Colourism, it’s complicated. There are blurred lines, or perhaps blurred shades would be more appropriate. So, allow me to start with its dictionary definition.
“Prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group”
Added to the Oxford Dictionary in June 2015
Those with darker skin experience prejudice or discrimination, while the fair skinned individuals enjoy a form of ‘white supremacy’. Colonialism and white supremacy are long gone but they left behind a dark obsession – the obsession for fairer skin, which plagues the minds of millions daily. In the non-white world, ‘fair skin equals beautiful’ is the widespread belief. The two terms in the Indian community are, in fact, interchangeably used.
One question that is often asked: what gave birth to colourism? Can we really just put the entire blame on colonialism? I don’t believe so. I believe colourism planted its seed from the time when the Aryan race (fair skinned & light eyed ) invaded India a few thousand years ago, pushing the Dravidians down south. Fair skin then became associated with power and wealth. Add to this the Indian caste and class system, and then colonialism and you get a notion so deeply embedded in the mindset generation after generation that only a mass revolution can reverse it.
It’s now become an omnipresent notion and this is how it still prevails:
- Within the Indian community, without your knowledge, your colour is discussed by family members even before you are born. Expectant mothers are bombarded with tips on the foods to eat to have a ‘fair’ baby, a classic tip being a daily dose of milk with a pinch of saffron. Imagine, even the food being fed to you in your mother’s womb screams colourism. And when you are out, while your curious little mind is observing everything around you, feasting on colours, your family members are busy expressing their relief (or concern) on your colour. Such is the grip colourism has on everyone. Colour is so casually and overtly discussed in the Indian community, it may as well be on your birth certificate.
- Then, as you start to grow up, you encounter the following comments on a daily basis. You find yourself either growing immune to them or succumbing, tirelessly finding ways to ‘fix’ your colour.
‘Don’t go out in the sun, you’ll turn kaali (black).’
‘You shouldn’t wear black if you have dark skin.’
‘You’re pretty for a ‘dark’ girl.’
‘You should apply my homemade body scrub to help ‘improve’ your colour.’
‘Have you tried the fairness cream? It’s really good!’
- Finally, it is the fairness creams that give colourism wings. Feasting on people’s complexes is a multibillion dollar industry focused on selling ‘fairness’ in a tube. And thanks to Bollywood (the Indian film industry), celebrities endorsing fairness creams make selling them a piece of cake. There’s also something to be said about Bollywood not having a single A-list actress who is anything less than gori (fair).
Following George Floyd’s death in 2020 and global protests against racism and colourism, big brands such as Unilever acknowledged their social responsibility and changed the name of their iconic ‘Fair & Lovely’ cream to ‘Glow & Lovely’. Prior to that, for nearly 4 decades, advertisements of various fairness creams went as far as to say ‘use the cream to attract the man of your dreams’. May I add, Glow & Lovely is still endorsed by a very fair Bollywood actress, as though dark skin is incapable of glowing. So, the name change is really just a terrible attempt at fulfilling their social responsibility.
Dreaming of fairer skin is out in the open. No more a secret! No more shameful. In fact, dark skin is seen as undesirable. The way society sees it, if there are so many remedies to attain fairer skin, why wouldn’t you take advantage of them? Result: the cream ends up as an essential item in the shopping basket of millions.
Make no mistake, though. It is predominantly females who are expected to strive for fairness. Tall, dark and handsome. These traits make men highly desirable. The equivalent for women is ‘fair and lovely’. Ironically, it’s the tall, ‘dark’ and handsome men who settle for nothing less than ‘fair’ female partners.
This dichotomy has given birth to sexism in colourism, to engrained complexes en masse in women. Yes, fairness creams exist for men too. However, for the vast majority of them, ‘improving’ their colour is mostly a cosmetic desire. For women, it becomes implicitly necessary. Because if they don’t, they will ‘struggle to find suitable partners’ is what millions are told every year.
Having lived in Japan for nearly a decade, I discovered that the concept of skin whitening through creams and lotions is prevalent there too. Mostly for females, of course. ‘White skin covers seven flaws’ is a popular proverb every Japanese woman is familiar with. This proverb is passed down from one generation to the next in a hushed manner. Colour is not discussed as brusquely, as it is in India, however skin whitening products from a company called Bihaku were available extensively (until recently). In fact, it didn’t just stop at face creams. Whitening body lotions and soap bars were sold with the face cream.
In 2016, I came across a similar Snail Extract Whitening Cream in Thailand, readily available in every corner shop. Again, for women.
What’s important now is not when and where colourism started, but how and why did the notion become sexist, for pretty much the entire non-white world? Women go through immense pressure to strive for fair skin. Sexism in colourism is a double whammy for women.
Did I mention colourism is complicated? Turns out, it is…only for women in most communities where colourism is prevalent. Yet another ‘ism’ for women to fight as though other ‘isms’ weren’t enough.
Is that fair? Pun very much intended!