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Colourism amongst Indians largely exists due to the ancient and outdated Indian caste system that has existed for centuries and which has always allied fair skin with rich and well-to-do people and dark skin with poor, lowly manual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