Since America elected its first African-American president, conversation about race has taken center stage.
Throughout July, the media pulsated with news of the arrest of black Harvard academic superstar, Henry Gates, by a white policeman, James Crowley. The nation read and listened, riveted.
Roughly around then, half way across the world, the Indian press seethed over the brutal, racially-motivated attacks against Indian students in Australia. They were beaten up, robbed, stabbed, and thrown bombs at.
Ironically, racism—a concept that’s synonymous with the “white” West— thrives in a “non-white” society like India as well, but goes undetected.
In January 2008, a well-known Indian cricketer called an Australian player of West Indian descent a “monkey.” Charged initially with hurling a racial slur, he was later, acquitted. Most Indians didn’t bat an eyelid at the incident.
“Racism in India is systematic and independent of the foreigners of any hue,” wrote an African-American student in India, in a hard-hitting op-ed in Outlook magazine.
He complained that he’d been refused apartments by landlords; denied entry into clubs; meted a cold customer service in shopping malls; and had his visa applications rejected—for being black.
In June, this year, a top-ranking elected official of a little-known state in India’s northeast, openly claimed at an international forum that he’s long faced racism within his own country.
The South Asian giant may have a fairly ethnically-homogenous population as compared to, say, the U.S.
Yet, it has willfully nurtured its unique brand of racism, not on the basis of racial stock, but on the varying shades of one color—brown.
Debashree Majumdar, a homemaker and a mother of two in New Delhi, still remembers her maternal grandparents’ term of endearment for her: a “bottle of black ink.” Her fairer, younger brother would be cooed affectionately as “a dollop of butter.”
“It angered and humiliated me back then,” she confesses.
Spoken in the spirit of light-hearted banter, as these words were, they still didn’t take the edge off the painful message. Despite growing up in an educated family in the cultured metropolis of Kolkata, Majumdar faced overt discrimination for her dark complexion, she says.
Scores of other Indian women have similar life stories. For so many, it’s their skin tone that has determined their treatment by family members and relatives; social interactions with men; and matrimonial and job prospects, for better or worse.
“I’ve come across a number of girls in my professional life, who were well-deserving candidates, but weren’t offered the job of a public relations executive or a receptionist because they were dark,” says Rinku Ray, a former corporate employee, who lives in Kolkata.
Fremont, California-based Vidya Pradhan recounts coming of age in an India that had just begun experiencing what she calls the “Fair & Lovely phenomenon.”
In 1975, the Indian consumer goods giant, Hindustan Unilever, ushered in the “Snow White” revolution by launching a slim tube of fairness cream called “Fair & Lovely.” Today, a well over 30 different skin-lightening products are offered, which command a market size estimated at $140 million.
Groomed by a mother who didn’t have a penchant for cosmetics or jewelry—the two fashion accoutrements Indian women regard as must-haves—Pradhan didn’t develop a fondness for either.
Later, while attending a prestigious business school in Bangalore, her encounters with a crop of bright women, possessing a wacky make-up style gave her pause.
In a misguided attempt to acquire a smooth, glowing, and most importantly, fair skin, these chocolate-complexioned women had their faces caked in layers of chalky-white talcum power, she says.
“I was surprised that women who were obviously, intellectually accomplished, should still yearn for fairer skins. Why did it still matter?” Pradhan asks.
Today, as the editor of India Currents magazine, she realizes it hasn’t stopped “mattering” even now.
Indian matrimonial classifieds, regardless of where they appear—either in a vernacular daily in India or in a U.S.-based English publication, catering to the Indian diaspora—are alike in their choice of words.
“Brides Wanted” ads, typically, seek prospective brides, who’re “fair,” among a string of other traits. Parents of dark-skinned girls prefer to use a uniquely Indian word—“wheatish”—as a stand-in for “dark.”
“[Putting down “dark” is tantamount] to writing their daughter’s obituary,” explains Pradhan.
“Wheatish” doesn’t literally describe the color of wheat grains. It’s an epidermal category that connotes neither dark nor light, but somewhere in the middle. In the Indian subconscious, the color “black” has come to be equated with impurity and inferiority.
But as Minu Tharoor, a literature professor at New York University, explains, dark skin wasn’t always viewed disparagingly.
In India’s ancient past, dating back to 3,000 years, darkish women weren’t looked down upon. They were even celebrated in art. The preference for fair skin appears to have seeped into the culture much later, Tharoor says, though it’s hard to tell precisely when.
India’s centuries-old immutable caste system, consisting of four major castes—the brahmins, the kshatriyas, the vaisyas, and the sudras—has merely reinforced these beliefs.
Each caste was assigned a color. Upper caste citizens were generally expected to be fair-skinned and those occupying the lower rungs of the ladder, darker.
When the British colonialists arrived in India, they further exploited this social hierarchy by making the Indian elite increasingly identify cultural superiority with whiteness. This led to more loathing of their “brownness.”
In recent years, the fairness industry has come under heavy fire for promoting and perpetuating racism by creating commercials that depict dark-skinned women and men as unattractive, unemployable, and unmarriageable.
A chorus of protests by women’s organizations resulted in the removal of two controversial ads. Last December, Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai, refused to give her blessing to skin-bleaching products.
The issue of “brown-ism” isn’t skin-deep. It’s not likely, therefore, to blow away anytime soon. To paraphrase the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s famous quote: in India, to be fair, is to be glorious.