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Growing Up In India, We’re Taught To Care About The Colour Of Our Skin

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I like to go for grocery runs at weird times, just so you know, to beat the rush on the roads and the long lines at the cash counter. It was a sunny day in the city of Pune, India. The month was April, and the year, 2019. I’d decided to stock up on some tofu, frozen peas, and overpriced almond milk between classes. Because why not, right?

The walk back home was short but I was soaking in every bit of the sun I could. It wasn’t harsh, just warm and glowy against my skin. I was almost home when a woman walking over from the opposite side of the road decided to stop me.

It is so sunny. What are you doing out at this time? You have such a nice colour. Do you really want to become dark?” she said.
I shrugged it off and walked on, aware that she probably thought that calling me “fair” was some kind of compliment. India does not just have a racism problem— it has a colourism problem — and yes, that becomes a racism problem too. When you’ve been brought up in India, you’re taught to care about the colour of your skin.

fairness creams and colourism in india, racism protest
When you’ve been brought up in India, you’re taught to care about the colour of your skin. Representational image.

Everybody around you— women and men — are buying fairness creams, face washes, and heck, even skin lightening shaving gel. It’s hammered into your psyche that fair is good and dark is bad.

Ads in the matrimonial section of newspapers (yes, we have those — more on that in another article) almost always state, ‘fair-skinned bride’ as one of the necessities to apply. Yes, again, to become someone’s wife.

My skin colour is light for an Indian. I get it from my dad. My mother is dark. When I was growing up, she’d tell me stories of how her grandmother, my grandfather’s mum, wasn’t particularly fond of her. My great grandmum was a blue-eyed fair-skinned lady who played cards with wives of British ministers and rode in a horse-pulled carriage. She, instead, preferred my uncles, both of whom were lighter than mum.
These are the stories I heard growing up. Of course, my family would share them with me because they were amusing. It is only later in life I realized how unfunny, and deeply problematic, they truly are.

India Has A Colourism Problem

Racism is discrimination based on your race. You could be a light-skinned African American but that wouldn’t matter to a racist— they’d still find a way to be a bigot. Colourism, on the other hand, is far more nuanced I feel.
According to Wikipedia, “discrimination based on skin colour, also known as colourism or shadeism, is a form of prejudice or discrimination usually from members of the same race in which people are treated differently based on the social implications from cultural meanings attached to skin colour.

Who Does Colourism Impact And Why?

India is the seventh-largest country by size and the second-largest by population. People in the West know ‘about’ diversity in India — they know it exists.

I, along with billions of other Indians and those who have travelled to India, has seen just the extent of this diversity — in terms of religion, language, food, clothes, customs, festivals, class, and yes, the colour of one’s skin.

Many Indians believe that those in north India are usually lighter-toned, those in the south are darker. People in the north-east (near the border with China and Mynamar) have mongoloid features. Those in the state of Punjab are usually very light, and those in Kashmir often have middle Eastern features. We’re all brown, of course, but our looks vary to quite an extent.

South Indians often bear the brunt of this colourism. They tend to be darker and are usually made fun of for their colour. One South Indian film industry— fun fact: known as Tollywood— is notorious for hiring mostly light-skinned female leads. When a South Indian woman watches a Bollywood or Tollywood film, she really doesn’t find herself represented. Bollywood movies themselves are filled with women leads who often end up coming from mostly Punjabi families.

Women and men have begun to recognize the need to fight the oppression that comes with supporting money-making firms that profit off of centuries of discrimination.

Does Colourism Lead To Racism?

Who is to say that a society that does not take measures to punish colourism wouldn’t do the same for racism? Indians are notorious for being racists, and crimes against African students in India are not unheard of. Further, white people in India often receive an abundance of attention and respect.

If you’ve ever had the chance of visiting the Taj Mahal or the Red Fort (in New Delhi), you’d know what I mean.

Oftentimes, Indians come up to white folk and have them click a photo with them. Worse still is shoving their babies at white people for them to carry and then clicking photos.

All this attention may be uncomfortable for these tourists, sure, but it comes from a place of awe. It comes from a place of wanting to be white.

This is also where India’s obsession with whiteness vastly differs from white people wanting to ‘get a tan.’
One comes from centuries of oppression. The other from a place of vanity, respectively.

The common feature between racism and colourism is this — it’s visible. There is no escaping it. Unless there is…?

Thus begins the obsession with running away from the sun, and hoarding on to fairness creams. Yes, that’s correct — creams that you apply on your FACE and BODY to become fairer. There is an entire industry out there profiting from insecurities of Indian women and men. The fairness cream industry in India alone is a 200+ million dollar industry. This is in a country where the minimum wage stands at less than $80 per month.

Insecurities, need I remind you, find their way back to over three centuries of colonialism.

Check out an ad starring Priyanka Chopra from one of the most widely used creams in India. I grew up watching ads like these on TV on a regular basis. So do millions, if not billions, of other girls and boys.
There is a certain brand of ‘fairness’ creams called Fair And Lovely—a household name in India. You cannot go without seeing some absurd ad promoting the product. Here is an example of a typical fairness cream ad on TV:

  • A dark-skinned girl goes in for a job interview.
  • She does not get the job.
  • She is sad — understandably so — and then her light-skinned friend walks in and hands her a tube of this fairness cream.
  • This dark-skinned girl wears in for 14 days, becomes lighter, and gets the job.

The only variable that has changed is the colour of this girl’s skin.

Slam poet Aranya’s Johar poem on Indian society’s obsession with becoming whiter went viral in 2017. Change is coming to India. Women and men have begun to recognize the need to fight the oppression that comes with supporting money-making firms that profit off of centuries of discrimination.

The British Raj ended over seven decades over. Yet here we are. Constantly being punished for not being white enough. And trying — desperately — to be white. To be good enough.

This article was originally published here.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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