I had a surprising realisation while writing my British Monarchy post: I haven’t written anything on the topic of South Asia. This is not only shocking because I am South Indian (if my mile-long deity-packed name didn’t give it away), but because I studied South Asia – the upper-level classes I took as part of my History minor were all concentrated on South & Southeast Asia. I actually have many ideas for India-related topics to discuss, but there’s been one at the forefront of my mind recently: colourism.
It’s not as well-known a term as racism, so I’ll define it: colourism is discrimination based on skin colour. The difference between colourism and racism is that the former is perpetrated by people who share your ethnic or cultural background.
South Asian cultures are full of both subtle and unsubtle colourism, mostly (but not always) directed toward women and nonbinary people who are perceived as women. Bollywood, which is as popular with the diaspora as it is in India, is a bastion of pale skin and green eyes. It’s painfully rare to see a movie starring a heroine who doesn’t have light skin and sharp features. There are entire film songs about how desirable and wonderful white skin is. Across the subcontinent, popular media blares one message about skin tone: lighter is better. This extends to real life too: marriage ads are filled with references to light complexion. Dark-skinned Indians, especially women, are discriminated against in the workplace and generally treated as less valuable than their light-skinned compatriots. Casteism too goes hand-in-hand with colourism, in a millennia-old marriage of bigotry (if you don’t click on any other links in this article, please read the one in the preceding sentence – it is deeply important).
This obsession with whiteness, this association of white skin with desirability and high social status, has resulted in an enormous skin-lightening industry. Fair & Lovely, a “skincare” brand infamous for selling products it claims will lighten dark skin, makes an annual sum of 3,000 crore rupees per year. That’s $413,021,100.00 taken from the pockets of people who have been bombarded repeatedly with the message that they are worthless, that they are invisible, because they don’t have white skin. Last year HUL, which owns Fair & Lovely, made the decision to change the brand’s name – but not the product itself. It’s now called Glow & Lovely, but inside the tubes the lotion is still the same toxic sludge. No, that wasn’t a metaphor: in a gruesome throwback to Elizabethan-era arsenic makeup, a lot of fairness creams contain traces of heavy metals which can seriously damage skin if the lotions are used often. I wouldn’t be surprised if they renamed it “Glow” because it’s secretly radioactive or something.
Hilariously, the chairman of HUL claims that the brand has always had a sense of “social justice”. If that’s a synonym for “making money by causing misery for millions of people”, maybe.
How does this relate to the diaspora, though? Isn’t Fair & Lovely (I’m not using the new name, it is both nonsensical and disingenuous) a subcontinental South Asian thing? Well, no. Indian grocery stores across the US stock skin-lightening products in their beauty sections. The diaspora grows up idolising light-skinned Bollywood actresses. Racism intersects here too: the American beauty standard, built on centuries of white supremacy, also emphasises traits like pale skin, light eyes, and blonde hair – all of which have been absorbed into an unattainable Indian-American ideal. The diaspora is just as vulnerable to colourism as people in India.
Diaspora colourism poses twofold harm: it vaults light-skinned Desis over dark-skinned ones, cultivating an image of light skin being the “standard” state for South Asian Americans – and it encourages rampant anti-Blackness within our communities. The colourism our cultures impose on Desis turns into racism when directed outward. Look at Nikki Haley, an Indian-American conservative: capitalising on her light skin, she calls herself white when registering to vote, and fervently defends the Confederate flag – the symbol of American anti-Blackness, a banner of genocide little different from the Nazi flag – as a symbol of “heritage”. Haley’s inner colourism, her desire to stand adjacent to white supremacy rather than throw off those standards and ally with other Americans of colour, has directly led to her propagating anti-Black ideas.
Haley should not be aspirational. Haley is not a Desi American heroine. Haley’s colourism and racism are remnants of a colonial past, are manifestations of a desire to distance ourselves from the fact that the vast majority of South Asian Americans are people of colour. We need to stand against ideals which uplift white skin, because they are harmful not just to our own community but to every non-white American.
Here’s an idea: Fair & Lovely should forget about renaming itself, and change its formulation instead. Get rid of the skin-lightening poison, and make fair stand for true equality & justice instead. Maybe then something will truly change within our culture, and we can uproot the dark-skin stigma, casteism, and racism which have grown so powerful in the Desi American experience.