Tuesday, March 20, 2012


“Why are South Asians so fascinated with a fair complexion?” asked my American friend, Ruth.

The monthly meeting of our book club was in session. Having read Bapsi Sidhwa’s An American Brat, the members were ready to discuss the book’s contents.

“Doesn’t it look lovely?” I asked.

“Not if you are Rihaana!” Quipped Charlotte and everyone laughed.

“And not if it shows all your wrinkles more!” added Jane.

“You can’t have it both ways, can you?” I chuckled. “Actually, it’s probably a post-colonial association issue. White-skin has become synonymous with power and status for us.”

Everyone nodded, understandingly but the conversation started me thinking if our fascination with white skin was just a colonial hangover or a symptom of something deeper.

Skin-tone prejudice may be defined as giving darker-skinned people discriminatory social treatment. Anthropologists and historians believe the symbolism of white and black colours is universal and originates from the basic distinction of light and darkness. They also acknowledge its gender connection. In Fair Women, Dark Men: The forgotten Roots of Colour Prejudice, anthropologist Peter Frost says, “lighter women were preferred in medieval Japan, Aztec Mexico and Moorish Spain, even before there was significant contact with Western ideology.” Sociologist Pierre L. van den Berghe, also writes in his foreword, “Although virtually all cultures express a marked preference for fair female skin, even those with little or no exposure to European imperialism…many are indifferent to male pigmentation or even prefer men to be darker.”

This adds another dimension to the system of gender prejudice prevalent in South Asian societies of India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Pakistan is ethnically very diverse, and women of the North Western areas that host fair-skinned populations are relatively free of this prejudice while other ethnic groups are more vulnerable. We all remember Junaid Jamshed’s hit song, ‘Goray-rung-ka-zamana’ that prompted an outcry from the not-so-fair maidens and resulted in, ‘Saanwli-saloni-si-mehbooba’. Though JJ obviously did not mean to be discriminatory, his choice of topics shows how deeply our society has unconsciously adopted this bias and become complicit in a gender crime that flourishes at home, at the workplace and in public spheres.

Workplace discrimination is hard to tackle since the methods are usually subtle, and many women are discouraged by fear of reprisal and lack of trust in legal recourse. This discrimination comes in the form of racial slurs in the US, but the legal system is more effective there, for example, in 2008 a black woman, Tomeika Broussard, was granted $44,000 in damages in a lawsuit because her boss repeatedly called her ‘reggin’, a racial slur spelt backwards.

Sadly, many wonderful women’s personal lives suffer because of widespread skin-tone bias when even dark-skinned Romeos pass them by for fairer maidens. However, more disturbing is when women themselves become equal participants of this cruel practice against their own kind — a case of the abused turning into abusers. When looking for bahus, mothers-in-law often act as hard-to-please prejudiced gatekeepers, thereby ruining the happiness of many girls and destroying any chance of finding compatible partners for their sons.

A friend once described her humiliating experience with the rishta aunties. As they enjoyed tea and samosas, she overheard them calling attention to her feet in case she had applied whitening creams on her face to hide her true complexion. Her intellectual accomplishments and pleasant mannerism meant nothing to them. What an unfortunate experience for any self-respecting female. On a similar note, African-American author Marita Golden writes in her memoir, “Don’t Play in the Sun”, about the colour-based bias of her mother when she tells her to stay out of the sun because, “You’re going to have to get a light-skinned husband for the sake of your children as it is”. This admonishment is familiar to many South Asian girls and points to the universal nature of this prejudice.
In such a discriminatory atmosphere, commercial gains are not lost to the shrewd businessman. Skin lightening products are a huge and lucrative industry in India and Pakistan. A 2007 New York Times report revealed that half of India’s skincare market comprised skin whitening products because, as Ashok Venkatramani of Hindustan Lever explained, “The definition of beauty in the Western world is linked to anti-aging…In Asia, it’s all about being two shades lighter.” The advertisements of popular fairness creams show dark, lonely women transforming into fair, happy beauties with fulfilling lives, thereby belittling their achievements and connecting their happiness to meaningless superficial concerns.

Colour discrimination in the United States largely affects people of South Asian descent, African Americans and Hispanics.Some anthropologists believe that the African diaspora is as much traumatised by ‘colourism’ as by racism and colonialism.
Studies show darker-skinned people to be at a socio-economic disadvantage even in today’s politically-correct West. South Asian and African-American communities themselves prefer lighter skin, proving that the discrimination is not just brought on from outside but embraced by victim communities themselves — an African-American retailer was sued by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2008 for calling his darker-skinned employee ‘too dark’ and ‘black as charcoal’.

Perceptions of beauty among African-American women favour lighter-skinned Halle Berry over the darker Whoopi Goldberg or Oprah, and while Michelle Obama may be a celebrated dark-skinned beauty, that perception may be influenced by her position as the American First Lady. Darker Asian men have recently come to focus on their complexion encouraged by fairness creams aimed at men. Darker African-American men, by contrast, have had it tough throughout history and been assigned to fieldwork while their lighter counterparts worked indoors. The Christian Science Monitor recently reported about the former Mississippi governor’s pardon controversy — of all the pardons Barbour had granted, two-thirds were for white prisoners when the prison racial make-up is two-thirds black, thus revealing the possible reach of colour prejudice extending into the US justice system.

Though the era of political correctness discourages open expressions of prejudice in many societies, skin-based discrimination still flourishes unhindered. In order to bring down the colour collateral this bias exacts from our women, we must deny it the mental and physical space it occupies in our social-scape so that no accomplished dark maiden need summon the mirror on her wall to weigh her worth. Let us, indeed, adjust our priorities for the better.

Published in Dawn Review as "The World in Black and White" , March 18, 2012.