Fairness and I have a long, complex and ongoing history. We are joined at the hip and not in an optimum way or quite in the way you think. If you know me or have seen me you would get that. From my earliest consciousness to the present it’s a word and an idea that I feel I have always understood. Understood because of a whole life filled with careless words.. careless words of too many adults that I came across, careless words in the Hindi film songs I listened to on the radio, careless dialogues in films I watched on Doordarshan as a child growing up, careless words flitting around my mind space from a time when I wasn’t even considered a real person. I honestly can’t remember a time when I wasn’t reminded, time and time again by the big wide world that it’s something I lack, something wanting, a big minus.
It took me years to understand that I wasn’t a minus. That my colour isn’t and never will make me a minus. Other things might but not the colour of my skin! But like I said it took years and caused immeasurable angst that I am sure impacted and continues to impact my behaviour.
But this is not about me. It’s about this society and it’s obsession with color. Where did it start and will it ever change?
Where did it start is probably irrelevant, the more important & relevant question would be to ask whether it will ever change.
Recently the beauty brand “Fair and Lovely” magnanimously & with much fanfare changed their brand name to something else, ostensibly demonstrating their commitment to the fight against racism and colourism. The whole of social media in India went into loud and sustained applause. Twitterati predictably gushed “Wow what commitment to the right values” and so on and so forth. I wonder if this is because we are naive or plain foolish? Most of us just seem to take things at face value maybe because we aren’t invested enough in the cause & bringing about change.
Let me remind you here that they, as in Unilever (the company that owns the brand Fair & Lovely) didn’t change the product one bit. The product remains a skin bleaching/lightening product. It’s one of the company’s top revenue earners and they had no real intent to change their cash cow.
A rose by any other name..
In short pulling the wool over our eyes!
This rebranding of “fairness” products to “brightening products” is however sadly not limited to Fair & Lovely. Every second skin care brand has one.
I have yet to walk into a skin care store and not be asked (in a overtly solicitous tone I might add) if I want something to “remove my tan” or to “brighten my face”.
If Unilever and other skin care brands were really committed to ending colourism and racism they would disband and stop selling bleaching and fairness products. When you sell a product that’s inherent nature is to bleach your skin then you by default are making white or fair skin seem aspirational. Changing the name of the product is just an eyewash, an eyewash I might add that social media lapped up and how!
To be fair it’s not just these companies. It’s rampant in every sphere of life in India. Everywhere we look we are constantly reminded that being fair is the goal. That fair equals beauty. That fair equals success. That fairness gets you jobs. That fairness gets you a spouse. That fairness makes you a boss. That fairness is the key to your best life.
From Bollywood film songs that praise fairness, to dialogue in films that associate beauty with fairness over and over again, to Bollywood & the advertising industry predominantly casting only fair people. To the racist advertising campaigns run by reputed corporates that blatantly spin the narrative that being dark is the only thing standing between you & success. From the subtle and not so subtle constant barrage of advertisements that have only fair Indian models or Caucasian models to sell products to brown skinned Indians. The irony of that is not lost on you I hope.
Obviously the underlying premise is that we Indians conflate beauty & self worth with fair skin and the advertising & media industry knows, understands and capitalises on that. For most of them it’s only about the bottom line, societal change or just plain morals be damned!
I think it’s also not just limited to beauty, I think our colonial past makes us revere and trust a fair person more. The way African visitors and students have been targeted and harassed in this country, while Anglo Saxon and Caucasians visitors are fawned over by every strata of society, is testament to our deep rooted racism.
We placed the white man on a pedestal for 150 years or more and that’s what the ad agency is targeting.. Our hangover of colonial subservience. But I would also be simplifying it if I say that this is just a hangover of our years of colonisation. This fair skin obsession predates the British. I think it’s safe to say that it’s intrinsically linked to Brahmanism and the caste system. The upper castes playing their part in perpetuating this narrative.
I recently watched Indian matchmaking, a show on Netflix and I lost count of the number of times the word FAIR was mentioned in the context of marriage. So obviously this obsession with fair skin isn’t going anywhere. It’s still here and seems to be here to stay.
But how does this obsession work in a country where the predominant skin colour is brown?
What are the long term repercussions of making more than half of the population feel inferior I wonder? Whether we like it or not there is a repercussion. It impacts confidence and confidence is often linked to success.
When one is constantly judged and found wanting based on one’s skin colour it can have a cascading effect on other areas of one’s life. And when this happens right from childhood it’s hard to overcome those feelings of inadequacy.
Fairness has become almost aspirational, a way to move up the ladder of life.. be it your career, the partner you find, the circle of friends you make. It’s why kids and young people are told countless times not to go out in the sun and get a tan. It will be a setback to all your plans is the implication. It’s why the biggest market for these lightening products are in the 21 to 35 age group with kids as young as 13 using them.
Coming back to me, I can say that it made me more introverted, definitely less confident and probably hindered me in reaching my true potential. All this I know now with the benefit of hindsight.
Even as an adult, the system or society still fails me. The racist jokes that I have had to laugh along with at parties just to be seen as a “sport” or the multiple well meaning Aunties who within earshot of me make disparaging remarks that go somewhat like this “she is so dark, not like her mother at all” or a friend who refers to another friend in your presence as “Dark but attractive”..”Dusky but beautiful”.
Sidebar here: Raise your hands those who have heard themselves described like that multiple times by friends who think they are paying you a huge compliment! They just don’t see the racist “but’ in their words.
Also raise your hand if you have felt the urge to smack them in response.
The countless times I have been advised by friends and relatives not to let my daughters play in the sun or go swimming too much or home remedies of turmeric face masks to lighten their skin.
The friends and family I know who regularly bleach every visible part of their body because of the pressure to be fair.
Dermatologists & Cosmetologists whose claim to fame is their famous “skin brightening treatment”, who have an appointment schedule that I swear is longer and packed tighter than the Prime Minister’s.
All this and more, the direct and indirect bombardment of your value and worth based on the colour of your skin is something that often stays with you forever.
This colourism is in our homes, in our families and engrained in the psyche of more Indians than you or me can imagine and I despair of things ever changing.
I don’t see miracles happening in my life time and I have made peace with it on a personal level.
But I still wish that it wasn’t that way for countless young women and men out there, just starting life, who face this discrimination at every juncture of their lives.
I believe Bollywood & corporates cannot abdicate responsibility for perpetuating this mindset. They do influence opinion & therefore they should and can be purveyors of change.
However at the end of the day the real change has to happen within families & the community as a whole. We have to work from the inside to understand and spread the word that our stunning world is full of colour in more ways than one and that each colour is so valuable and beautiful.
As someone said..