To sell even a moisturizing cream, companies feel the compulsion to add, “skin-lightener” for better sales. This realization hit home when my niece who was visiting from America accompanied me to a store. She looked at me puzzled as she saw many lotions and potions with the skin-lightening tag. She clicked pictures at the cosmetics counter and later shared her sense of shock at the discovery of all these whitening agents, forcing me to think seriously about the issue. Some of these creams use bleaching agents that contribute to skin cancer, but this does not deter buyers. It is hard to recollect when this awareness of light-skinned being desirable came into my consciousness. Perhaps those were more innocent times because there were no skin-lightening creams, and whatever was suggested for the skin were natural options. But India has changed and fairness creams have hit the market with a vengeance. Maybe my niece, born and bred in America was brought up right. But it is a known fact that the cultural preference for light skin and the prejudice against dark skin crosses the seven seas and Indians still carry this in their DNA. What struck me on my visits to America was that similar to whites, Indian Americans too viewed African Americans suspiciously, as “the other,” to be feared and avoided. The irony is that in Trump’s America, brown-skinned Indian-Americans are also coming under attack. One wonders whether this change will lead to soul-searching and a change in attitudes.
Recently, the obsession with light-skin seems to have erupted as a topic for discussion in India. Actor Abhay Deol took to social media to critique Bollywood actors Shahrukh Khan and Deepika Padukone for raking in millions by endorsing fairness creams, which had racist undertones embedded in their advertisements. Deol clarified that he was not criticizing the film industry but rather the fairness brands that had created a white fixation turning it into a multi-billion dollar industry. The first product to do so was “Fair and Lovely,” followed by many others.
Deol also applauded “actors who refused the moolah to fight racism,” talking about actress Nandita Das, who featured in an ad saying, “Stay Unfair. Stay Beautiful” and others like Kangana Ranaut who spoke out against the issue.
India’s matrimonial columns, several of which involve Indian-American ads, invariably request for fair brides. Here the dice is skewed against women as almost every request makes a reference to the bride’s complexion, with either the groom’s side seeking a “fair bride,” or the bride’s side making claims to the same. When “homely” or “dusky” is used, one can clearly guess that this is a reference to dark skin.
In trying to examine the antecedents for the preference for fair skin in India, colonialism always figures. The white skin of the British rulers may have set the benchmark for beauty and their contempt for the “dark-skinned natives” was also well-known. But a detailed examination of India’s history reveals that the prejudice has more to do with the caste system and the perception that the Aryans or upper castes are fair, whilst those who are at the lowest rung of the caste ladder, the Dalits, are dark-skinned.
A look at Indian languages reveals the prejudice against dark skin set in place well before the British came to India. For instance in Bengali, moila means dirt and a dark skinned person’s complexion is described as rong moila or dark-colored. Notice the connection between dark and dirt. There are also Hindi taunts like Kali kaluti baingan/gobhar looti or dark-skinned girl who stole her color from a brinjal/cowdung. Also when a person, invariably a girl, is believed to have shamed the family’s honor, the statement is mooh kala karke aiyi hai, kya? In other words, “Have you blackened your face and come?” This reflects a negative association of black with dishonor. Kannada has a term called, kariya, translating as “blackie” often used derogatorily. In Telugu, the phrase maala kaaki implies “dark scavenger” or “Dalit crow,” where the profession of the Dalit also becomes a matter of derogation. With this preference for light skin, there is also a clear gender bias in the way language is used. Some of the expressions used above are exclusively used towards women.
In April this year, the BJP leader Tarun Vijay put his foot right into his mouth during an interview with Al Jazeera television when talking about the attack on Nigerians in Noida, New Delhi. He told the television channel, “If we were racist, why would we have the entire south (India)? Why do we live with them (if we are racist)? We have blacks, black people around us.” The statement created a huge uproar and Vijay was forced to retract.
From the time a child is born, the earliest comments are made referencing the color of the baby’s skin. A friend from a Reddy community which still indulges in the banned practice of dowry mentioned how the dowry demands increase when the girl is dark. The first question that is asked of her after attending a wedding is usually, “Was the bride fair?” This behavior is so internalized and deep-rooted that Indians don’t even realize that they sound racist when they ask questions like these.
Abhay Deol is to be commended for critiquing Indians’ long held beliefs that “fair is beauitful.” The notion that fairness denotes power needs to be erased from the Indian consciousness but it will take a long while perhaps.
Melanie Kumar is a Bangalore-based writer and literary fiction reviewer who has been freelancing for more than 15 years. She holds degrees in journalism and mass communications.