16-year-old Sruthi*, the class monitor was carrying a pile of assignment sheets collected from her classmates to the teachers’ room to get evaluated over the weekend. As she was about to leave the room, she overheard her class teacher Taara, talking to another teacher about the selections for the dance competition in the inter-school youth festival. “Sruthi is a good dancer, I agree. But she is too dark to look good as the lead dancer, and would not look that great on stage.”
Sruthi who is currently at Yale University, added as she recalled this incident at school which broke her young heart, “Of course I was devastated, but what can one do? But it was a learning though, that I had to put in extra effort in everything I did to ‘compensate’ for my dark skin. I am sure that was not the first opportunity I missed because of the colour of my skin and that would not be the last either.”
For Sruthi and for me, and for a sizable portion of the Indian population who are dark-skinned, India being exposed as a racist country, following the attacks on African students, did not come as a surprise. Rather, we were quite surprised that something as heinous as that and in an extreme scale had to happen for the media to address the issue as ‘racist’ in nature; but the dime a dozen microaggressions, snide remarks and ‘dark equals ugly’ narratives, which fairness cream companies push out every day, did not fall under the radar of racism.
In 2018, five of my friends flew down to India to attend my wedding. 2 from Australia, 1 from Austria, 1 from the United States and 1 from Nigeria. Four of them had no hassles in getting a visa and their trip was very smooth end-to-end, but one among them had to jump through hoops to get a visa to India, and despite having all the necessary documents, was detained for 3 hours at the airport on arriving India. No points in guessing that this was the friend who came from Nigeria. So when we Indians sit back and judge Americans on racism, we should not overlook the fact that the face of a racist should not necessarily be white all the time, it can very well be brown as well!
Following the heartbreaking fate of George Floyd and the protests that ensued, social media is being flooded with solidarity around the world to the Black Lives Matter movement and the outrage against racism. While our support, especially of the POC diaspora of the United States is imperative in the change-making process, it is high time, Indians and Indian-Americans take a hard look at themselves before seeing racism essentially as a ‘white problem’.
I vividly remember a dinner conversation with an ex-colleague of mine from the UN Environment—let us call her Namita. She is an Indian-American, professional tennis playing Ivy leaguer from New Jersey. Namita, even though born and brought up in the US, claimed that she was quite ‘in touch with her Punjabi heritage’ and was very ‘brown and proud’. Over dinner, our conversation veered around India and how there can be a culture shock even if you move from one state to another and Alex, our Australian friend was fascinated. A bit into that conversation, Namita explained to Alex that the main difference between the north and south Indians is that North Indians are much fairer than South Indians and as though to vet her statement, she pointed at me. “Well, I think that is a very ignorant generalization,” I told her and laughed it off. What I did not do and probably should have done is to educate someone like Namita on the wrongness of her statement.
And today, I see her Instagram stories, being very vocal about racial injustices, posting a black box on her Instagram grid, adding one more to the sea of boxes that pop up under the BLM hashtag, thereby drowning the relevant news that should be spread. From her vantage point, racism is what happens to a person of colour in her country—USA—by a privileged white person and it ends there. I have no doubt that her intentions at heart is in the right place, but skin-colour prejudice is weaved so seamlessly into the fabric of Indian society that somehow the likes of N are blind to the fact that they too are the perpetrators of the very evil that they are fighting against.
As a dark-skinned person who grew up in India, racism in India was a reality that I learnt to live with, rather than an ambiguity that it is to many. Despite having a family that made me believe that I was perhaps the most exquisite thing to have walked the earth (which I firmly believed as a child), people around me were not so kind. My first memory of being treated differently because of my dark skin was as early as at the age of 4. If Sruthi overheard her teacher discriminate her for her skin tone at age 16, it was very clear to a 4-year-old me that my kindergarten teachers only approved the fairest and chubbiest girls in the class to be dressed up as angels to visit baby Jesus at the manger for the nativity tableau. In their defense, they had never seen a Christmas card with dark-skinned angels!!
This, however, was just a start. I have been the butt of classist, casteist jokes that gyrated around my skin colour, as one’s complexion has much to do with caste too in India. The insults were thus nuanced and many-layered and the most shocking part was that these came from children—my school mates and a few times from teachers as well. These ‘innocent children’ were however merely parroting out the biases and prejudices that were taught to them in their households; thus, their thought process was just a sneak-peak into the shit show that the real adult world that awaited me. By teenage, pieces of unsolicited advice on skin lightening came hurling from all sides not just to me, but to my mother also, who started gently nudging me towards chemical-free, homemade face masks. In the school front, as cute high-school romances started budding, I somehow assumed that my skin in addition to being overtly feminist, would be an impediment in any boy finding me interesting.
However, school and college did prepare me well enough to laugh the racist comments off as it was too common and more often came from friends rather than from foes, and somewhere along the line I incorporated these jibes and crafted a body of self deprecatory humour that worked as my defense/coping mechanism, thus being a perpetrator of colourism myself. Thinking back on that dinner table conversation with Namita and Alex, I often feel complicit in propagating the very colourist notions I oppose, because I would refrain from altering the general mood of a gathering with an uncomfortable conversation. But it does not stop me from wondering how this outlook has been normalized in our system that it is hardly ever noticed as problematic.
The mainstream Indian media in the 90s and at the spurt of the millennium too aligned well with this toxic outlook shunning people of darker skin and glorifying the ones with lighter. There was nobody who even remotely resembled me or my shade of skin to be seen in Indian magazines or movies. Even the sad women, low on confidence, who were rejected by prospective spouses and interview boards before they used Fair & Lovely and Fair Ever etc., were many many shades lighter than I was. Even the ridiculous shade card on which those models compared their ‘progress in fairness’ after using the cream on the ads, did not have my skin shade. The unfair obsession with fairness stuck me as years went by, when people around me, especially my extended family would describe someone else as repulsive because of their darker shade of skin, disregarding every other merit of theirs. This gave rise to a genuine fear that despite every personal/academic/professional merit of mine, what do they see when they look at me?
A person’s outlook is definitely at blame here, but the greater blame is to be placed on how we still hang onto some age-old colonial notion of beauty, long after our colonizers left. This mindset resonates with what Arundhati Roy wrote, in her Booker Prize-winning novel, God of Small Things that we are all fighting “a war that makes us adore our conquerors and despise ourselves.” Underlining this is the fact that colourism, which the Oscar-winning actor Lupita Nyong’o refers to as the “daughter of racism” is not just limited to Indian communities, but is also prevalent in the rest of South Asian as well as among the African countries. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche in her book, Americanah, draws out a parallel of this in the Nigerian society—how a lighter-skinned Ginika, a friend of the darker-skinned protagonist Ifemelu is voted as the prettiest girl in the school and how everyone considers her superior to the other girls with darker skin.
In the last decade, in India, a lot of dialogue has happened over the deep-rooted prejudices based on one’s complexion. Movements like, “Dark is Beautiful” helmed by activist and actor Nandita Das opened avenues for people to at least address this as an issue. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in India has finalised Drugs and Magic Remedies Bill in early 2020, which proposes a 5-year jail term, a fine of Rs. 5 million and a potential ban on brands promoting fairness creams. We are yet to see how effective this would be, while prospective grooms and their families still seek out brides who are fair-skinned in multitude matrimonial sites in India. Hence, the report “India Fairness Cream & Bleach Market Overview, 2018-2023,” saying that the women’s fairness cream category is anticipated to achieve market revenues of more than Rs. 5,000 crore by the year 2023 comes as no surprise.
A huge chunk of the Indians and Indian celebrities, who raise their voices and play the blame game on social media with pointless, absurd and extremely distasteful taglines of “All Lives Matter” in the wake of the outrage against racism in America, are knowingly or unknowingly a part of the problem rather than the solution. If they genuinely feel for the cause and want real changes, their voice is as valid as anyone else’s in the Black Lives Matter movement.
But while showing their solidarity, instead of brainlessly following a trend to appear ‘woke’ on Social media through dose of performative activism, it would be a great service to humanity, to just pause for a bit, read about issues of race and of colour, to talk to the ones affected as well as the ones who address these issues in an educated way and to be aware and to change themselves for the better.
*not her real name
Meenakshi Sajeev is a poet and Corporate Communication Strategist. She is the author of the anthologies “One Woman Island” and “The Unlabelled Happy Woman”. She can be found on Instagram and Facebook.
Featured Image Source: Times NIE