When I was in 6th grade, my grandparents had come over from India to stay with us for around 3 months. My sister was around 9 months old at the time and my mother was making her baby food. My grandma nonchalantly suggested I use the carrot and sweet potato mixture as a face mask. However, it was the next statement that makes this memory one that sticks with me. She said it would help to make me more “fair”, or light-skinned. Now, my grandma is such a sweet, strong woman, but these comments are repeated in the Indian community and throughout the world creating a culture of colorism that favors those with lighter complexions.
Colorism is defined as a form of discrimination based on skin color irrespective of race and often within a race. This type of discrimination is prevalent in many cultures and remains a harmful by-product of colonialism. There are attempts sometimes made to make it seem as though colorism pre-existed in Ancient India. However, many heroes of Hinduism, the prominent religion in India, are dark skinned. Neha Mishra mentions in her “India and Colorism: The Finer Nuances” that “it is unlikely that people of the time [in Ancient India] saw being black as a bad thing” because “some of the most powerful gods and goddesses” were darker skinned (Mishra). There were conflicts and periods of violence in Ancient India, but these were often “over territory control, wealth and cattle rather than color and race difference”(Mishra). It is important to note that these issues were not a part of indian culture and that there are other factors for the prevalence of colorism in India and abroad.
So what are the reasons for unequal treatment based on color if it was not in the roots of indian culture? Colonialism can point to many issues arising in India, including colorism. The British had been trading in India since the 1600s, and by 1757 they began to gain land and eventual control of India (Szczepanski). The East India Company was in charge of governance and quickly initiated divisions in the Indian community to be able to control the population. The British seeked to use “India’s manpower for their army and workforce”, so they offered jobs, but often “lighter skin Indians were given preference over darker counterparts and hired more frequently”(Mishra). Segregation of whites and Indians was instituted creating “‘White Town’” and “‘Black Town’” to distinguish power(Mishra). The powerful class was white and this created a culture where light skin became associated with power, status, wealth and beauty (Mishra).
Colorism persists in our societal structures and cultural values with large markets for brands such as Fair and Lovely, a skin whitening company. We should be blind to color and should instead acknowledge the privilege where we have it and work to improve perceptions within our own circles and beyond. It starts with looking into our own internalized biases and understanding that colorism exists because we allow it to.
Neha Mishra, India and Colorism: The Finer Nuances, 14 Wash. U. Global Stud. L. Rev. 725 (2015), https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/law_globalstudies/vol14/iss4/14
Szczepanski, Kallie. "The British Raj in India." ThoughtCo, Feb. 11, 2020, thoughtco.com/the-british-raj-in-india-195275.