Why we must see red

There is, thankfully, a growing awareness against colourism both in India and other countries. Counter-movements like Dark is Beautiful are beginning to have an impact. But the fact is colourism is deeply embedded in India’s social fabric.
Image used for representation
Image used for representationPexels

There was a recent report of a prominent classical dancer declaring that a male colleague should not be dancing, as he was black as a crow. This, according to her, was not aesthetically pleasing. The fact that she belonged to a region where the natural tone of the skin is in the darker shades made her comment even more outrageous. Another tragic report was that of a father in Vijayawada poisoning his 18-month-old daughter as she was dark-skinned.

There is a deep-rooted prejudice in our country against dark skin. This has given rise to a flourishing and exploitative cosmetic industry. From infamous chemical bleaches and fairness creams to the glutathione promise, there is an endeavour to sell an illusory standard of beauty as being light-skinned. I am struck by the irony that the cosmetic industry is making its profits by changing dark to light when it’s skin, and white to black when it’s hair. It thrives on people unhappy with their appearance.

A look at matrimonial ads, the lack of acceptance of dark-skinned models in the fashion industry or as female leads in the film industry shows the extent of bias. This is surprising in a country where we worship the dark- skinned Krishna and Draupadi, the dusky wife of the Pandavas, is celebrated for her beauty and valour.

The history of colourism in India is often linked to caste. There is a theory that the light-skinned Aryan invaders subjugated the dark-skinned indigenous population and introduced the Varna or caste system based on colour. Caste is considered India’s version of racism, a weapon to oppress certain socio-economic groups. Those who worked long hours under the sun emerged with darker skin. However, the intermingling of the races over the centuries has created a blended palette in our country. Variations in skin colour are often seen within the same family.

The global prevalence of colourism among non-white races points to colonialism as a major cause for this malaise. Colonialism projected the image of a white-skinned master lording over dark-skinned natives, with the attendant prejudice and social discrimination gaining traction. Stereotypes and caricatures deepened the social divide. The British boasted of their racial superiority and ‘the white man’s burden’. Exclusive access to institutions and clubs, and the emergence of white towns excluding locals underlined this sense of privilege. In post-independence India, the white skin became something of an aspirational symbol.

Skin whitening products are big business worldwide. A WHO study has estimated the size of the global skin-whitening industry at $31. 2 billion in 2024. In India, 50 percent of the skin care industry comprises skin-lightening products, which is around $500 million annually. For many users, chiefly women, turning light-skinned is touted as a passport to privilege.

However, the ingredients in these products have come under scrutiny for potential adverse effects. Mercury can cause damage to the kidneys and hydroquinone is identified as a carcinogen. Many skin whiteners contain melanin blockers, which is advertised as if it’s a natural and wholesome solution. Cosmetic companies indulge in gaslighting customers by referring to sun exposure as a disaster for the skin. The need for spending adequate time in the sun for producing vitamin D and kickstarting metabolism is overlooked.

The rebranding of a face cream by a multinational by a name change is an outstanding example of marketing duplicity. This was a response to the protest that the brand was perpetrating unhealthy biases. The ingredients in the tube have not changed and exploitation of vulnerabilities to increase profits still continues to be the game.

There is, thankfully, a growing awareness against colourism both in India and other countries. Counter-movements like Dark is Beautiful are beginning to have an impact. But the fact is colourism is deeply embedded in India’s social fabric. This discrimination is evident when jobs involve visibility, like in entertainment and advertising. However, the growing awareness that success is no longer linked to skin colour, unlike what it was in the colonial past, is a positive change.

It is necessary to educate children at homes and schools against colourism, bullying and body shaming. There is an interesting story worth retelling in this context. Sage Ashtavakra was born with eight deformities. Once when he entered the court of King Janaka, his contorted appearance was greeted with derisive laughter. Ashtavakra joined in and laughed the loudest. A stunned Janaka asked him why. Ashtavakra replied that while he came expecting to meet learned men, he realised he was in the midst of those who could not see beyond the skin. Janaka and his courtiers at once bowed in respect to the sage. The courage of Ashtavakra holds a valuable lesson.

To be bound by appearances and the opinions of others is a folly. There are sufficient red flags on the damage that perverse societal attitudes can inflict. It is important for us to teach children that standards of beauty may change, but basic human values like respect and acceptance of others will never go out of fashion. It is essential that everyone learns to be comfortable in their own skin.

Geetha Ravichandran

Former bureaucrat and author,most recently of The Spell of the Rain Tree


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The New Indian Express