Colonial indoctrination and colorism in India

Wednesday, June 24, 2020 - 4:07pm

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Graphic by Hibah Chugtai

As the Black liberation movement gained traction over the past month, I, like many others, have taken time to learn, understand and reflect on the systemic racial prejudice ingrained in this country against Black Americans. However, from a broader perspective, I’ve also taken the time to look introspectively and reflect on the silent, learned biases I’ve experienced throughout my life and how to actively combat them — especially within the Indian community. In India, there exists a conglomeration of different skin tones, shades of brown, languages and cultures, but like most diverse nations, prejudice and innate biases continue to perpetuate. Most recognizable to me is colorism on the spectrum of skin tone.There is an old Indian home-remedy recommended for expecting mothers — mainly those with a darker, “musty” tone — to drink saffron milk once a day to make sure their child will be “blessed” with fair skin. Many Indian families, secretly or not, hope their child is born with a lighter complexion due to the increased likability and desirability they would possess in society, but the quest for fairness does not end here. Skin-lightening products, like “Fair & Lovely,” “Pond’s White Beauty” and “Lotus Herbals Whiteglow” are commonplace in Indian grocery stores, and make up an industry expected to be worth over $24 billion by 2027 globally. The media portrays lighter-skinned families in advertisements and TV shows, and Bollywood favors lighter-skinned actresses like Aishwarya Rai, Kareena Kapoor and Katrina Kaif (who is also half-white) as the stars of films, creating an inaccurate ideal for Indians to look up to. This representation issue has been addressed more recently by certain actors and actresses’ campaigns, like Nandita Das’ “Stay Unfair, Stay Beautiful” campaign, but many stay complacent. Yet, colorism might be most noticeable at the grassroots level. Comments from Indian relatives or acquaintances like “The bride is pretty, but dark,” “Oh, she’s so beautiful and fair!” and “She’s so dark, hopefully the baby won’t be as dark,” continue throughout the life of a “darker” Indian individual, and serve as microaggressions pinning a negative connotation on those with a darker shade of brown.

Indian society has been primed for years with the notion that fairer skin is simply better. It means you’re more attractive, a more desirable spouse and even a more sought out employee or leader. But where does this colorism come from? Some scholars point to Ancient India and the construction of the caste system, which divided labor among different groups with the intention that each class had an equally important role to society. Yet as time passed, misinterpretation occurred. Higher status went to more “noble” occupations — religious Brahmins, education related jobs — and lower status belonged to those who worked dirtier, more labor-intensive work outside. And as a result of this outdoor work, these people naturally became darker-skinned. 

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Graphic by Hibah Chugtai

However, many ancient Hindu scriptures and texts clearly reference “darker-skinned” individuals who still held great respect in society. So next, we look to colonialism. After becoming a British colony, the image of a “Black colored” Indian was projected as inferior by British public officials. Darker-skinned Indians were less likely to be hired by the British empire and were given odder jobs and more tedious work, while lighter-skinned Indians were targeted as “allies” of the British and were hired more frequently for government roles. As stated by an American Sociological Society paper, “Whiteness became identified with all that is civilised, virtuous and beautiful,” and these lighter-skinned Indians were “closer to the opportunities that were only afforded to white people.” As colonialism occurred throughout the world, this mindset slowly drove itself into the minds of Indians, whether they realized it or not. A wedge separated Indians into lighter and darker shades of brown, creating generations with an innate desire to be lighter. 

Finally, globalization and migration in the 90s created a new definition around mainstream media in India. As Western influences rose, Bollywood adapted and created a culture that appealed to individuals outside of the traditional Indian demographic. Producers wanted to showcase a feel-good, fun atmosphere with Western ideals, but trying to include these Western ideals also incorporates the image of the lighter, more desirable identity. This is reflected in Indian media — its advertisements, TV shows and movies which all emphasize lighter women and men and label them as the mark of beauty.

This implicit bias has been internalized by Indian society and culture for decades. It does not outwardly show itself in the same way the United States’ prejudice systemically affects Black Americans, but it still accepts and normalizes the belief that lighter is better. This indoctrinated discrimination demeans a major body of society. Colorism has led to very implicit discrimination that affects the greater society but also trickles down into everyday microagressions such as being told to drink saffron milk so your child doesn’t inherit the same dark genes you did, or that being pretty and dark is surprising or rare. 

As we Indian-Americans look to become strong allies to our Black brothers and sisters during the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, it’s also important to come to terms and recognize the internal biases within our own communities and cultures. These small moments of discrimination contribute to wider, global issues and generational beliefs that are recklessly passed on through small comments and microaggressions. Being able to actively combat these ideas and thoughts, whether it be within ourselves, our families or wider communities, could make all the difference. For more resources and ways to support BLM as a South Asian American, read here

Sunitha Palat can be contacted at spalat@umich.edu