The colour of prejudice

Published October 27, 2013

“What makes you think you can win the fashion show?” the college professor questioned a flabbergasted Richa. “If I were as dusky as you, I wouldn’t have competed. Why feel humiliated?” she asked.

Richa 22, firmly believed she had the perfect looks, attitude and physique to participate in her college fashion show, one of the most sought after in Mumbai. Ignoring her professor’s advice, she decided to put her name down anyway. After several months of yoga, controlled diet and speech practice, Richa, who doesn’t wish to disclose her last name, believed she was fully prepared.

“We knew Richa would win,” said her classmate for three years, “she just has it in her — the elegance, the attitude, the wit.”

On the much anticipated day, Richa and her talents were not only overlooked, but brushed under the carpet. “Let alone short listing me, the judges asked me to step down as a participant because they said that even if they encouraged a “dusky” girl at the college level, she had no future in the fashion industry,” Richa said.

Many South Asian women face the colour bias in one way or another in their lives. “Rarely have I met a South Asian woman who is not colour conscious,” says actor Nandita Das. The fairness bias in the subcontinent is an entrenched social belief. This prejudice manifests itself in everything from favouring light-skinned employees to demanding fair prospective brides or grooms. The moot questions are why does it exist and how to get rid of it?

The ‘why’ is not something that most people have been able to answer convincingly, but the ‘how’ has had various answers.

Das is a supporter of the Dark Is Beautiful campaign that began in March this year. In this campaign, Das urges women to throw out their fairness creams and abandon the belief that dark skin is ugly. While campaigns like these hold the fort in battling prejudices, let us try and look at the deep entrenched reasons for such a prejudice.

In her recently released book, Skin: A Biography, Sharad Paul, says people in this part of the world developed dark skin as an adaptive response to the tropical sun. “Within the last 5,000 years — people with European skin types migrated across the Indus Valley into India and southern Asia. The skin of these migrants darkened over the next 2,000 to 4,000 years,” she says. “This happened to protect folic acid levels in the body, as white skin was not conducive to promoting breeding in tropical climes, since light could penetrate it easily. Darker skin also helped to prevent diseases like skin cancer,” she adds.

However, many, including actor Nandita Das believe that the bias against dark skin has taken on new forms in the modern world. “We're part of the consumer world today. The market is waiting to cash in on people's aspirations and biases," says Das.

Even though the fairness industry first evolved as a response to consumer demand, the market appears to be perpetuating the discrimination against dark skin in today’s economically vibrant India. For centuries Indians used natural ingredients, such as lemon or turmeric, to lighten their skin. In the socialised environment of 1970s India, Unilever launched a commercial skin lightening cream called “Fair and Lovely”, marking a beginning of fairness creams in the subcontinent. It was important for the women to be fair, even if the men were not. Therefore, the creams were originally targeted at women, but over time as women became independent thinkers in the society, such fairness products emerged for men as well. However, women couldn’t think beyond the fairness bias. In 2005, Emami launched the “Fair and Handsome” cream for men.

What began as expensive skin care products are now being priced for as low as Rs5 and targeting even the lowest of classes. According to a Wall Street Journal report of July 2013, sale of fairness creams generates over $400 million in revenue a year in India, which is more than all other skincare products combined. In fact, the sale of fairness products surpasses the sale of Coca-Cola and tea in India.

The survival of this burgeoning industry now depends on ensuring that consumers continue to want fair skin. Such a market design is very tough to battle. The campaigners of Dark Is Beautiful recognise the uphill task. But, refuse to be disheartened by it. They have filed a petition against the market giant Emami.

They also say that the flurry of opinions in the Indian media following the first Indian-American to be crowned Miss America was also a step towards sensitisation of the society about colour consciousness. Several commentators in the Indian media said that Miss America, Nina Davuluri would never win pageants in South Asia because she’d be too dark to be considered beautiful in the subcontinent.

Das says that she has been repeatedly asked to ‘lighten’ her dark skin for an on screen role.

“It’s probably good that Davuluri has no Bollywood aspirations,” says Lakshmi Chaudhury, commentator and editor. “Dance routines aside, even a Miss America crown won’t propel Davuluri to a celluloid screen near us — not unless she makes the miraculous colour ‘adjustment’ achieved by leading Bollywood actresses who have successfully paled into significance,” she adds.

This story is painfully exemplified by Richa’s story in Mumbai. “There is no room for the dusky in the fashion and entertainment industry,” says Richa, “unless you are a one-off, a Bipasha or a Nandita Das.”

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