I asked a few of my non-Indian friends to name the first Indian celebrity that came to their mind. Almost everyone said Priyanka Chopra, a notable Indian actress, or Aishwarya Rai, the former Miss World of 1994. Although these women differ extremely, the one quality that unites them is their lighter skin color. Similar to these women, celebrities that often represent Indians in mainstream media all share the same fair skin tone. This is not unique to media portrayal—lighter skin tones are glorified throughout India in day to day life too. India may be a homogenous country with diverse skin colors and cultures, but today in some homes, Indians still put on their “Fair & Lovely” creams to brighten their skin, mock those with darker skin tones, and even prevent their children from playing in the sun in fear of tanning. These are just a few examples of how colorism is deeply embedded into the Indian Society.
The terms “racism” and “colorism” are often used interchangeably. However, there is a notable difference between the two. While racism refers to the discrimination and prejudice against a person based on their race, colorism stems from the skin color of a person and occurs within the same race, perpetuating the notion that darker skin tones equate something negative and bad. Colorism is often debated to either originate from pre colonialism or postcolonialism. However, evidence from ancient literature and scriptures prove colorism is a result of the latter. Discrimination amongst people in ancient times was a result of wealth and territory rather than skin tone. Powerful Hindu Gods such as Krishna are shown to be dark heroes within ancient texts, and Rig Vedas display how dark-skinned people were accepted among the educated. The period of British Colonialism, on the other hand, brought on a wave of skin-based discrimination. The British prided themselves in being the “superior skin tone” and discriminated against dark-skinned Indians by placing them in menial jobs. Such bigotry extended beyond colonialism, and is still prevalent today. The Western media heavily influences the Indian public, and the portrayal of majorly light-skinned actors and actresses on Hollywood screens causes the glorification of Eurocentric features. Indians feel inferior and ashamed of their darker skin color and in turn resort to partaking in colorism.
Colorism in Indian society is influenced by many factors. The prime aspect is the beauty industry. Expected to value over $20 billion USD by 2025, the Indian beauty market is home to hundreds of flourishing beauty brands like Lakme, Coloressence, and many more. Two particularly leading brands are Unilever and Johnson & Johnson. These brands are known for their skin whitening products used by millions of Indians. One product, Fair & Lovely, created by Unilever, has a market size of $450 million USD. Not only is the name “Fair & Lovely” in itself problematic, as it promotes the idea that being fair equates to true beauty, the products also carry dangerous health implications and provide no benefit for the skin other than changing its color. Skin whitening products like these are marketed widely through advertisements on television, theatres, and billboards all over India, and further contribute to colorism. A 2018 study by VICE showed that 60% of Indian women and 10% of Indian men use fairness products. By covering themselves in such products, women and men alike garner a sense of confidence from their brightened skin tone. Rather than embracing their natural skin tone, colorism by the beauty industry intensifies the hatred for darker skin tones and sets light skin as the beauty standard.
Drawing back to media portrayal, skin whitening products acquire popularity mostly from endorsements by notable actors within the entertainment industry. From Shah Rukh Khan to Deepika Padukone, prominent and adored actors within the bollywood industry promote products like Fair & Lovely. While this may not seem significant, it is important to consider how influential the entertainment industry is to the Indian society. Approximately 836 million individuals within India have access to television, and the average Indian spends at least three hours a day consuming such entertainment. Indians glorify these celebrities and view them as very important figures, and as a result of actors supporting skin whitening products, Indians feel further inclined to buy the product and engage in colorism. Furthermore, the entertainment industry tends to promote fairer actors and actresses on screen in positive roles, while dark-skinned characters in movies are placed in stereotypical minor background roles of being poorer and underprivileged. A colorist mentality is therefore developed by Indians as they begin to compare those ideals to real life and in turn, view their dark-skinned companions as lesser and lacking beauty. This explicates as to why darker skin tones are so invalidated within the Indian society today and often extend to even racism against black people.
Ironically, many of the Indian actors promoting fairness products spoke out about the BLM movement. The same actors who perpetrated the ideology that “fairer means better” and induced a sense of hatred and discomfort for darker skin tones repeated the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” Many Indians themselves refused to acknowledge the issue. Why so? Do they not experience such racism in their own lives? Do they not empathize for basic human rights? The answer is simple. Colorism is so instilled within the Indian society that we view our black counterparts negatively merely based on their skin color. We use racial slurs to address them, view them as unattractive, and prevent ourselves from being associated with them in any form. Our sons and daughters are prohibited from dating and marrying a black person, our parents prevent us from hanging out with our black friends, and our daily lives include microaggressions towards the black community. The values brought on by colorism creates a divide to POC solidarity and makes us become a racist, though every day we face racism too. We fail to recognize that lighter does NOT mean better and skin tone does not give us a right to discriminate. As a nation, we must eradicate colorism through abandoning such ideologies, ridding ourselves of skin whitening products, and most of all, educating ourselves. As Indians, we must do better to dismantle the internalized racism within our communities and external racism towards other POC. We must become better allies to our black friends and family, and bridge the divide formed by colorism.