Canindia News

The Indian obsession with skin colour

Sabrina Almeida

As the world collectively examines its racial bias, it is time to revisit our own deep-rooted ‘colour’ prejudices as well.  The Indian obsession with everything white is evident from its multibillion dollar skin whitening (or lightening) industry and matrimonial ads.

Most Indian girls and women would have been tempted to use ‘Fair and Lovely’ to achieve the white complexion society adulates at sometime in their lives. This makes Hindustan Unilever’s ‘renaming’ of their Indian beauty staple and pledge to be ‘more inclusive of all skin types’ just another ‘whitewash’. After all the skin lightening product will continue to be sold because of the sustained high demand for it, but just under another name.

Tragically a majority of Indians believe that only fair is lovely. The colour discrimination starts from birth with fair babies being considered cuter and getting more attention. A life-long battle with colour prejudice follows, often even in your own home and family.

Having ‘fair-skinned’ babies saved me from the heartache I saw many of my friends go through when their children were born. Next came the dissection of whose skin colour the children had inherited. I was even more thankful that my kids were spared the colour comparisons to each other. Nothing is worse than kids being compared to their siblings in colour and appearance.  

Being neither fair nor dark and an only child, I never faced prejudice nor was I compared to anyone. But I do recall several remarks about me being like my dad (who was ‘fairer’ than my mum) and later… how ‘tanned’ I had become  playing out in the sun. Skin bleaching products were often recommended to restore my complexion.

All the backlash about this white obsession Indians have has done little to change their thinking. During my trips to India, more than one person has commented on how much I have ‘lightened up’ being in Canada. Their seemingly light-hearted observations are heavily laced with envy. One lady asked what I had done to achieve this remarkable change!!! I told her it was the result of being in the deep freeze for more than six months of the year. She wanted to trade places with me!!!

It is alarming to hear relatives and friends continually express  dissatisfaction with their skin colour. A close friend is so upset by her dark skin that she lightens all her photographs. Her skin colour was never an issue growing up and I believe rejections from prospective grooms had something to do with this radical change in self image.

Another friend, now in her sixties, constantly compares herself to her light-complexioned and light-eyed sister.

Ironically, one smart relative used it to her advantage, taking the first pick of clothes her parents brought home for their daughters. She reasoned that her lighter complexioned sister would look good in anything!!!

Skin colour becomes critical when seeking a marriage partner. A quick read of Indian matrimonial ads puts it into perspective. Almost all prospective grooms are seeking ‘fair’ brides and irrespective of what their own skin colour might be. Sadly, women perpetuate this prejudice with most Indian mothers insisting on ‘fair’ daughters-in-law for their sons. A dark one will be treated differently from her lighter-skinned in-law for sure.

Where did this colour bias come from? A school of thought suggests that the British favoring lighter-skinned Indians for jobs amplified this prejudice. Dark-skinned individuals were said to be socially and economically-disadvantaged during colonial rule. Having said that, the Indian caste system which began before the British invasion also had colour overtones. The move to blame our transgressions on British rule simply tries to absolve Indians of their discriminatory attitude.

Jokes about a person’s colour were fairly commonplace growing up, with individuals being nicknamed on account of their dark skin. A close friend and several others were referred to as ‘Black’ for most of their lives. They never protested.

What is worse is that this preference for ‘white’  continues no matter where in the world we may live. Conversations with young boys and girls of Indian origin here in Canada, revealed their preference for ‘white chocolate’ (white dating partners) as they jokingly referred to them. A few South Asian girls also shared how the colour bias affected the popularity index in schools. They said that being brown, they could never be part of the most popular group. But dating a ‘white’ boy could change that.

In another instance, a South Asian senior was horrified to learn that a friend’s son was dating a girl of Jamaican origin. She said that this would never be ‘allowed’ in her family.

Any change in thinking must begin at home and then  be reinforced in society. It requires us to stop forming an impression or opinion of any individual based on their skin colour.

As victims of the so-called brown bias we must help stamp out racism by freeing ourselves of our own white prejudice.

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