Dark or fair, wear your skin colour with pride

A lot needs to be done to scrub the colour bias off our 'unfair' belief systems.

By Shalini Verma (Fair Play)

Published: Mon 2 Sep 2019, 7:26 PM

Last updated: Mon 2 Sep 2019, 10:28 PM

The first time I realised that I had a problem with my skin colour was when my classmate unwittingly said to me, "You don't need to put on makeup for the villain's role because you are already black."
Many of us are some shade of brown, which is loosely termed as dark skin. And if you are born with dark skin, you have a problem. This is what cosmetic companies and beauty salons and magazines will have us believe. Not only them.
During my teenage years, my mother was constantly subjected to advice from well-meaning relatives and friends, on home remedies to make me 'fairer'. They tried to help correct what they thought was nature's slip-up because they felt anxious that life would be unfair to me.
Colour is the basis of bullying in schools, colleges and homes, and more subtle discrimination as one grows older. It is not as if people of colour do not share this bias. Discrimination based on colour is also practised by people of the same race and similar skin tones. Even in our dark skin we seek shades of lightness to feel more socially acceptable.
You could have a master's degree in cosmetic dermatology, and you could still think that fair skin is superior to dark skin. How is it that despite a rise in the share of educated Indians, the colour bias has become stronger and more widespread in India?
I realised the depth of this prejudice when one day, my son who was then four-year-old and old enough to understand insult, asked us to paint his face white because he was constantly teased at school for his skin colour.
Educated children jokingly call their darker skinned friends 'naukar' (Hindi word for servant).
While there is nothing demeaning about serving others, in this case what is significant is the demeaning meaning they attribute to the word naukar. As though lighter skinned people are socially and economically superior to those with dark skin. I certainly don't blame them. This is what they hear from their parents and family members. Or maybe those who serve them in their homes are likely to be dark skinned.
Colour prejudice is not just widespread in India. During my time in south-east Asia, friends asked me why my son was so dark, as though dark skin tone were a disease and needed to be fixed. At salons I would be consistently offered miracle creams to whiten my skin. I always asked them why I needed to have white skin? The salon lady would give me a look that said don't ask dumb questions. I grew so tired of it that just as a matter of principle, I would stop visiting salons that offered me skin whitening creams.
Is it a myth we have created for one group of people to subjugate another, or did we get conditioned based on our collective experiences since the Stone Age, when night or darkness represented danger and evil?
Perhaps that and more.
In Asia, negative cultural and social meaning was attached to skin colour since ancient times.
If you had a lighter skin tone, you were likely to have stayed indoors because of your noble status or wealthy lifestyle. Add to that the biases of the colonial rule in which the British and European colonial officials tended to hire people of lighter colour. In Japan, women considered it their moral duty to put white powder on their faces.
We started life hearing fairy tales of Snow Whites, Cinderellas and Sleeping Beauties who were fair skinned and eventually ended up with a handsome prince. It is this heavy historical baggage that we are unable to offload.
Our cultural conditioning reinforced by movies and TV shows has set us on an endless quest for a shade lighter. Photo editing apps are on an eternal endeavour to make us look many shades lighter. We all know that nature gifted us with extra melanin as a protective gear against harmful environmental stresses such as UV radiation from the sun. Yet ads and beauty salons are constantly reminding us to become fairer. Our literature is replete with references to black market, black money, black mail, black sheep. We are constantly bombarded with visual communication that reinforces our cultural bias.
In 1994, Time magazine kicked off a storm with its cover photo of O.J. Simpson. His skin tone was modified to appear darker to insinuate that dark skin was likely to be associated with crime. The massive public outrage forced the magazine to issue a formal apology.
The outrage against colour bias is also gathering steam through online campaigns and hashtags. Celebrities are hesitating to endorse skin lightening ads, although many of them undergo skin whitening treatments. A lot more needs to be done to scrub the colour bias off our 'unfair' belief systems. As for those born with darker skin tones, we need to wear our skin colour with pride. Rather than aspire for fairer skin tones, we should aspire for a progressive society that celebrates the beautiful diversity of skin colour.
Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies

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