In 2018, when Prince Harry married Meghan Markle, the world watched with awe. The event was a royal departure from the expected for Markle, an American actress. But since then much water has flown under the bridge. The interview given by Harry and Markle to American talk show hostess Oprah Winfrey in March fired up the disturbing issue of racism. Both the guests revealed on the show that the royal family expressed concern over the skin color of their son Archie, leaving shocks and gasps in its trail across the globe.
I have always admired Serena Williams for her sheer strength. Williams, married to Alexis Ohanian, also went through the same ordeal. The tennis queen faced barbs over the skin color of her unborn child at the time of pregnancy. She also penned a letter to her mother on how she faced criticism over skin color and body shape.
The ugliest side of racism shook us all when we heard about the tragic death of 46-year-old George Floyd. The incident received widespread criticism across the world over the way African-Americans are treated in the US and lent much-needed support to the Black Lives Matter movement. As a mark of protest, Bollywood celebrities expressed their solidarity with the movement. Actor Kareena Kapoor Khan went a step ahead by posting on Instagram All Lives Matter, which also received a fair amount of flak.
In Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, published in 1970, the author highlighted how African-Americans are treated solely based on their skin color through the character of an African-American girl, Pecola Breedlove. Pecola also desires blue eyes as an end to her troubles in life, a fact that has been deeply embedded in our young minds through fairy tales where princesses are always fair and beautiful. Dolls for baby girls invariably have blond curls and blue eyes.
However, it is not just the African-Americans who are often at the receiving end, but Asians too. Last month, the brutal killing of four Sikhs in Indiana has sent shockwaves across the community. Sikhs are among the most targeted groups in the US, according to The Sikh Coalition. An article states, “Since 9/11, dozens of Sikhs have been assaulted because of their appearance, often by perpetrators with white nationalist beliefs.”
The ghastly incident, which took place on April 15, rapidly gained solidarity movements providing much-needed comfort in times of racial discrimination. A week later, 10,000 people gathered in a virtual vigil and the message given was Stand Together in Solidarity. The reminder was that America is a multiracial country. Grassroots organization They See Blue, founded in 2018 to advance South Asian engagement, has also come out in solidarity and demanded a full investigation into the incident.
Colonialism has helped foster the belief in white supremacy. Little doubt then that in India, a British colony for over 200 years, fair skin is still desirable. Unfortunately, women are judged more for their skin color than men.
Back in school, many students made fun of a fellow classmate because of her dark skin color. I remember once during an excursion, a male student remarked that as he is a man, it does not matter that he is dark but for women, it matters. The notion that women have to be more desirable is problematic in itself, and skin color is one of the yardsticks to measure a woman’s beauty.
A 2018 study by Itisha Nagar mentioned that fair-skinned attractive people received higher ratings than dark-skinned attractive ones based on profiles shown for marriage. The study also says that Asian immigrants in the West desire lighter skin tone. It is believed that fair-skinned women draw better husbands, a fact amplified by matrimonial ads where the majority wants submissive homely bahus (brides) with fair skin.
In 2018, I went on an assignment to the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. In a small village shop, I found sachets of a popular fairness cream which has now changed its name by removing the word fair. All the ads for this product had the same recurring theme: a dejected dark-skinned girl on the verge of despair suddenly achieving success in life by becoming fair after applying the cream.
But things are changing. The BBC reported how matrimony site Shaadi.com was forced to remove skin filters after major backlash. More such steps are welcome.
The Dark is Beautiful Campaign was also launched to reinforce the idea of a beauty that is different than the standard accepted one. It has been supported by actresses like Nandita Das and Tanishtha Chatterjee. Even Chennai-based photographer Naresh Nil has depicted images of gods and goddesses as dark-skinned. His Shiva and Sita are dark instead of being fair and white.
Bollywood has also come of age. In the movie Bala, Latika Trivedi, played by Bhumi Pednekar, is finally accepted for being dark even though her Instagram pictures are all airbrushed at the request of her aunt. I hope that with such campaigns, discrimination based on race and color finally ends…
Deepanwita Gita Niyogi is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi