The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement of 2020 took the world by a storm after a video circulated of white police officers who had mercilessly caused the death of a black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis, USA. Coloured people including Indians naturally expressed their sympathies towards the black community, and shared hashtags and posts to spread awareness on this blatant discrimination. However, this was a hypocritical move as Indians themselves are vicious against those who are just a few shades darker than themselves, such as South Indians and African nationals residing in India. This is called Colourism. While this isn't racism per se, it is a whole problem on its own with a long history to it as well.
Colourism can be defined as discrimination on the basis of skin colour, usually from members of the same race, where people are treated differently based on cultural meanings associated with skin colour. Colourism is found all throughout history, and is widely prevalent in today's society, ranging from prejudicial statements to harassment and crime on the basis of one's skin colour. The psychological impact that this has on the victim is immense as it takes a toll on the individual's self-esteem, body perception, emotional well-being and confidence levels. To understand the impact that colourism has on mental health, it's first necessary to go back in time to learn where it originated from.
In ancient India, it is believed that there were differences of colour between the Aryans (the immigrant noble population) and the Dasas and Dasyus (the tribal population of the region). There were constant wars between the two groups as mentioned in the Rig Veda. However, many historians make the error of believing that these wars were rooted in colour, when in fact they were over territory control, wealth and cattle. Despite what most believe, colourism did not originate in the Rig Vedic period. There are several mentions of dark-skinned heroes, princesses, gods and goddesses in the Rig Veda. Krishna was the dark hero of the Yadava tribe. In fact, the term Krishna means 'black' in Sanskrit. The Rig Veda's hero Trasadasyu, the son of Purukutsa, is the leader of the dark complexioned Dasyus and Angiras. The author of the Rig Veda is dark skinned. Kanva, the poet of hymns and Dirghatamas, the singer, are dark which means that the dark-skinned people were educated and intellectuals too. The Nisadas, a black tribal group of Shudras, performed their rituals in the Vedic way. The Hindu deity Ram is described as being black in colour and Draupadi, the strong lead protagonist in the Mahabharata is described as a black and extremely beautiful woman. Maa Kali, the goddess of power and strength, is dark-skinned. However, things changed and now the dark goddesses and gods are depicted as fair-skinned. This can be evidenced by the following example: The Indian national museum in New Delhi holds many masterpieces of sculptural art representing the gods from 3rd century BC to the 19th century AD. Here, none of the sculptures were white in colour because sculptures in those times were dependent on the availability of stone. Therefore, it is a possibility that white stone wasn't easily available. However, a shop on the premises for souvenirs has many replicas of the sculptures for sale. All except one of the replicas were made from white stone. When asked why, a source close to the museum said that no one will want to purchase black sculptures and that everyone likes to see fair and bright faces. Another example to prove this is that the idols in old temples still show Lord Ram and Krishna as dark but the newer temples depict them with a fair complexion. So, when did things start to change? When did we move from a respectful and accepting society to a colourist one?
The Varna system which was practiced then was flexible with mobility and dignity of labour. However, things changed when the Varna system turned into the rigid caste system where the lower castes were discriminated against, based on their skin colour and menial jobs. The upper caste Indians, who weren't involved in tedious labour, would stay indoors for a major part of the day. Therefore, they had light brown skin. On the other hand, the lower caste people had high melanin concentration in their skin cells due to continued exposure to the sun from working in the agricultural fields and the outdoors. Since the Shudras and other lower castes were restricted to performing menial labour such as cleaning the sewers, maintaining the bathrooms and manual scavenging, they were equated with dirt and pollution. An association was therefore made between their dark skin and their menial jobs, which led to the belief that dark-skinned people are 'filthy' and 'dirty'.
During the British era of colonization in India, skin colour was used as a standard of determining one's status in society. The British and the lighter-skinned Indians were on the receiving end of privileges, affluent statuses in society and were preferred for selection for seats in educational institutions and for employment opportunities. Entry to educational institutions and restaurants were prohibited to Indians with signs put up saying 'Indians and Dogs not allowed'. The darker skinned people were socially and economically disadvantaged as well since they were portrayed as 'filthy', 'animal-like', 'crude' and 'demon-like'. Even the Goddess of power and strength, Maa Kali was compared by the British to a demoness. All of this shaped the modern people's association of white coloured skin of the ruling class (The Mughals, Portuguese, and British) with power, desirability and beauty. Therefore, a practice developed of attaching greater social superiority and power to lighter skinned individuals. This led to the deep rooted preference and desire for lighter skin, which has stuck with Indians despite so many years of independence from the British.
These deep rooted beliefs are expressed in today's society in various forms such as fair-skinned children being complimented by their friends and relatives while dark-skinned children are called 'Kaali' by their friends, or are cast as the 'villain' or 'demon' in school plays or have to constantly put up with relatives and well-wishers suggesting remedies to lighten their skin. The bullying and harassment faced by dark-skinned children from their peers has in extreme cases driven them to suicide as well. For example, a 14 year old girl, Lavanya, immolated herself because her classmates constantly bullied her over her dark skin. She succumbed to her burns and injuries. This was in fact the second time she attempted suicide. All of this can majorly be blamed on societal prejudices against dark skinned people, advertising, product manufacturing, and subtle nuances in media portrayals. Children's animated movies often have demons being shown as black or dark while the heroes are fair. Films such as 'Kaminey' and 'Dum Maro Dum' directly portray drug peddlers as dark-skinned people. Dark skinned actors and models rarely receive job opportunities and even if they do, are forced to undergo skin lightening treatments or are photo-shopped. When every single movie or advertisement screams subtly that 'fair is good' and 'black is bad', it's not surprising that consumers unknowingly learn these prejudices and express them in their daily interactions.
These prejudices that people hold, can negatively impact the various spheres of an individual's life such as their job prospects. For example, in Maharashtra, a group of young tribal girls were trained to be flight crew members through a government scholarship program that attempted to empower women. However, the program ultimately disempowered darker women as a large number of the trainees were denied employment owing to their dark skin. Most of those who were employed were instructed to be a part of the ground crew, the members of which are usually out of sight of the travelers. Similarly, in the film industry, dark-skinned actors are rarely hired; with fairer ones hired instead and their skin darkened if the role requires a dark actor. This is known as brown-facing or black-facing. Brown-facing can be found in movies such as the 1957 movie 'Mother India' where Sunil Dutt was darkened for his role as a farmer, and in recent times, in movies such as Bala, Gully Boy and Super 30. Hiring fair actors and darkening their skin instead of hiring dark-skinned actors, reinforces the prejudice that dark-skinned people are less successful and less privileged.
It's important to understand in detail, the subtle expression of colourism around us as well, to fully comprehend the devastating effects that it can have on people. An example of the portrayal of colourism through consumer products is seen in the Colorama crayon series released by Hindustan pencils. This crayon series has a peach coloured crayon which has been labelled 'skin', despite most Indians being brown-skinned. This labeling of one shade as skin colour and this one shade being used to represent skin in all human caricatures deepens the colour bias in the minds of the young as there is a lack of representation of various skin colours. This leads to children feeling insecure, considering 'peach' to be the ideal skin tone which can be very damaging to their self-esteem and perception of their body as they grow older. International crayon brands such as Crayola, Camlin and Faber-Castell have also erred in the same way. However, Crayola renamed the said coloured crayon as 'peach' in 1962 after the US Civil Rights Movement and released a series of eight multicultural crayons, representing different skin tones.
Another example for media portrayals of colourism is the advertisements and sale of skin-whitening products. These products were first popularized by HUI, a Dutch company which pushed the idea that light skin equates beauty and that lightening one's skin is not only achievable but preferable. People invest in these creams and place all their hopes on them because employment and relationships often rest on skin tone. This inequality has been capitalized by the unending number of armpit lighteners, genital lighteners, fairness baby oils and other fairness products. Popular skin care product brands such as Dove, Nivea, Ponds, Garnier, Neutrogena and Olay, sell products that claim to 'alter genes that suppress melanin'. These skin whiteners, in an attempt to win over those on the fence, promise healthier skin, relief from dryness, protection from the sun and fewer blemishes. But what the public doesn't see in these advertisements is the composition of these products. Some use acid or rely on their ability to reduce melanin production. Others use hydroquinone which can take out an entire layer of skin, causing itching, burning and in the worst case, cancer.
In an attempt to address skin tone based discrimination in India, the Advertising Standards Council of India banned advertisements that depict people with darker skin as inferior in 2014, but there were no strict measures to ensure its implementation. The failure of this ban can be seen in the statistics which show that there has been an 18 percent growth rate in the consumption of skin-lighteners in India, with 735 million users. Unilever, the manufacturing company that sells skin- lighteners is the 4th largest consumer goods company worldwide as of 2011 with a total revenue of over 15 billion Euros. Skin bleaching products also make up a huge proportion of the skin care product market - 23%. These large capitalistic gains hinder public education and progress on the topic of colourism. A major part of this success can be attributed to the various celebrity endorsements of skin-lighteners. Celebrities such as Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, John Abraham, Hrithik Roshan, Yami Gautam and many more have been or still are the face of many skin-lightening products. Therefore, the fans of these celebrities will spend their money on these products since their 'hero' endorses it. Not only is it problematic that so many A-listers endorse them, but the advertisements themselves propagate false stereotypes about dark-skinned people. An example would be the famous advertisement 'Kaash Beta Hota' in which the protagonist, a dark-skinned woman is heartbroken when her father says that he wanted a male child. Her mother gives her a tube of 'Fair and Lovely' which she uses accordingly. After some time, the protagonist is shown as a successful woman earning a hefty sum of money, all whilst being noticeably fairer. Her father now smiles and calls her 'Beta'. This advertisement propagates the myth that skin tone is a barrier in life and that lighter skin makes women more confident. This has very damaging effects on the confidence and self-esteem of dark-skinned people and can further lead to the development of body perception disorders or eating disorders.
The devastating impact of colourism on mental health can be also be seen in the sphere of matrimony. Matrimonial columns in newspapers or websites often have mentions of wanting a fair-skinned partner, or being fair themselves. A 2012 survey of Jeevansathi, a matrimonial website, shows that a whopping 71% of women prefer fair men for marriage and 65-70% of men prefer fair women for marriage. As a result, dark-skinned people are often told from childhood by their relatives that they won't find a suitable partner if they don't lighten their skin. This has devastating impacts on an individual's self-esteem as they begin to believe that they won't find a partner for life owing to their skin colour. Hence, they use skin-lighteners, bleach and in extreme cases even undergo skin-lightening surgical procedures. Besides this, some of the women who get married are either driven to suicide due to harassment from their in-laws over their dark skin or are murdered for the same. For example, Sumera Bibi, a woman in Calcutta was burnt alive by her husband as his family thought she wasn't fair enough.21-year-old Rajasthan resident Mangibai, died of suicide after harassment from her husband regarding her complexion. Pooja from Gurgaon died of suicide in 2014 after her husband demanded dowry from her family since she (Pooja) is 'kaali' (dark-skinned woman).
All of this highlights how distressing it is to live as a dark-skinned person in a colourist society. In fact, the link between having dark skin and psychological issues such as body image disturbances has been proved by several studies. Body image disturbance (BID) is broadly defined as any psychological distress or dysphoria stemming from dissatisfaction with perceived flaws in one’s body or physical appearance. The skin is recognized as a significant element of one's body image. Thus, skin tone may be a significant predictor of issues with one's body perception which is in turn a well-established predictor of poor mental health. Previous research validates the link between BID and a number of psychological problems including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and, most prominently, body image disorders. Research projects have also validated that South Asians with dark skin tones have lower self-esteem and poorer self-rated physical health than their peers with lighter skin tones.
However, things are slowly changing. Campaigners all over the nation are standing up against the bias towards lighter skin. Not only are they fighting consumer habits but also millennia old preferences for lighter skin. ‘Women of Worth', an Indian NGO was founded by Kavitha Emmanuel to stand up against colourism. The 'Dark is Beautiful' campaign was launched in 2009 under the NGO to promote inclusivity and provide a forum for people to share their personal stories of skin colour bias. It carries celebrity endorsement as well from the Bollywood actor Nandita Das. The campaign runs media literacy workshops and advocacy programs in schools to counteract colour bias. Attitudes are therefore slowly changing among women as well, as they gain greater confidence from education, employment and financial independence outside the home.
Despite this being the 21st century, discrimination based on skin colour is rampant, not only in predominantly Caucasian countries, but also in South Asian nations as stated above. Progress is being made in the right direction but there are still a lot of obstacles which are millennia old. However, there are things all of us can do on an individual level. Boycott companies that produce and sell skin-lighteners. Educate the people around you on the harmful effects of these lightening products. Call out friends and family who make colourist statements and educate them on the impact that those statements can have. Speak up whenever you see discrimination against dark-skinned people.
While the negative prejudices that some people hold against dark people is something that they have grown up learning whether through their family or through negative media portrayals, it's up to them and us, to unlearn those false prejudices and treat the people around us with love, respect and compassion, irrespective of their skin colour and other differences.
About the author Sanjana Acharya
When Sanjana was a little girl, she would spend all her waking time spinning stories around her imaginary friends, or writing poems on food. Now, she spends her time reading, watching and breathing anything psychology related. She can be a bit of a nerd that way. Her friends and family joke that it’s easier to get an appointment with a world leader – she’s always locked in her room whilst organizing virtual events, managing Instagram pages, writing articles/poetry, or doing a deep dive in academics. But she’ll always make time for her loved ones when they need her – she’s nice that way.