“ARE YOU LIGHT OR VERY DARK?”, asks the white landlady to her potential tenant when he informs her that he is black, in Wole Soyinka’s poem ‘Telephone Conversation’. We cringe at the question. The question implies that she is willing to let her property if he is not too ‘dark’ and somehow, she seems to believe that black people with lighter skin are superior to those with darker skin.
Yes, the poem is about blacks and the racist bias they have to face. But are things much different here in India? If not racism we are a society constantly judging people based on colour. Children are bullied in schools and people are ridiculed at workplaces. We fret and fidget when we read incidents of racist suppression happening in the other part of the world but we ourselves are perpetrators of colourism.
What exactly is Colourism?
Colourism is defined as “the prejudice or discrimination especially within a racial or ethnic group favouring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin.”The term was first believed to have been coined by the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Alice Walker who defined it as the “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their colour.”
In India, when a baby is born we frequently hear the question; ‘Is the baby fair-skinned or dark?’ If it is dark-skinned, they click their tongue as if something baneful has happened. When a match is found for a boy or a girl, yet again, we hear the question regarding the complexion. The fundamental criterion for fixing a marriage itself has become the complexion of the bride or the groom. But mostly men are exempted from the ‘litmus test’ in our society and it is often the woman who has to take the brunt of being dark thanks to fairness cream advertisements and mainstream movies.
But can we put the blame of colourism solely on the advertisements and movies, or was our society prejudiced towards a particular colour even before that?
The Indian subcontinent has people belonging to a wide spectrum of colours with immigrant Aryans in the north and the Dravidians in the south. The fair-skinned rulers of the north did wage war with the darker-toned rulers of the south. While some historians state that colour was the reason for such wars others disagree with it saying that they fought for land and other material properties. Though there is no specific evidence of discrimination based solely on colour in ancient India the fact that the non-Aryans and the non-Vedic were often referred to as ‘Mleccha’ the ‘impure one” indicates another story. It is possible there could have been discrimination based on colour too.
The Muslim dynasties, including the Mughals, were all light-skinned, but there is no evidence of them showing discrimination based on colour. The subsequent European colonisation which started with the Dutch and the Portuguese and ended with the Britishers could have probably sowed the seeds of colourism. They unabashedly declared the ‘white’ race to be the most superior and the most intelligent one, considering Indians to be ‘inferior’ to them. No respectable jobs were given to us and if at all they considered employing Indians, preferences were given to Indians with lighter skin tone. They thereby inculcated in the colonised people a sense of adoration towards the fair skin, a temperament we could never wiggle out of, even after 70 years of independence.
Though colourism started centuries before it still runs deep in our society causing socio-political issues which no one seems to care about. Let us delve into certain factors which reinforce this affection towards lighter skin tone.
It is rightly said that the day women become confident in their bodies, the whole cosmetic industry will fall apart. Fairness products, including creams and soaps, cater to the sense of inferiority in women with darker skin tones. But not only do they feed on their sense of inferiority but are also responsible for creating such a sense of lack in women. They reiterate the idea that only fair things are pretty and desirable and that being fair can take you to places.
Bollywood movies and mainstream movies of regional languages have always preferred actors with fair skin to be their leads. Though a darker tone is tolerated in men it is not so in the case of female actors. Even songs in the movies praise ‘white cheeks’ and ‘white wrists’ in women. Following suit the South Indian film Industry has also developed a fetish for white skin in women so much so that they choose female actors from north India, who have no knowledge of the language to portray their characters. Of course, language should not be a barrier, but more so in the case of one’s colour.
Another matter to be seriously considered is colour politics in Indian films. Fairness is always equated with goodness, wealth and noble birth. Characters belonging to marginalised and rural settings are often portrayed with darker skin tones. Often the antagonists are shown as having darker skin tone which is equated with meanness and cruelty. This dichotomy is akin to Said’s concept of the Orient and the Occident where the Western world tends to see the eastern counterparts as their polar opposites.
A lot of hue and cry has been made in the social media and other platforms against the colourist attitude of advertisements and movies and a lot of research has been done on their influence on society, following which wee little changes can be seen.
A Hopeful shift in the Colourist Mindset
Kavitha Emmanuel, a motivational speaker and a social activist, who founded the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign in India more than a decade ago is of the opinion that fairness products did not create such prejudices but they capitalise on it. The fact that nowadays many lead actors say no to endorsing fairness products gives us hope that others will also follow suit.
Any tool for social reform starts with education and needless to say children are to be taught the importance of seeing everyone as equal if we are to hope for a better future. Also, strict actions must be taken against any individual who discriminates on the basis of colour, be it in the workplace or institutions like schools and colleges.
While advertisements and movies play a very persuasive and pervasive role in the strengthening of colourism individuals with strong colourist bias also enable perpetrating the social evil. It has become so engraved in the minds of people that it will take a lot of effort to cleanse the mindset.
While we stand for ‘black lives matter’, we tend to forget the humiliation and stigma that people with darker tones endure in our society as well. Especially in the wake of this pandemic let us all stand together and be kind to each other. Let there be light in the ‘heart of darkness’.
Contributor: Sheema Shireen
About our Writing Program Student
Hailing from God’s own country, I am a teacher by profession. Apart from reading and gardening, I try a hand at writing poetry when inspired. I believe that an independent woman is a happy and content one, and I am on my route to achieve that.
- “”If You Is White, You’s Alright. . . .” Stories About Colorism in America” by Kimberly Jade Norwood
- COLORISM, CASTISM, AND GENTRIFICATION IN BOLLYWOOD.
- India and Colorism: Finer Nuances.
- Fairness fairytale? ‘Whitening’ creams are undergoing a makeover, but colourism stays.
- Colorism Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster