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.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
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.