The strong stand taken by Indian celebrities, the most recent being Tannishtha Chatterjee, against colour prejudice is long overdue. Whether or not it will change deep-rooted biases remains to be seen.
“Fair” or “white” is preferred all over the world whether it is India, Japan or Nigeria. Some studies also suggest that though mixed-race individuals are socially lower than whites, they have a distinct advantage over the blacks. Even robots picked mainly white winners at the first international beauty contest judged by machines. Yes, the facts might be a bit skewed here as programming played a big role in their choices, but the message is clear.
Even today social mobility is tied to skin colour. In Brazil for instance just like in India, although (or because) a larger percentage of the population is dark-skinned, it is the fairer ones that find favour. Even Japan distinguishes between shades of white. Despite conscious efforts being made to include models of colour in advertisements, fashion shows and magazines, the dominating presence of the “white beauties” tends to overshadow them, quite literally.
Women face a bigger problem than men. While they might be accepting of a darker-skinned partner, most males (especially of Indian origin) will unashamedly select a “fair” wife. They are “easier on the eye” one gentleman remarked and this seems to be echoed by many young Indo-Canadian males who consider a “white girlfriend” as a status symbol.
Where did this bias come from? While in North America it is linked to slavery, colonization might have influenced the rest of the world. The British, Spanish, Portuguese and French were all white. We can only imagine whether standards would be different if the colonists were dark-skinned.
Even Aishwarya Rai Bachchan might owe her adulatory status to her skin and eye colour. Photoshop them and the reactions might be quite devastating. This could be one of the reasons Sushmita Sen was less popular than Aishwarya, even though she won the Miss Universe contest.
Most Indians will always asks whether a baby is “fair” and sympathize with parents of dark-skinned daughters. Girls are repeatedly told to stay out of the sun to avoid tarnishing their complexion. The not-so-fair ones are often restricted to wearing certain colours in a bid to make their skin look lighter.
That being said, physical attributes have also inspired name calling and jokes in India for as long as I can remember.
Individuals were referred to as “Kaalia” or “Kaania” without any attention being paid to their feelings or self-esteem. One of my friends was rechristened “Blacks” as a result of which few remember his given name. He was not the only one.
I recall being ticked off by a particular individual who couldn’t get past my son’s skin colour. All he could talk about was his fairness. The skin-whitening product ads by Emami and Fair and Lovely were as much a part of our childhood as were the “foreign” nursery rhymes. A Canadian girl who visited recently remarked about the “two shades lighter” tag line one of them espoused.
With skin-whitening products being a major industry in India, it is highly unlikely major change will occur here any time soon. Garnier, L’Oreal, Revlon, etc. everyone wants a piece of the pie. Are all women willing to boycott these products? Will it change a suitor’s preferences?
The bias comes with us no matter which part of the world we live in. In fact it becomes worse with the Caucasian competition all around. Character and personality become secondary as skin colour is the main attraction. How do we change this? I’m not sure that we want to. Or can!