Updated: Aug 18, 2020
By Anya Biswas, Emma Willard School
Colorism: Prejudice or discrimination especially within a racial or ethnic group favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin. (Merriam Webster)
The rise of colorism in India has been relevant from the time of British colonizers. It is said that “colorism in India has been fueled due to events under British colonial rule, where they consistently demeaned dark-skinned Indians and favored the light-skinned ones.”(Morals Evolution: A study in Comparative Ethics) Although it may seem that the British colonizers had engraved colorism in the hearts and minds of the Indians, these ideas have been prevalent throughout early periods in India.
During the Vedic period, from 1500 to 500 BCE, “there was no caste system in India, yet there was distinguishment between the fair skinned conquering Aryans and the subject dark skinned Daysus,”(Morals Evolution: A study in Comparative Ethics) This ongoing standard and division based on colorism is widely known in India and has influenced many in this populous country. It has impacted marketing, the film industry, as well as established pigmentocracy which affects marriageability and the society in India.
Ideas of colorism in India are clearly shown in the market, having fairness creams among the highest selling products in the country. A popular face whitening cream: Fair and Lovely, which also later came out with its counterpart: Fair and Handsome for men, is shown to be the key tool for not only bright skin, but more love and appreciation from society. This idea is clearly shown in the advertisements, with contrasting situations for dark-skinned Indians compared to light-skinned Indians. Darker skinned Indians are shown to be more sad and tend to get less attention due to their unattractiveness, while the opposite is shown for fair-skinned Indians.
Bollywood has also shown bias towards fair actors and actresses. Most Bollywood actresses have either turned fair for a chance to get into the Bollywood industry or have had their skin darkened to play lower roles. The clear distinction between fair-skinned actresses and actors and dark-skinned ones are seen to be aligned consistently with stereotypes of movie roles. Oftentimes, light-skinned actors and actresses are given the lead roles and praised for their fair looks, while dark-skinned actors and actresses are often given roles as the sidekicks, lower in social class, or just as an inferior role. “Even today, a popular Netflix TV Show called Never Have I Ever, had showed the protagonist, Devi, as a average looking American-Indian girl not portrayed as charming but rather as a nerd who desperately puts in effort to be attractive, while on the contrary, her cousin, Kamala, is shown as a fair and beautiful young lady who just seems to get all the guys with her charm and beauty.” (Morals Evolution: A study in Comparative Ethics)
Due to social standards in India based on complexion, the idea of pigmentocracy has started to establish itself and has affected marriage and relationships.
“Pigmentocracy is a government by or social hierarchy of those with a certain skin tone, regardless of race or socioeconomic status.”(Morals Evolution: A study in Comparative Ethics)
In other words, it means that a society is in distinction based on skin color only. This is a common issue for society in India. The effects of pigmentocracy are related to marriageability in India. “Researchers have found that in looking for mates in arranged marriages in India, men were more likely than women to state a preference in skin color.” (Morals Evolution: A study in Comparative Ethics)
Now, in the modern world, technology plays a more significant role in finding one's soulmate for dating or marriage. A popular dating and match-making website in India called Shaadi.com was said to ask the users of the app to specify their skin colors, using descriptors like ‘fair,’ ‘wheatish’, and ‘dark’. Then the app allowed the users to search for partners. This idea of pigmentocracy is affecting the new generation. A relationship counselor named Kinjal Pandya says, “In the past, I used to get many cases where women were mistreated by their family members because they were dark-skinned. The attitude of the younger generation is changing towards such issues.”(Morals Evolution: A study in Comparative Ethics)
Despite the colorism that many face everyday in India, there is still hope for change. Colorism is,
“as described in a 1983 book called: In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, ‘as a prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.’”(Morals Evolution: A study in Comparative Ethics)
The recent trauma of George Flyod, a young African American that had been murdered by the police in public, has quickly triggered the BLM movement. Slowly, as ideas of racial injustice and protests began to hit a stride, it also brought awareness to ideas of colorism in places like India. We might say that the world has begun to take notice. “Major international consumer brands were facing accusations for promoting racist brands...this meant that skin-lightening creams in India would have to remove racist labels from their brand names.”(India Debates Skin-Tone Bias as Beauty Companies Alter Ads) Shaadi.com has decided to remove the filter that allowed for people to select partners based on their skin tone.” (India Debates Skin-Tone Bias as Beauty Companies Alter Ads) “The Dark is Beautiful Campaign, launched in 2009, carries celebrity endorsement...and provides a forum for people to share their personal stories of skin color bias.” (India Debates Skin-Tone Bias as Beauty Companies Alter Ads)
India has a variety of skin tones throughout its regions, the country almost acting as a spectrum of tones. “...Indians from the north most region are fair-skinned while Indians from the northeastern region tend to have a more yellow skin tone akin to their Southeast Asian counterparts...while Southern Indians have dark skin.” (The Finer Nuances)
We’ve all been aware of common racial injustice in this world; It's hard to believe that even the shades in between are being condemned. Indians all look towards the end of the spectrum leaning only towards the fair skin tone side. This is not the way we should view skin color. This is a characteristic that is out of control for humans. There is hope. Society can stop criticizing people for their complexion even within the same race. At the end of the day, it's just a color, and especially in India, it should not establish pigmentocracy, affect marriageability or influence societal standards.
Please go and help support campaigns such as Dark and Beautiful if you think colorism is not right, especially in India. It doesn’t have to be grand, but anything no matter how small can help. You can help spread messages through hashtags such as #unfairandlovely. You can always create change in this world by your actions.
Abraham, M.R. (September 4th, 2017) Dark is beautiful: the battle to end the world’s
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Dark is divine: What color are indian gods and
Discrimination baed on skin color.
Gettleman, J. (June 26th, 2020) India Debates Skin-Tone Bias as Beauty Companies Alter Ads.
Grover, P. (12th May 2020) Colorism: Seeking fairness in Southeast Asian communities.
Hobhouse, L.T. (1906) Morals in Evolution: A Study in Comparative Ethics.
Mahtani, M. (Updated on June 24th 2020) An Asian website has removed an option that asked users to specify their skin tone.
Mishra, N. (2015) India and Colorism: The Finer Nuances.
Nagar I. (April-june 2018) The Unfair Selection: A Study on Skin-Color in Arranged Indian Marriages.
Rodrigues, Collins (Updated on March 20th, 2015) India’s unfair obsession with fair skin, its Impact on relationships
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