The Barrier of Colorism in India
Feb 5th, 2023
Bollywood films, varied as they might be, have one thing in common: the leading
personas have a fair complexion, while darker skinned characters (if any) are either
one-dimensional side roles or ‘funny’ caricatures, with the aforementioned hilarity centering skin tone as a punchline.
A term coined by author and activist Alice Walker, ‘colorism’ is defined as a “prejudicial
or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color”. This issue goes
beyond matters of race and ethnicity, and embeds itself in marginalized communities and
cultivates a deep-rooted beauty standard.
India is a notable contributor to this debilitating issue, and is one of the central feeders to
the continent’s staggering $7.5 billion skin whitening industry (CNN). The desire for lighter skin has negatively affected India’s population and is entrenched in its culture, subsequently creating barriers to the pursuit of a better life for citizens with darker complexions.
Colorism has been a thriving force in India throughout history, with origins of this beauty
standard dating back centuries. One of the glaring initiators has been the impact of British
colonialism- their influence encouraged an aspiration for a lighter skin tone through colorism.
In fact, Indian society (pre foreign invasions) was free from the burdens of colorism, and
communities were able to thrive regardless of skin color. Ph.D. Neha Mishra states that “Dark color didn’t attach a stigma and was used as a describing feature of a population or person, many times as an attribute of beauty itself unlike the modern times".
However, once Britain took over, citizens began to manufacture the ideal of lighter skin
being worthier, as fair skin allowed for a better status and job. For example, Indians with lighter skin tones were more favourable for higher rankings in the military and chances of promotion in their line of work.
But colonialism aside, India’s notorious caste system- a hierarchy that was abolished in
1950 but is still recognized today- also comes into play in colorism. Individuals are segregated by their family background from Brahmin (highest caste; intellectuals), to Dalit (lowest caste; untouchables). The general interpretation concludes that dark skin is synonymous with a low caste, owing to their history of working manual labor in the sun. This regressive theory is steeped in the minds of citizens and increases distaste for duskier complexions.
This bigotry results in the indisputable advantage that those with paler skin receive due to
colorism. Compared to those with darker complexions, fair-skinned citizens are treated with more respect and admiration, and will be able to attain jobs and find partners easily. To thwart this discrimination, citizens buy into the idea that the color of one’s skin, unless altered through whitening products or bleaching, will impede their way towards a better future.
A reeling 60% of women and 10% of men use skin whiteners in India, which is not only
detrimental to not only one’s health, but also perpetuates unhealthy ideals of beauty. Even so, whitening products or operations are falsely endorsed as safe and rewarding. The marketing behind skin whiteners is strategized to target insecurities, giving individuals the illusion that once their skin is lighter, their life will be more fulfilling.
In a New York Times article, interviewee and Indian anti-colorism activist Christy
Jennifer stated that as someone with a darker complexion, she was “constantly advised on which skin lightening cream to use...every day, dignity and self-esteem were reduced to the color of my skin”. Unfortunately, her story is not unique, as millions of citizens (particularly women) are subject daily to such derogatory remarks.
However, many steps have been taken to combat colorism. Some ways citizens have been
confronting prejudices are by sharing stories of their experiences and correcting false narratives through the media. Campaigns such as ‘Dark is Beautiful’, ‘#unfairandlovely’ (a spin on the whitening brand ‘Fair and Lovely’), and ‘#NotFair’ are just a few examples of campaigns which have disparaged the theory of dark skin being lesser.
#NotFair’s satirical campaign of skin products’ deceptive advertising
Additionally, international film and TV productions have been increasing their
representation in the industry. An example would be Netflix’s recent season of ‘Bridgerton’,
which showcases two darker skinned Indian actresses as romantic leads. While this may be a small step in the bigger picture, these progressions are instrumental and cannot be ignored.
Although the journey to ending colorism has been spotted with barriers, India has been
moulding its mindset for the better. But this social standard continues to validate racist attitudes for citizens, and the journey to obtain a lighter complexion has been reinforced over generations. This amoral social norm endures to divide citizens and prohibits them from a more fulfilling future. Changing these negative archetypes is a step to bettering lives, and this battle cannot be lost.