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Coloring the way we see Color in South Asia

“You’ve gotten so much darker!”

“Don’t go out in the sun too much.”

“Look at how dark she is.”

“Her fair complexion makes her so beautiful.”

“If only she/he/they were lighter...”

In South Asia, these phrases fill the air in many public gatherings, normalizing the idea of colorism with each added comment. Perpetuated by the encouragement of skin-lightening creams, color remedies, and excessive make-up use, colorism in South Asia is a problem yet to be properly addressed. Now, more than ever, we see famous South Asian stars defending the Black Lives Matter movement in America without properly fighting colorism at home.

Origins of Colorism

Coined by American Novelist Alice Walker, colorism is defined as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.” Having been deeply ingrained within the fabric of South Asian society, it continues to give those with darker skin tones a disadvantage in many sectors. This idea that white represents all things pure while black represents all things evil or corrupted, plagues even the best of countries with the division.

The connection between British colonialism and South Asian colorism makes a lot of sense, but it’s strikingly important to note that the British merely strengthened the idea; they did not create it. The origin of pre-colonial standards is rather murky to trace back, but there appears to be one theory that arises from the Aryan past--coming from the Northeast, the Aryans brought with them their fair-skin ideals, especially with gods, embedding into the thoughts of those native to the land.

Colorism Gaining Strength

Once this seed was planted, the overcasting tree that is colorism came to grow in South Asia. Consequently, there is a heavy correlation between the caste system, which has strongly dominated many societies, and the color of one’s skin, with the lighter-skinned people being given greater preference. Even more, the deities worshipped in many religions have been whitewashed, perpetuating once more, the idea that white is pure.

Image from: topkek

The image above, taken from a children’s learning book in India, absolutely disheartens many, as it introduces children, first hand, to the impossible standards of “beauty.” Being unknowing victims of the circumstance, children are put into a mindset that praises euro-centric beauty standards.

When the color of someone’s skin, something as arbitrary as shoe size, gains a purchase on how they are perceived, we know something is wrong. We know the situation is worse when all sectors begin taking advantage. Big corporations--take skin-lightening creams like Fair and Lovely, for example--profit off of colorism. Many film industries take only fair-skinned actors and actresses. Magazines place only the fairest of models on their front covers. The list goes on and on.

Now. The Black Lives Matter Movement.

Fast forward to today: we are now even more aware of the racial inequalities that corrupt the mindsets of many. We see South Asians hypocritically defending the Black Lives Matter movement while simultaneously promoting Fair and Lovely. Yes, racism and colorism are different, but they are interconnected, both stemming from the idea that the lighter one is, the more power they deserve. When people are inclined to label others as “savage” or “uncivilized” when seeing them in person but will take performative actions to support a movement, it is time to start showing people the dangerous implications of the biases held in society.

So, by villainizing people of darker skin, colorism plays a great role in global racism. Especially with the current parental generation, we see these implicit biases come into play. Now, more than ever, we need to make changes in our very own backyards.

The change comes from having uncomfortable conversations, by forging a covenant for the South Asian community in an era of black and white binary. To find where South Asians fit in this time, which is loosely called the Second Civil Rights Movement, it’s key to look at similarities in the oppression faced in the two communities. Anirvan Chatterjee’s The Secret History of South Asian and African American Solidarity is an excellent resource to use to analyze.

After seeing the similarities, it is natural to wonder what we would want if it was us in that situation. This is called empathy. What’s important to note is that empathy is greatly needed to breed change. For people to stand with others, it’s always necessary to “take a walk in the other’s shoes.”

This is where South Asians are seemingly fit--standing against the oppressor and on the side of the oppressed. Educating others is very important to be not only an ally but also a fellow fighter.

Let colorism in South Asia end. Let change happen. If the change breeds in one community, it will bleed over to many others.


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