50 Shades Of Colorism In India

Posted by Meera Kumar in Society
July 16, 2017

I recently wrote a piece on Youth Ki Awaaz about dealing with racism by reclaiming South Indian stereotypes. I wrote the article after experiencing a number of offensive remarks directed toward South Indians, mostly dealing with appearance.

After writing that piece, I ended up moving to Hyderabad for a month. Living in South India, I assumed that the comments on skin color would cease—or perhaps naively, I had hoped so. If anything, I continue to be surprised at the creativity and depth of colorist statements. A close relative asked me the other day, “do you know of any new technology in the United States…that would help with fairness? You are only average in complexion.” “That’s not really a thing,” I responded. “People in the US really prefer tanning, you see.” “We need to always try to improve ourselves,” he told me. “Mind, intellect, skin complexion.” I was struck by the bizarreness of his statement, but felt sympathy as well; he really believed that gaining fairer skin was an indicator of progress. Considering the shade of his own skin, I wondered whether he often wished that he could be fairer too.

While visiting our neighbors’ newborn the other afternoon, I found myself feeling that pang of sympathy again: “He is adorable!” I gushed. “Unfortunately, his skin color is not so good—he’s quite dark,” the grandmother responded. “He is still so cute and perfect,” I told her. The baby was less than two weeks old and already had to carry the burden of colorism.

It’s a heavy burden and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. And unlike the comments employed to “other” and homogenize South Indians, this shade of colorism is internalized and in some ways, more painful to deal with. After all, it’s not strangers who are trying to boost their own regionalist identity—but family members who honestly believe that if you were a shade or two fairer, you might be considered beautiful.

When I hear colorist statements coming from a place of discrimination, I get angry—but when I hear them coming from a place of internalized self-loathing, I get sympathetic and then contemplative. At one end of the spectrum, I am amazed at how pervasive colorism really is—how we Indians have completely bought into the story that light skin is admirable and beautiful. On the other hand, I am distraught—how could we be so easily manipulated into this line of thinking? And why do we continue to spread and adhere to such meaningless beauty standards?

Equating skin color with intellect and mind is not just bizarre—it’s idiotic. I was wondering how to get through to people who propagate such beliefs when the answer seemingly fell in my lap. I had gone to visit some old family friends when the aged father-in-law came closer to me, “I thought you would look different!” he said, “they told me you were American but you are still really dark.” “Yeah I take after my parents…who are Indian,” I uncomfortably replied.

I then realized that this answer was the perfect one—especially when responding to family members. “Why are you so dark?” “Because, tada! I take after you.