My skin’s brown as a walnut except when I bleach, wax or apply an overdose of face powder to look white. As children, my school friends and I would play a seemingly harmless game- we’d press our arms against each other, trying to compare which of us had the fairest skin tone. Needless to say I never won the game, nor came second or even third, for that matter leaving me feeling woefully inadequate.
Now, whenever I think of my identity issues, I think of summer afternoons and of snow-white girls playing in dusty playgrounds and of a brown girl in a corner, waiting for home. I never told anyone in my family about this game I would lose everyday.
The second thing I think of when I think about my identity issues is of the Camel or Faber-Castell colour pencils that would come in packets of 12 or 24 with which I would colour princesses and fairytale landscapes. I took special effort to ensure that the girls outlined in the colouring books looked pretty- with shining hair, dazzling rainbow-hued clothes, crimson lips and of course a peach tinge on their skin. I could have coloured their faces and arms brown or burnt sienna if I so desired, but I did not for the simple reason that the colour pencil labelled ‘skin’ wasn’t ever brown, but always a light shade of peach, and hence all my beauties with their Indian clothes would look like the fairest European queens.
Later of course I would discover turmeric and home-made recipes, Mummy’s make-up box and expensive foundation, the magical arts of bleaching and tan-removal waxing and tricks of lighting and the convenient world of Instagram filters. Much later, I would outgrow them all, but whether out of self-actualization or acute frustration, I’m not really sure.
While researching for this article, I found out that I wasn’t the only one who felt discomfited by the ‘skin’ colour shade of the colour pencils. A second year student of law at the Bangalore Law College had actually taken offence and even filed a case against Hindustan Pencils regarding the same. Along with an online petition on change.org, he has even started an NGO with 10 other members called “Brown n Proud” to raise awareness about colour discrimination.
But although colourism is a relatively recent term, coined by Alice Walker, colour discrimination is perhaps even older than caste discrimination or even racism for it single-handedly spearheaded almost all forms of slavery through the ages.
Research suggests that people are genetically pre-disposed to associate white, and therefore fair skin with goodness and black or dark skin with evil and malice. Which is perhaps why, the platitude ‘Beauty isn’t only skin-deep’ is reiterated over and over again in moral science lessons and yet almost all Indian goddesses, with the glorious exception of Kali are portrayed with excessively fair skin. In fact, although slavery may be a thing of the past, the ‘white skin fetish’ perpetuated by the multi-million dollar cosmetics industry has enslaved a considerable population into subscribing to Euro-centric patriarchal beauty constructs.
William Blake in his poem “The Little Black Boy” writes in the voice of a negro child narrator:
“I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear,
To lean in joy upon our fathers knee.
And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him and he will then love me.”
He thus suggests that the black boy is by virtue of his dark skin colour alone is aware of his own inferiority and he will thus serve his white brother to be accepted and loved. There, you have the whole pretext of slavery in a nutshell.
The demand for white skin is of course acutely felt in the modeling and film industries. Women masquerading as cheerleaders or in fashion shows are almost exclusively fair. White actresses find it a lot easier to land high-paying movie deals than their darker sisters who are usually relegated to secondary roles. A recent example of this would be of course, Miley Cyrus’ infamous twerking performance with Robin Thicke at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards that featured black women as living props on stage.
To add insult to injury, several African magazines actually endorse chemical procedures of bleaching and other harmful practices to look more “beautiful” and appear more pleasing to the husband. The phenomenon dubbed as the “bleaching syndrome” suggest that several African Americans in a bid to be assimilated in a western society have cultivated a particular disdain for their own natural heritage and culture. In fact, poverty-stricken women who cannot afford the mainstream skin-whitening creams often turn to products available in the black market, which often contain toxic substances and may cause high blood pressure, diabetes and even cancer.
As Dr Edmund Delle, a dermatologist and founder of the Rabito Skin Clinics in Ghana says:
“The most serious thing we know, which I predicted 26 years ago, is that bleaching can cause death. “I was the first dermatologist in the world to associate it and now, after all these years, we’ve discovered cases of cancer due to bleaching because we know that melanin has a protective role in the skin and we’ve realised that black people, because of this protection, hardly have skin cancers.”
Yet despite the scientifically proven advantages of having melanin-rich dark skin, depigmentation is a common goal for women insecure about their appearances.
The desire for a complete “Ugly-Ducking-To-Beautiful-Swan” makeover isn’t just for personal satisfaction. Similar to the skin-comparison game my friends and I would play in school, certain African American sororities used a “brown paper bag test” to select who would be included in their social circle, and those whose skin color were darker than the aforementioned paper bag would be refused entry. In my own school and college, I have seen my classmates forming elitist cliques reminiscent of ‘Mean Girls’ based on patriarchal notions of beauty and skin colour.
Moreover, another striking example of white privilege can be evinced from a glance at the latest matrimonial columns suggest an overwhelming emphasis on a “fair” skin colour preferences. In matters of employment, the same bias holds strong with research showing that those who send out resumes with an attractive photo of themselves stand a better chance of getting called for an interview by the company.
This perhaps can explain the success of Photoshop and a manic obsession with photo-manipulating apps like Candy Cam and Instagram Filter that allow for selfies and groupfies with lighter and faier skin tones that can be uploaded on social media sites for “likes” and adulation.
To that end, one of the most well-known empowerment and awareness programmers is perhaps the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign started by the ‘Women Of Worth’ organization that aims to promote diversity of skin tones and focus on the ill-effects of skin color bias. Launched in 2009, Dark is Beautiful ‘is currently lobbying against advertisements that discriminate against dark skin.
Ultimately to end colour discrimination, what is needed is a shift in the mindset to allow for a complete change in the cultural representations of women across the world, without which no activism and campaigns can be adequately successful.
An edited version of this article previously appeared on Youth Ki Awaz.