The gruesome murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department has sparked a necessary public uprising against the systematic racism that has plagued the U.S. since even prior to its inception. Century-long questions of race and color have been brought to the forefront of social and news media. Globally, people have started to reflect on the cause and effect of racism within their own communities. One of the many effects of racism has been the development of colorism. Colorism is defined as prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. Colorism has significant roots in Asian, Latino, and South Asian societies.
India is a nation widely regarded for its ingrained colorism. In India skin color has been key in the subconscious development of social systems and organizations. The fetishization of fair skin has been the key beauty standard in India for decades. Evidence is in the media. Skin lightening products and creams are advertised to promote increased beauty and success for the user. This is a common theme in many skin lightening commercials on Indian television. One who is dark skinned should use skin lightening products to become “beautiful” and increase their chance of employment. Even within the film industry of the nation, “Bollywood”, it seems that fair skin is a necessary standard for any actress trying to break into the scene, not talent.
Historically, India, for the majority of its history, was not a colorist civilization. In more ancient periods, religious heroes were described in texts as having a “dark skin tone” (Mishra, 2015, 729). For example, the hero Karishna, who was said to be the “incarnation of Lord Vishnu” was revered as “the dark hero of the Yadava tribe” (Mishra, 2015, 729). So, why has colorism become such an embedded form of discrimination in India? The answer lies in European colonialism. The colonization of India by the British brought with it the idea that the fair-skinned colonizers with different facial features were the superior race, and the indigenous Indian people were in contrast viewed more as animals than humans. Indians were forced to work jobs of difficult manual labor, and those Indians who were selected for higher ranking positions were invariably the lighter skinned. This dehumanization developed a subconscious racial prejudice that the light-skinned man would rule over the dark-skinned man.
In contemporary India, colorism drives the standards for beauty and wealth to an unsettling degree. One of the largest cosmetic markets in India today is fairness products, estimated to be a market size of around 450 million USD (Mishra, 2015, 733). The most famous television stars and film actresses promote these fairness creams and lotions. The vast majority of advertisements, television shows, and films feature lighter-skinned models and actresses, and those who are not particularly fair skinned are also often seen promoting fairness creams to truly showcase their effectiveness in changing one’s level of beauty and status. The use of fair-skinned models doubles down on the subconscious effects of colonial racism and develops a generally accepted standard of beauty in lighter (whiter) skin.
The colorism in India’s society proves a more taxing experience for dark-toned women than for men, although both genders definitively feel the effects of colorism. In India fair-skinned women have a far greater chance of finding career and marital success than darker-
skinned women. This is a phenomena found in all South Asian countries. Growing up in Pakistan I found the first question families would ask about a possible bride was the complexion of her skin. This is in many cases a deal breaker. This develops a standard of beauty that can catalyze large insecurities in young girls.
For instance, a young and impressionable teenager may notice the phenomena that television and films all show the power and beauty of having lighter skin, and not having that standard of skin tone can encourage a range of insecurities. In a patriarchal society like India it is already difficult enough for women to get ahead in their careers, but coupled with beauty standards that the majority of the nation does not meet leaves many dehumanized.
In recent years the discussion of defeating these colorist standards in India and across the globe has become a more recognized topic. Many of the most famous Indian celebrities have come under fire for their promotion of fairness creams and lotions. Priyanka Chopra, a globally renowned Indian actress, was slammed in recent weeks for her promotion of skin-whitening products. The defamation of these actors and cosmetic companies has prompted some change. Johnson & Johnson has committed to banning the manufacturing of any skin-lightening products – a small but significant victory.
Given the current climate in the US regarding the racial divide between minority communities and the police, the topic of colorism in Indian society has become a popular social justice topic for many South Asians and South Asian Americans. It is essential that the focus on issues of race and colorism does not die off with decreased media attention. It is comfortable to support topics that are at the center of the media’s attention, but once the story dims from the limelight so do the vocalizations against these discriminations. Continued effort is necessary to slow down and eventually diminish the market of fairness creams in the cosmetic industry. The deconstruction of these beauty standards needs to be emphasized.
Action must be taken against companies who have promoted or provided funding for this colorist-based form of cosmetics. A social media post or an article will not bring about the change I wish to see in the cosmetic industry. Shedding light on these issues is important, but it does not retract over a century of colorist conditioning that has led to the creation of fairness creams. Corporations that create and support these kinds of products should immediately renounce their support or discontinue any face-whitening products. I would go even further to say that these same corporations should allocate money and resources to the study and proper education of colorism.
Our children are growing up in a time where racial and colorist prejudice is no longer an acceptable form of judgement. It is important to push against the large corporations who are promoting this false conception of beauty, but more importantly parents must solidify a proper understanding of color and race in their own homes. Children must understand that beauty is not based on color. In an increasingly globalized and smaller world the concept of race and skin tone must be eliminated as a reference for judgement.
If I had the power to invest heavily in one thing today, I would work on a color blind vaccine before even the coronavirus vaccine.