Monday, September 21, 2009

Skin Colour Among Indians

- Is it Really a Question of Fairness?

Recently, Liz, one of my American readers, shared her feelings with me about India. She told me that some conversations with her friends baffled her and she would like to hear my answer. Liz’s letter inspired me to write this article.

In her letter, she writes, “I was speaking with a girl from New Delhi about India and the conversation turned to me complimenting Indians' many skin tones and undertones like, ginger snap, chocolate, cinnamon, gold or caramel when she ruined the moment by saying, ‘Well, most Indians aren't that dark...most are wheatish. Darker skin tones are mainly in the South.’ Really??? Then she said more or less, that if North Indians are darker than wheatish they usually have a sun tan. The complexions that I described I've seen on Travel shows that went to various parts of India. Mainly the North, like Rajasthan. So all this time most Indians aren't dark-skinned like I thought?"

Another girl, also a friend of the above, always attributed dark skin to “the climate.” Like, ‘They're dark because of the climate.’ I mentioned to her of how some Africans have black skin and she seriously asked ‘because of the climate?’ I've read of other Indians on Sepia Mutiny
attribute India's colorism to caste and that caste was based on skin color. That dark skin was from working outdoors and the upper caste ‘stayed’ light-skinned indoors.” She then asked me, “Are Indians in denial that they're a dark-skinned race of people?”

In response, I told Liz that I am not at all interested in determining what skin colours Indians have. I always believed that racism is bad wherever and in whatever form it takes. But it is also not a fact of any pride to show one’s self superior on the basis of one’s body colour. It is also not justified to use body colour as the basis of any creed or caste.

Racial Diversity in India

India has vast diverse racial and cultural origins. The exact origins of most Indian people are almost impossible to determine because of the large variety of races and cultures that have invaded and have been assimilated into the subcontinent. There are elements of three major racial groups: the Caucasoid, the Australoid, and the Mongoloid. All may be found in present-day India. But it is also debatable whether the people from southern India (the so-called Dravidians) belong to the Caucasoid group or not.

The languages related to these races are also different in origin. Assamese and Oriya are nearer to each other in dialect but differ in their racial origin; Oriyas are nearer to Caucasoid while Assamese are nearer to Mongoloid.

All tribal people do not belong to the Australoid groups and in some parts of Eastern India, we find a mixed race of these groups which we may call as Sankara or mixed group (Sankara in Sanskrit means mixed varieties).

Common Myths About the Colour of Our Skin

The melanocytes in the epidermis are responsible for the intensity of skin colour. The number of melanocytes is the same in both fair- and dark-skinned people. The amount of melanin produced by the melanocytes is partly determined by genetics and partly determined by the environment. People living near the tropics have more melanin to protect them from the harsher rays of the sun. There are some myths with dark skin in the Indian mind, which have no scientific basis.

The first myth is that ‘white skin’ is linked with the Aryan race while ‘black’ skin is Dravidian and tribal. So people of the ‘north’ in India are white and people of the ‘south’ are black. The ‘brown-coloured’ people are from the mixed races (‘shankar’) of Aryan with both Dravidain and Tribal. This is totally wrong. The theory of ‘Aryan invasion’ is still a debatable controversy and if so-called ‘Dravidians,’ people from south, are ‘dark coloured,’ how then do we find most of the Bollywood south Indian film actresses with ‘very fair skin?’ How do people from Rajasthan and Mahrashtra, Gujarat don’t appear to be so ‘fair?’

The second myth is ‘white’ people are from aristocratic and rich families where ‘dark’ people are from the labour class or are ‘tribal.’ This is also wrong. The tribal people of North-East India have ‘pale’ and ‘fair’ skin. I have encountered many ‘dalit’ girls in my surroundings with fair skin as well.

In South Asia, pale skin is considered as a social marker of aristocratic class allegiance. A peculiar idea in the Desi mind still prevails that dark skin is associated with labour class people as some of Liz’s friends told her. I think this notion has been a result of colonialism, as India was under British colonial rule for more than 200 years and the British people kept themselves alien from Desi people on this racial ground. In post-colonial India, the word “Saheb” (which was meant to call the “white” people) has been used for the upper-class people or bureaucrats to pay honour to them. I think, this racial skin preference has its roots in an historic background.

From Myth to Reality

I recently recollected a conversation in the staff common room of my college where I have been employed. This issue of skin colour came into sharp focus as I silently listened. There once a new chap joined with us as a laboratory assistant in physics. Finding him a bachelor, one of my colleagues, a lecturer in zoology asked him what type of bride he would like. The new chap replied, “Surely a fair skinned girl.” The zoology lecturer again asked, “What if the girl has only fair skin and hasn’t any sharp body features?” The newcomer replied, “I could manage. The fair skin has its own charm.”

I was a silent listener there, as I didn’t want to impose my feminist ideas there to continue a confronting argument. But the answers of that newcomer had embarrassed me for a while. In our ‘matrimonial ads,’ we often find ‘looking for a fair beautiful girl’ is a common phrase from the prospective groom’s side. I haven’t read any ad, asking for a ‘fair skinned groom.’

To write this article, I searched for the ‘business survey’ of fairness cosmetics products and found that there are at least 12 creams on the market from different companies claiming to make your skin fairer within seven days. The report indicated that their business leapfrogged from 384 crore in 1997-1998 to 558 crore in 1999-2000. And in six months between 2000-2001, sales reached up to 480 crore.

Besides these fairness-out-of-a tube brands, there are also soaps and talc claiming to remove blemishes to give the users a smooth and glowing complexion. Their business turnover is not included here. These business houses have tried to trap their ‘male consumers’ by creating a ‘fair-skinned consciousness’ among boys. Recently, Bollywood mega-star Shahrukh Khan appeared in a television commercial offering a tin of skin-whitener to darker-complected young boys who are unlucky with the ladies. The darker complected boy then suddenly attains popularity with women because apparently, the skin-whitener has lightened his complexion. It may seem amazing to Indian readers that in North America and other part of Europe, tanning has become an profitable industry, while in South Asia, people spend millions of dollars trying to make their skin darker.

There are numerous Hindu Gods and Goddesses who are dark or blue or dusky in appearance. Draupadi, a prominent character of mythical epic The Mahabharat, was dark in appearance. She captivated and enamored all the men of her era. Kings and princess were even ready to go into war for her. She had arranged for a Swayamvara to choose her husband.

But today, Hindu parents of dark-complected sons always prefer fair bride. But the same parents lament that their dark-complected daughter is not getting a good husband due to her skin color. What is most baffling is that we are ready to worship the dark-skinned gods and take their blessings but are not ready to accept a dark-skinned person as a life partner.

The Effects of Bollywood and Hollywood

The coloured mania has also affected Bollywood filmmakers and there, we find they always make it a point to get a dark man to play the villain, the rapist, the goonda, and mafia man, only to be beaten up by fair-skinned heroes. The Bollywood movies and TV serials are also responsible of giving the idea among the masses that that dark-skinned girls don’t have a chance of finding love. It is also a literary device –common in books,plays, and opera as well.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, we see a black model Naomi Campbell establish herself as a supermodel. While in the United States, Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, Diahann Carroll, Halle Berry, Whoopi Goldberg, Kerry Washington, Thandi Newton, Jennifer Hudson, Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thomas, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Regina King, Sharon Warren, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Macy Gray, Lackawanna Blues and countless other black actresses from different generations have shined in the spotlight and have illuminated the silver screen and television sets.

How many black-skinned actresses have we seen on our Desi movies and TVs here in India? If there are few, the directors ask their make-up staff to make these dark-skinned women fairer for the camera.

The Many Forms of Racism in India Today

We Indians are living with a strange dilemma and we seem to use different terminologies for the same 'racism.' On one side, we oppose racism, particularly western racism. On the other side, we don’t want to recognise unexpressed internal hatred or discrimination of each other (e.g., between North Indians and South Indians) based on race. When our children are attacked either in Britain or Canada or in Australia, we shout against racial discrimination in these countries. We seem to see clearer when the subject is far away and seem less in focus when it is closer.

On one hand, we protest racism abroad; on the other hand, we seem to patronize and support it in our own countries. When a political leader, either from the south or from Maharashtra shouts 'why do these boys come from other states to our state and steal our jobs,' we don’t find any racism there. But when a Westerner tells why Asians are stealing our jobs away, we say they are racists and we are suffering from racial discrimination. The Desi Indians abroad feel less Indian feelings and love to think themselves as more Asian-Americans or Asian-Europeans than Asians or particularly as south Asians. I have met some young Indians working abroad and they feel their co-Indian colleagues (also known as ‘Desi’) neighbours never show any affinity towards them yet they get all types of cooperation from those western colleagues with whom they work. It seems to be a fabrication of Bollywood movies or some popular fictions that [Indian] people abroad are always missing their motherland.

Misogyny is also a part of racism. Celia R. Daileader, a Professor of English at Florida State University (United States) and a famous feminist scholar, has identified a relationship between racism and misogyny by creating the new term “Othello Myth” or “Othellophilia” in her book Racism, Misogyny, and the "Othello" Myth: Inter-racial Couples from Shakespeare to Spike Lee (published by Cambridge University Press, 2005, ISBN-10: 0521848784,ISBN-13: 978-0521848787 ). She describes that Anglo-American culture's obsession with sex between black men and white women, a formula that inverts the sad realities of imperialism and slave culture, has less to do with race, per se, than with an imaginative appropriation of black men to control women, both black and white. She writes, “Othellophilia as a cultural construct is first and foremost about women--white women explicitly, as the 'subjects' of representation; black women implicitly, as the abjected and/or marginalized subjects of the suppressed counter-narrative (page 10).” Daileader argues that a “fear of female sexual autonomy regularly shades into fear of miscegenation (page 46).” Proving her point, Daileader asks, “Is the man who beats his daughter for sleeping with a black man (as in Jungle Fever) a sexist or a racist? (page 218)” She concludes, “Racism will turn to misogyny on a dime; misogyny often obscures racism (page 218)."

Is It A Question of Fairness?

For me, racism is bad wherever or in whatever form it takes. I am always against racism, be it in the form of attacks on Indians in Australia, or in the form of misogynic control over female sexuality through the ‘Othello Myth,’ or in the form of interracial feelings throughout the Indian subcontinent. What do you think?