There are several things certain people happen to possess not because of their personal choice but rather due to accident of birth and yet the same things are considered their assets. One such thing is colour of one’s skin. Children have no option to choose their skin colour and yet their life in future depends on it especially in a racially diverse society.
Let’s not forget that in human history racial diversity is the rule not exception. So it’s universal phenomenon. But let’s narrow our focus and briefly look at this issue in the context of our traditions.
The well-known caste system still prevalent in the subcontinent was originally called “Vrana”. Rigidly fixed hierarchical division of society was based on colour. Varna/ Varn etymologically means colour.
In our Punjabi we still have this word and its multiple derivatives. We pronounce it as Van [colour] with R dropped. Kanakvanna [of the colour of wheat], van svanna[multi-coloured/ diverse] and van savann [diversity].
That division into immutable castes was based on colour is rooted in the historical clash between sophisticated Harappa people and primitive pastoral Aryans who arrived here, now historians assert, in waves way back in time. People of Indus valley were dark-skinned while incoming Aryan had fair complexion. Colour became a major marker of identity. Aryans led by warrior Indra vanquished the locals called Dasa or Dasyu. The victor wrote the history. Let’s see what the Rig-Veda says on the question of colour. “Indra, the slayer of Vrittra, destroyer of cities, has scattered the Dasyu [hosts] sprang from the black womb (Rig-Veda, Book 2)”. “The thunderer who bestowed on his friends fields, bestowed the sun, bestowed the waters (Rig-Veda, Book, 1)”. “Indra protected in battle the Aryan worshipper, subdued the lawless for Manu, he conquered the black skin (Rig-Veda, Book 2)”. “Black skin is impious [Rig-Veda, Book 2)”. It’s proved beyond a shadow of doubt that black and white emerged as two ends of social spectrum, an expression of perpetual tussle between two diverse groups. As the white group became dominant their rivals’ colour came to assume horrid new meanings extraneous to original content of the word.
In the conditions of Ayran political and social domination, the dark or black colour of the subjugated on the one hand became associated with lack of beauty, slovenliness and ugliness and on the other with impiety, criminal-mindedness and sinfulness. Thus the dark colour has been equated at physical level with lack of grace and at metaphysical level with absence of salvation. This perception based on long-standing racial bias born of group ascendancy has sunk so deep that it’s now settled as an element of conscious and subconscious. Even the kindest of souls and brightest of minds have not been free from the soft grip of such a notion and perception.
Maulvi Rumi has nothing but contempt for black slaves and Hegel treats all black people as subhuman.
Multi-billion dollar cosmetic industry thrives on fairness frenzy in the sub-continent where every other woman girl or woman desperately desires to be bleached white as the “Gori”, the fair-skinned damsel, is considered the epitome of female beauty. The stereotype of “Gori” is found in classical poetry, folk-ballads and contemporary film songs. “Gori soyey sejpe, mukh pe daareykes…[the fair-skinned sleeps with her head buried in her tresses}” says poet Amir Khusro. “Goriye, mei jaana pardes” is the refrain of a famous duet sung by inimitable Reshman and Parvaiz Mehdi. Arranged marriage is the norm in our region. Many a girl is rejected for the dark shade of skin. A dark-skinned family in search of “Gori’ is a spectacle to watch. What matters in our aesthetics is skin colour, not features and figure and personality. Oddly by their own standard most of the people in the sub-continent aren’t good looking because of the dark pigmentation of their skin.
Baba Farid, the pioneer of Punjabi literary tradition, who is otherwise a passionate humanist and proponent of rights of the oppressed, unwittingly depicts black colour as a sign of sin. “Black is my robe, black is my guise / I roam loaded with sins and people take me as a saint,” he says in one of his couplets. The saint obviously expresses his modesty and humility but the trope employed him conveys meanings additional to the intended ones; it equates ‘black’ with sin and thus unconsciously lends credence to colour discrimination.
The colour of dress at funeral in the West is black denoting the grief and sense of loss. Similarly Shia Muslims ritually mourn the martyrdom of Imam Husain and his clan clothed in black every year. We have words and phrases in-built in the structure of our language that make a stark display of colour prejudice such as` “kalaqanun [black law]”, “Kala chor [dark-skinned thief]” denoting negativity.
In our country side if a criminal such as a thief, burglar or a man having illicit relations with a woman is caught, he in some cases gets his head shaved off and face blackened in a show of public humiliation. “Kala keeta jug parr Sahibankuriajaan / kookanpaundeynikley Khan atey Sultan [Khan and Sultan came out screaming; this silly bride Sahiban has blackened our world”, describes poet Hafiz Barkhurdar the plight of brothers of legendary heroine Sahiban who elopes with her lover Mirza on the eve of her marriage.
Politics of colour is linked with power struggle of epic proportions that has been going on between different racial and ethnic groups for thousands of years across the continents. In the conflict between the dark-skinned and light-complexioned, the latter has so far been dominant. The inexorable logic of history shows that the dominant in order to perpetuate their privileged position not only create specific politico-economic structures but also evolve social and cultural norms which degrade and demonise the dominated.
Cultural hegemony thus created is the most reliable bastion of status quo as it imperceptibly becoming a part of subconscious mind projects the given as natural and logical. Dominant culture transmits subliminal messages evoking atavistic urges and fears which defend the social and intellectual garbage history bequeathed us in the name of order, peace and progress.
Discrimination on the basis of colour skin operates at multiple levels and at multiple levels it needs to be understood and tackled.
Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2020