Unalienable: Reflections on Independence and Belonging
Over the last few years, the caste system has entered the American discourse as the result of a high-profile legal case at Cisco and the inclusion of caste as a protected category at over two dozen US universities. Just last month, Amy Wax, a law professor at UPenn made outrageous statements about India and Indian-Americans. Relating to caste in particular, she asserted that “Brahmin women are taught that they are better than everybody.” Huh?
Because Americans are generally unaware of the nuances and overlap with culture and tradition, it is important to unequivocally reject caste-based oppression while also dispelling myths about caste.
A misunderstood aspect of caste is its association with preference for lighter skin tones.
Exploring the relationship between casteism, colorism, and arranged marriage
In her book, “Caste,” author Isabel Wilkerson attempts to show that preference for lighter skin is a form of caste oppression:
The suffering of the narrator’s sister is heartbreaking. In order to be chosen by “a suitable boy,” she had to subject herself to a senseless beauty regimen. Worse, she had to endure rejection for a trait that was beyond her control and that had nothing to do with her personal qualities.
What Wilkerson omits, and people unfamiliar with Indian culture might not realize, is that the situation had very little to do with caste. The marriage was being arranged through family channels; the rejections were occurring within the caste and caste-based exclusion was not a factor.
A friend who hailed from an upper-caste family announced that he would consider only light-skinned prospective matches. His mother managed to find just such a bride. Since this was an arranged marriage, the bride was of the same caste.
Why was my friend so hung up on marrying a woman with lighter skin? It was an aesthetic preference, albeit one that had been reinforced by media images. This is similar to preferences for trim and toned figures the world over. As a paper published by Harvard Business School shows, there are many complicated reasons for why Bollywood features actors and actresses with lighter skin. However, caste prejudice is not a major factor.
Colorism, culture, and tradition
Endogamy is defined as the custom of marrying within a particular social or cultural group in accordance with custom or law. Over generations, this practice resulted in each caste developing a distinct culture — choice of gods, cuisine and dietary practices, holidays and festivals, language, music and dance, literature, and so on.
In the present day, people who look for partners of the same caste are prioritizing shared culture rather than endogamy. The desire to please parents — who are more inclined to adhere to tradition and bow to social pressure — is also a factor. For these reasons, it would not have occurred to my friend to choose a partner—even a light-skinned one—from another caste or even from an upper caste from a different part of India. The desire for cultural similarity is much like the proclivity of Chinese-Americans to marry Chinese-Americans or Jews to marry Jews.
Sima Taparia, the matchmaker on the Netflix show, Indian Matchmaking, confirms this dynamic in a YouTube video (starting at the 4:40 mark). In his TEDx talk, Kishor Bharadwaj, a young Indian American man, offers a deep dive on colorism in India through history. He shows that in Hindu mythology, which dates back thousands of years, the gods Krishna and Ram, who are known to be darks-skinned, are depicted in totally unrealistic blue tones. Both speakers confirm that colorism in India is a more complex and prevalent phenomenon than caste and, in fact, supersedes caste.
“Fair and Lovely” was a very popular skin-lightening cream until recently. Its commercials featured glowing brides, signaling success in matchmaking. Thanks to a backlash, Unilever, the owner of the brand, recently decided to drop “Fair” from the product’s name. They also agreed to stop using other signaling words like “lightening” and “white.”
The largest Indian matchmaking site, Shaadi.com, removed site features that asked users to list their skin tone and that allowed them to search for matches by skin color.
Colorism is global
Searching the term “colorism” on YouTube brings up countless videos on the topic from speakers around the world. Preference for lighter skin is also found in Mexico, other Latin American countries, East Asia (China, Japan, and Korea), and several other countries. It is noteworthy that the preference in East Asia predates European colonization. It is worth noting the preference for lighter skin tones among American blacks (brown paper bag test). This is true in dating as well as in media.
The correlation between casteism and colorism is weak
Both are a result of global histories of the last several hundred years and present-day popular culture. Both are based on immutable traits and have nothing to do with a person’s inherent qualities. Both caste-based oppression and skin-color based discrimination are deplorable.
It is also deplorable that some high- profile Americans like Amy Wax and Isabel Wilkerson, either through ignorance or in service of their own agendas, use their platforms to propagate ideas that are untrue, prejudicial, and inflammatory. It is worth noting that the two thinkers are at opposite ends of the American political spectrum.
The lesson is that, with shifting political winds, harmful rhetoric can emerge from anywhere. It can be refuted only by using fact-based and well-articulated arguments—both at the personal level and as a community.