“I always overhear aunties at weddings saying, she’s lucky that he married her despite her complexion.”
Born a dark-skinned person, I have had my share of struggles. Aunties everywhere would suggest fairness treatments and skin lightening recipes. There have been several instances where I have felt offended and excluded because of my skin tone. And it’s not just me. Many people have had such experiences.
“When my light-skinned brother was born, I had relatives who commented that it would have been better if your daughter got this skin tone,” says Zara John from Kottayam. “I always overhear aunties at weddings saying, she’s lucky that he married her despite her complexion,” remarks Krithika Suresh, Chennai.
Recently, West Indian cricketer Darren Sammy shared his disappointment at how he and Thisara Perara were treated by their Indian Premier League (IPL) teammates who nicknamed him ‘kaalu’ during the 2013 and 2014 IPL seasons which he later on understood was a racist term.
India and Colourism
Colourism and racism have been a part of Indian society forever. A society which has been subject to white supremacy, a prevalent caste system and mythology pervasive of prejudice towards dark-skinned people have learned to automatically associate light or ‘fair’ skin with power, status and desirability.
Our contempt for brown skin has been embraced by all classes and these standards are being reinforced not just by the media but by the people we associate with everyday — families and friends.
It is no surprise that there is then a market for fairness products here. While some of them, like HUL’s Fair & Lovely — which has now dropped ‘fair’ from its name after years of pressure — have it in the name, a lot of other products mention ‘brightening’ or ‘lightening.’ This euphemism is most often used by global brands who wouldn’t do this in their home countries.
Fairness creams in India have long been depicted as a step to personal and professional success. It’s even one of those rare standards that is applied to men and women. Ever since brands discovered that there is a market for fairness products for men, the marketplace has been bombarded with such products.
An activist around the issue from Hyderabad, Akshita Maripeddi talks about how ingrained it is, from the side of the marketer as well as the consumer. “When I’m out shopping, the first thing the salesperson hands out to me is a sunscreen or a skin lightening product,” she says.
Now, with Black Lives Matter and an international reckoning about the way we treat skin colour, it is time to look inwards and fight prejudices here. Suparna Kar, a Sociology professor at Christ University, Bengaluru feels that the collapsing borders of racism and colourism are slightly problematic and must be dealt with carefully.
“When the borders between colourism and racism start blurring, we begin to divert from the core of both these issues. When it comes to race, there is a lot of variation and colour seems to gloss over it,” she explains.
The Power Of Community
In the wake of anti-racist and anti-colourist movements against systemic, institutionalised racism in several parts of the world, many Indians also came together and raised their voice against the colourism in our country through campaigns.
Chandana Hiran (22) started one such petition asking skin lightening products to be more inclusive of the different Indian skin tones which garnered more than 10,000 signs in a span of 2 weeks.
Not only did HUL drop ‘fair/fairness’, ‘white/whitening’, and ‘light/lightening’, Johnson & Johnson has decided to discontinue sales of skin lightening products under the brands Neutrogena and Clean & Clear. Yesterday, the world’s biggest cosmetics company, L’Oreal, decided to remove words referencing “fair”, “white”, and “light” from its products.
“A lot of people asked me what difference would my petition make and to be very honest even I didn’t expect a huge difference to come about but in a matter of a few weeks, I saw the power of a collective movement. But the important thing is to keep speaking up about such issues because the power of a community is something we underestimate,” she says.
Is This Enough?
Even though this is a welcome move by the companies and was long overdue, it is not enough to change the narrative that has been built into the mindsets. How can we change this ideology that has been ingrained into our minds and create a ‘fairer’ mindset that welcomes and accepts all skin tones to be beautiful?
The answer is to unlearn. Like the several brands that have decided to take a stand, it’s time for us as a society to unlearn some of these values and ideals that have passed on for generations.
“The kind of response that the petitions and campaigns got proves that the Indian society is willing to bring about a change but we must first understand, accept, & educate ourselves that colourism is a form of racism,” explains Chandana.
As with any other moment, the first step is to educate ourselves. The next is to inform others of why and how colourism works. A more aware population would mean a more sensitive one.
(Edited by Sruthi Radhakrishnan)