It don't matter if you are black or white... Thus went the famous song by MJ. Here in India, it is more like light brown or dark brown. And it matters. A lot.
In this country, where most people fall along the spectrum from very light to very dark brown, you learn about the importance of your skin colour from a very young age. If you're a darker shade of brown, you were probably the recipient of derogatory comments almost as soon as your mommy popped you out. If you are lighter skinned, you would have heard paeans in praise of your "beauty". I have come across an equal number of unattractive fair- and dark-skinned people. But, in India, you are beautiful if your skin colour is lighter. I don't know if it is a hangover of our colonial past, or we truly can't look beyond colour.
Discrimination based on your skin colour prevails all over the world, even in the most developed countries. But what is astonishing in India is how well accepted and ingrained the connection between dark skin and ugliness is in our country. A number of dark-skinned girls and boys, including yours truly, have clawed their way to reach a decent level of self-confidence, while others have been crushed for life.
"Please don't stop your children from playing in the sun because they will get dark. Don't tell your daughters to use face packs to lighten their skin."
Here, no one breaks a sweat before making a demeaning statement about your skin colour to your face or to your child's face. Here mothers tell their own daughters to do something about their skin colour or they won't get a groom. Where hot-shot celebrities like Shahrukh Khan don't bat an eyelid while doing an advertisement that attributes their success to a lighter complexion. Where darker-skinned actresses always find their name preceded with "dusky" while announcing their achievements. I am sure it is the biggest challenge that they had to overcome. Their talent, looks and luck had nothing to do with it.
This message that dark skin is ugly is everywhere, blatantly! Switch on the telly or any magazine. Most advertisements show milky white models and most cosmetic creams promise a lighter, glowing complexion. A leading skincare brand, Fair & Lovely (can the branding be any more brash?) had advertisements that showed darker skinned girls being failures in life (interviews, in landing a relationship etc) until they acquired a brighter complexion. The dark skinned actresses progressively look fairer and more acceptable with every role they do. Sadly, even Deepika Padukone, who could have been a better role model for darker girls, appears in a fairness cream advert.
If you were to look at our hoardings or our actors, you would think that there is a systematic effort to obliterate dark skin from our landscape. It is as if dark-skinned folks did not exist. Unfortunately, kaala, saanwala and kaali are tossed as abuses at people. Just the other day, I was seeing a snippet from an interview of Priyanka Chopra, a former Miss World and one of the most popular actresses in India, mentioning how she grew up feeling ugly because she was always teased as kaali since her childhood. Imagine the scars we effortlessly leave for our children to grapple with without batting an eyelid.
Let me tell you there is nothing funny about making fun of people based on their skin colour. It's a shaming device. This apathy we display when faced with such insensitivity makes me want to hit back. Even kids pick up this attitude from their parents. Certain incidents that happened at my kids' school made me despair.
This race to fit in and be lighter skinned leads to ridiculous behaviour like applying ghastly face powder that creates a chalky, scary look. Some people repeatedly bleach their skin or use harmful skin products to get that elusive lighter skin. It degrades them as people and shreds their self esteem. Walk into a beauty parlour and you can be sure to be asked if you'd like a de-tanning, skin lightening treatment. Go to buy cosmetics, and you will find salespeople hawking you a foundation one shade lighter so that you look fairer. There are hardly any products tailored for darker skin tones. Oh yes, let us not forget to mention those hideous newspaper ads that openly ask for fair brides only. Of course, what else could matter to two human beings who are deciding to spend the rest of their lives together? Even men are not immune to the discrimination. They aspire to be "Fair and Handsome" too.
I can't believe how ludicrous this behaviour is. How can we as a country be so silly and so self-destructive? Where is our pride in our beautiful, black, lush hair; lovely black doe eyes; striking sharp features and a healthy, glowing skin that is nourished with one of the most nutritionally balanced cuisines in the world?
"Where is our pride in our beautiful, black, lush hair; lovely black doe eyes; striking sharp features and a healthy, glowing skin that is nourished with one of the most nutritionally balanced cuisines in the world?"
Like all mindset changes, this one will take time too. And it does begin from home. Please don't stop your children from playing in the sun because they will get dark. Don't tell your daughters to use face packs to lighten their skin. Don't make fun of people's colour; your children are watching and imbibing your attitude. It is because you don't want to address this derision of darker skin that millions of Indian children grow up with complexes.
I talk about colour openly in my home, sharing some of my own ridiculous experiences that now I can laugh at but hurt as hell when I was younger. At least, my children will hopefully have a more holistic view of human beings.
Here I would like to mention campaigns like Not Fair Very Lovely that are raising awareness about this issue and striving to bring pride back to all the darker skinned people in India.
It is time that we took pride in our true colour.
A version of this post has been previously published on Rachna Says.
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