08/04/2017 3:54 PM IST | Updated 08/04/2017 4:07 PM IST

South Indian Attitudes Towards Dark Skin Is The First Frontier In Fighting Discrimination

"We too are fair" is not the answer.

Subhendu Sarkar via Getty Images
Life in Chennai gets back to normalcy after the devastating floods in December 2015.

When the BJP leader and former parliamentarian Tarun Vijay called south Indians "black people" on international television on Friday to prove that India was not racist, it was seen as yet another indication of the deep rooted skin-colour bias against people from the southern states.

A lot of people in India, particularly in the southern states, were peeved and have decried Vijay's patently racist and condescending remark. However, when veteran DMK leader TKS Elangovan responded, he too betrayed the same bias. He said that all south Indians were not black and Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi were fair. In other words, his message was this: "we too are fair".

Instead of picking on the unconstitutionality of what appeared to be racial discrimination by a national leader (under Article 15), Elangovan, a proud Dravidian in whose books everything good should be black, also willy nilly endorsed the virtue of fairness.

While the rest of the country was unanimous in expressing disgust and shock in Vijay's statement, which in fact embarrassed him and made him apologise, the Tamil Nadu leader didn't find anything objectionable, except that the remarks were "funny". His lack of indignation showed that there is a stigma on dark-skin even in south India.

Although very often prominent public figures from north Indian states, movies, TV shows and popular culture make fun of dark-skinned people, particularly from south India, what many fail to note is that the phenomenon is equally or more pervasive in the south. AAP leader and litterateur Kumar Vishwas didn't think twice before calling the nurses from Kerala "kaali-peeli"-- who according to him were reluctant to give their photos in their bio-data. In contemporary mainstream Tamil movies, the joke is almost always on the dark skin. It's as if the comedians, and even the main leads, are hired only to make fun of the dark skin, which also means that they don't mind ridiculing themselves. You randomly pick any Tamil movie, you will find such references everywhere.

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BJP Rajya Sabha MP Tarun Vijay.

It's ironical that in Tamil Nadu, where black is synonymous with Dravidian progressive politics, it gets ridiculed the most. Whenever leaders want to wear their Dravidianism on their sleeve, they wear black; a major portion of their flags is black; and black-shirt agitation is a standard prescription when their pride is under threat. Both MGR (MG Ramachandran, the founder of AIADMK and back-to-back chief minister) and Karunanidhi wore black glasses; Vaiko of MDMK is never seen without his black shawl; and Dravidar Kazhagam's (DK) Veeramani and his Tamil nationalist supporters are seen only in black shirts.

But in popular culture, particularly in movies, black is an excuse to ridicule (and self-ridicule) one's skin colour, and to worship fairness. Rajinikanth, the biggest movie star of the south, is also the worst offender in this. In many of his movies, he is apologetic about his skin-colour, particularly when expressing his love to a woman, who is always fair-skinned. The most outrageous was Shivaji, in which skin-colour becomes an annoying obsession and a leitmotif of his romance. Dhanush, another actor from his family, continues the same tact - making fun of himself while courting fair (and richer) women. In fact, the word is that they use to say that their skin-colour is not "dark", but "karuppu" which means black. This is exactly the term used by Tarun Vijay, who incidentally is a self-confessed Tamil aficionado.

Among political leaders, many thought that Jayalalithaa had "double rose" colour while her rival "Captain" Vijaykanth was called "karuppu MGR". Karunanidhi's detractors pejoratively called him "karuppu kannadi" (man with black glasses).

This is nothing but self-stigma, that's the biggest stumbling block to fighting any form of discrimination. As illustrated by behavioural science literature, it has three steps: awareness of the stereotype, agreement with it, and applying it to one's self. What happens when one self-ridicules based on one's skin colour, is agreeing to a stereotype and reinforcing it. It disempowers one from fighting against it.

When Ilangovan counters Vijay that all south Indians are not black, what he does in fact amounts to reinforcing the self-stigma. For years, popular icons such as Rajinikanth and south Indian movies have done it when they shamed themselves and preferred fair-skinned Bollywood rejects to their dusky homegrown heroines. In a recent superhit Malayalam movie, the hero, Kattappanayile Hrithik Roashan's only obsession is his dark skin and one of his three goals in life is to marry a beautiful girl (means fair); but ultimately he gives up, chooses to be a loser, and marries a dark-skinned girl as a visible climbdown. As a dark-skinned character, he is a failure and the movie's highpoint is the self-realisation of his "limitation". That the movie ran to packed houses for weeks on end showed that this self-stigma is internalised in people so strongly that they allow themselves to be discriminated by the likes of Vijay.

This is nothing but self-stigma, that's the biggest stumbling block to fighting any form of discrimination.

It's not as harmless as it sounds and does indeed affect people individually and as a society. As this study in World Psychiatry, the journal of World Psychiatric Association has found out, by agreeing to stereotypes and internalising self-stigma, "People are dissuaded from pursuing the kind of opportunities that are fundamental to achieving life goals because of diminished self-esteem and self-efficacy. People may also avoid accessing and using evidence-based practices that help achieve these goals."

Making fun of oneself is no virtue, even if it's done by Rajinikanth, because it harms a society and allows for domination. If the south wants to resist the racial profiling that has been built on the relics of the old Madrasi stereotype, they have to stop irrelevant reference to skin colour, and ridiculing themselves. To resist the likes of Vijay, the south Indians have to first resist their own racial bias.

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