautiful article! As someone who is, er, “brown”, I appreciate this commentary. I see this trend in my family and it constantly gives me the urge to headdesk myself silly. In this particular issue, I think Americans are way ahead of Pakistanis/Indians. People constantly compliment my appearance in the U.S., as well as that of other medium to dark skinned Indian women I know. I am friends with one Indian, and one Pakistani girl and everyone in our uni class oohs and aahs over their beauty. However, super ironically, they are considered too dark by their communities at home. Meanwhile, white boys ask us out more often than boys of our own ethnicities! So many WTF’s.

    • You’re so right, western culture has much more of an appreciation for brown skin and it can be very confusing at times when living amongst a mix of westerners and South Asians, because their perceptions of beauty are just so contrasting! Ultimately though, regardless of whether just one community deems you to be beautiful, or both, know that you’re absolutely positively gorgeous! And that’s a fact 😀

  12. Totally agree with you. I was brought up by a mother who thought I was too white to be coming out her belly. She was Sicilian and she adored my brother who had her father’s coloring. So I grew up thinking dark is beautiful and have to admit I still feel that way. In fact the Bollywood movies surprise me by showing such pale skin on many of the dancers. For me, it comes down to a matter of aesthetics. When will we all just blend and be so mixed you can’t tell who is light or dark? P.S. Thanks for the follow and I am following you.

    • Ah I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been affected by colourism too, the fact that you come from a European background just goes to show how globally widespread this disease is. However, I do like the way that you think and I also hope that one day all skin tones will just blend together in our eyes to the point where we’re all considered to be on the same level . I guess the way forward is to educate younger generations about the problem of colourism so that they don’t share the same prejudices that many people hold today. Thanks for your comment, I really appreciate it 🙂

  13. I’m a teacher and I see girls comparing arm color all. the. time. I try to instill in my girls that they are beautiful just the way they are and to stop worrying about such shallow measurements of beauty as skin color. It has worked on occasion. . . but not nearly enough. One thing I do notice is that boys don’t care. . . .AT ALL. . . about their own skin color. It makes me think that if we (women) just stopped putting so much importance on skin tone the whole issue would become much less important. It’s like we do it to ourselves.

    • You sound like a great teacher Polly , and I’m sure that you have made somewhat of an impact on your female students but I feel that they’re brainwashed to adhere to skin tone hierarchies from a very young age at home, probably as you said largely by the female members of their families. I know that in South Asian cultures girls are lead to believe by their mothers, grandmothers and aunties that the whiter they are the better, particularly when it comes time for marriage, as most families seek fair skinned brides. Does anyone care for an overly fair-skinned groom? Not particularly, as being light skinned is considered to be a feminine beauty quality, so boys are allowed to be as brown as they like. Ridiculous I know. Women definitely do escalate the issue, I agree with you. Thanks so much for your comment 🙂

  14. Completely related to this. Have written a few pieces on my blog about the reaction to my skin colour when I married my husband, and the difference in the treatment he receives in Middle Eastern countries. When I went to Sri Lanka I was treated like a “goddess” and people stared constantly; I was asked about my financial status constantly; and my husband was treated like he had won the lottery. I couldn’t understand the obsession with fair skin, and I still don’t. Great piece x

    • Sadly I’ve heard similar stories many times, where people question what a fair skinned girl could possibly see in a dark skinned guy and yes he’s treated as if he’s supposedly done SO well for himself (shaking head).It truly is so ridiculous but the best thing to do is to pay little attention and surround yourself with more open minded people! Thanks for your comment 🙂

  15. I think we’re all beautiful just as we are, but I won’t lie, I’m one of those Americans trying to be out in the sun to get a bit of color. Thank you for your post. I learned a lot. And you ladies with the “darker” skin need to know that you really are very beautiful! Don’t worry about what others think, we all need to listen to our hearts and know that we are all different in many ways, but that’s what make us each unique.

  16. Such a beautiful post!
    Whenever I listen to statements regarding skin colour I immediately flinch. Further the fair and lovely ad are ridiculous if not for anything else. How is it that the moment you become fair, all things good happen?!
    I love Nandita’s campaign, “stay unfair, stay beautiful!” 🙂

  17. Great post, and I agree it exists in EVERY culture, and is completely ridiculous. I am of mixed ethnicity and my skin changes throughout the year but I particularly like the warmer dark glowing complexion I get in the summer :). Anyway I’ve heard people say I’m beautiful because I’m light skinned and how they would never date a dark skinned girl, etc. It shames me people of my own culture and race would say that about their own people, then be upset when someone of another race makes the same comment. People of color need to stop tearing down their own people and realize their complexion is beautiful! Regardless of what race they are! 🙂

  18. We’re definitely on the same wavelength Berta. People really need to stop and appreciate beauty in its natural form, without fussing over insignificant things like skin complexion because it makes absolutely no difference! Thanks for your comment 😀

  19. Discrimination based on Skin colour is still a major issue in India. You can sub-categorize Indians, like North Indians who are mostly fair, west and east indians have wheatish complexion and the people down in South are mostly dark. This colour based discrimination is mostly inherited from our Grandfathers and Grandmothers, and everyone India wants to be fair. It indeed is ‘White is Beautiful’ in India. No wonder we have Shah Rukhs and John Abrahams endorsing Men Skin Whitening products along-with host of other Actresses like Yami Gautam promoting Fair and Lovely !! I am simply in love with your posts. They make me connect with my own Country though I live in India 😀

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