Colorism in India

For those of us who have been introduced to the wonderful world of Bollywood, you can’t help but fall in love with the intricate choreography, the catchy songs, and of course the cheesy love stories. For many brown people, Bollywood is our childhood, it is ingrained in our earliest of memories. However, just because we love something, doesn’t mean we cannot be critical, and it is time that Indian culture addresses how Bollywood and Indian media  reinforces harmful beauty ideologies.

Fair and Lovely, a skin lightening brand first introduced to the market in 1975, is a company worth 200 million dollars. It is estimated that about 90% of girls feel that skin lightening creams are an essential need. As unfortunate as this percentage is, what’s more disheartening is that many Bollywood actors and actresses endorse Fair and Lovely. Mega stars such as Shah Rukh Khan and Ashwariya Rai have both campaigned for the company and have been criticized for their endorsements. However, it appears that Sharukh Khan doesn’t fully understand the mental and physical harm that comes with using skin lightening creams, as he was completely unapologetic about why he continues to endorse Fair and Lovely. In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, Khan said that fairness creams are completely legal and that he doesn’t believe in the idea of selling beauty. His nonchalant attitude towards why brands like Fair and Lovely should be eradicated is an example of how a majority of how India continues to ignore colorism.

While some Bollywood stars continue to blindly support skin bleaching companies, actress Nandita Das has spoken out about the colorism that continues to plague the movie industry.  In 2009, Nandita endorsed a campaign called ‘Dark is Beautiful’ which is an organization that provides a forum for dark skinned people to discuss the color bias they have faced in their lives. A similar campaign in America was started by 22 year old college student Pax Jones, called Unfair and Lovely. Jones, who is African American, took pictures of Mirusha and Yanusha Yogarajah who are sisters of Sri Lankan descent. The photo series was done to acknowledge the common issue of colorism that both African American and Indians deal with in their communities. The series went viral, and soon the hashtag Unfair and Lovely trended worldwide, with women flooding social media with pictures embracing their beautiful melanin.

Radhika Parameswaran, a professor and Chair of Journalism at Indiana University Bloomington, and author of Melanin in the Margins spoke about the psychological effects of Indian media. “Advertising and society have such a symbiotic, dialectical relationship. I would say that in advertising for mainstream products like groceries, cooking oil, all of that, all the women presented are still very light-skinned and considered very beautiful. You see that the light skin norm is still operating in a widespread and rigid way.”  Parmeswaran also notes that dark skin is seen as beautiful in high fashion, for example Naomi Campbell is very popular in elite circles, and Indians will acknowledge her beauty, however, if their son brought home a woman of that complexion it would be unacceptable.

In cultures where colorism is extremely prevalent, men are able to overcome the discrimination of colorism because they are seen as the provider. If the men are able to get an education and earn various degrees, they are much more accepted in society. However, for women of a darker complexion, this is rarely the case. Colorism affects dark skinned women especially when it comes to jobs such as films, journalism, and even flight attendants. Any job that requires a person to have a lot of interaction with people, will more than likely be given to a person of a lighter complexion.

In the article titled, ‘Fighting India’s Ugly Fancy for Fair Skin’ by Saif Khalid, a writer for the Al Jazeera news network, he recounts a time when about 100 tribal girls from the western state of Maharashtra were training to become air hostess’ and cabin crew members. The training was apart of a government aided program that was meant to uplift them. When it was time for the young women to apply for job, they were all denied, allegedly due to their dark skin complexion. This is just one of the many examples of how colorism has affected women in the workplace. Many people in India society are willing to endure the negative effects of skin bleaching, if it means being able to gain acceptance in society and receive equal opportunities for jobs.

It is difficult to unlearn the negative thoughts we have learned about skin tone, especially when the media is filled with propaganda convincing us that lighter is better. However, we can begin to change our society by teaching the younger generation that beauty has no correlation to skin tone, and also holding our friends and family accountable when they are being colorist.


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