At the heart of India's racism and colourism, a sincere conviction that we're 'nearly white'

Why does India put up with an oppressive system in which nearly the whole population is at the receiving end? But that question ignores the essential truth about India’s self-image – Indians do not really think they are dark-skinned.

Sujit Saraf July 14, 2020 17:06:24 IST
At the heart of India's racism and colourism, a sincere conviction that we're 'nearly white'

On 2 July, Hindustan Unilever announced that its product Fair & Lovely will be renamed Glow & Lovely, as part of the evolution of its skincare portfolio ‘to a more inclusive vision of Positive Beauty'.

The company was responding to worldwide protests against the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by the Minneapolis Police in the United States. In doing so, it has much company. During and after the protests roiling at least three continents, statues associated with colonialism and the slave trade have been toppled, schools and universities have removed the names of founders who are suddenly in disgrace, and businesses all over the world have discovered racist overtones in the names or declared benefits of their products.

The word ‘racism’ sits awkwardly in India, where our national census chooses not to recognise racial groups at all. That is a decision both political and practical – political because it is a reaction to British attempts to apply European racial theories to the Indian people, as well as a government attempt to maintain ‘communal harmony’, and practical because after 3000 years of invasion and settlement by the peoples of the West – Indo-Aryans, Assyrians, Macedonians, Bactrians, Parthians, Arabs, Persians, Turks, Afghans – and some assimilation from the East, the Indian ‘race’ is nearly undefinable.

Even so, Indian racism is elemental – as nature abhors a vacuum, India abhors dark skin.

It is the only type of racism India understands and tolerates, and it predates Europe and America and Western civilisation itself. We Indians began to practise it 3000 years ago, when we chose the word varna, one of whose meanings is colour, for the four social classes into which we divided society in our oldest extant scripture, the Rig Veda, which we composed as early 1300 BCE.

Colour-based discrimination in India is nuanced. To the Western eye, most Indians are dark-skinned, with the exception of a few who ‘do not look Indian’. I was somewhat disappointed when, on arriving in America, I was told that I was as dark as ‘those other Indians’. To Indians, our skin colour has a dozen shades, from coal-black to chocolate-brown to ‘wheatish’ – an aspirational word perhaps invented by matrimonial advertisements – to milky-white to ‘looks like a (white) foreigner’.

Our coal-blackers go about their lives much like the Prince of Morocco, pleading fruitlessly,

Mislike me not for my complexion,

The shadow’d livery of the burnish’d sun,

and are somehow accommodated, sometimes attaining success far beyond their skin colour would dictate, becoming exceptions that prove the rule. In the town in Bihar where I spent my childhood, mothers console dark-skinned children by pointing out that Ram and Krishna were both dark. Indeed, Krishna was the victim of a sort of racism long before the West came by it. Writing in the 16th century, Surdas described how Balram, Krishna’s light-skinned elder brother, mocked his dark skin.

Gorey Nand Jasoda gorii tuu kas syaamal gaat

(Nand and Jasoda are both light-skinned, so why are you dark?)

But this offers little consolation to the hopelessly dark child. Krishna’s skin is not the muddy brown of India, but an arresting blue-grey that testifies to his status as Vishnu incarnate. And we may assume that Vishnu, Preserver of the Universe, is blue-grey by choice, which makes Balram’s racism quite endearing, unlike the colour discrimination the coal-blacker child can expect to face. In any case, Krishna’s darkness is forgotten as soon as it is mentioned – in the blockbusters by Ramanand Sagar and BR Chopra, Ram and Krishna were played by light-skinned actors, with a touch of blue sometimes added in an attempt at ‘authenticity’ but never applied so thickly as to offend Indian eyes.

For chocolate-browns, India offers some channels for subterfuge. A bit of flair and chutzpah allows them to pass, under flattering lights and from some angles, as wheatish, which is how their families describe them in matrimonial ads.

For the wheatish, life bubbles with greater hope, providing cosmetic solutions and carefully chosen wardrobe hues that move the skin tone toward milky-white, but it is for the milky-white and those who look like (white) foreigners that India opens her arms. These humans we make into film stars. When they take selfies with us, glistening in their whiteness against a sea of dark faces, we are overjoyed. When they lead large troupes in dance sequences in Bollywood films, we delight in how they stand out in their light skin against the backup dancers.

Three years ago, in a pleasant café in Yari Road in Mumbai, I met with a dark-skinned Bollywood actor who had just become highly successful. “When I first arrived in Bollywood,” he told me, “all the roles I got were ‘bank security guard’ or ‘taxi driver’ because I ‘looked Indian’.” His success, apparent in the number of times we were interrupted so people could take selfies with him, was the exception that proved the rule.

Now, one might ask: why does India put up with an oppressive system in which nearly the whole population is at the receiving end? But that question ignores the essential truth about India’s self-image – Indians do not really think they are dark-skinned.

If you were to ask a coal-blacker, you would almost certainly be told, ‘I am chocolate-brown.' A chocolate-brown thinks oneself wheatish, the wheatish one lays claim to milky-white, and so on. This idea is so deeply rooted in Indian minds that we have altered the physical world to match it – the pictures of Gandhi, Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose and other figures that hang in our homes are of white people with pink lips – even when, as in the case of Gandhi, countless photographs exist to prove those pictures are a lie; my childhood photos show a nearly white-skinned boy because of deliberate over-exposure in the photo studio; the women in my town wear foundation two shades lighter than their skin tones – indeed some seem to believe that the purpose of ‘powder’ is to make oneself look ‘fairer’. Everywhere you go, you are surrounded by people whose skins are light in their own minds, and lighter than ‘that really dark person’. In other words, we consider ourselves the beneficiaries of colour discrimination, not its victims.

When Indians hear of George Floyd – to the extent we hear of him at all – we do not think ‘this could have been me’; we think ‘Thank God this will never be me’.

This image of ourselves is not the result of marketing hyperbole, as in a matrimonial ad that sells a chocolate-brown bride as wheatish. Rather, it is born out of sincere conviction, shaken only occasionally by visual evidence. And it is this occasional glimpse of truth – perhaps a candid photograph or a reflection in an unfortunately placed mirror – that makes Indians, being nearly white already, open to further whitening, which brings us to the surreal world of Fair & Lovely.

At the heart of Indias racism and colourism a sincere conviction that were nearly white

We consider ourselves the beneficiaries of colour discrimination, not its victims. REUTERS

My father sold Fair & Lovely for decades, perhaps since it was first introduced. The picture on the tube makes its benefits clear – three profiles of the same model with increasingly lighter skin – and of course all Hindi speakers understand those two English words. As used in India, ‘fair’ has one and only one specific meaning, and what is not fair cannot be lovely. The women in my family applied the cream regularly. Tubes lay about the house when I was growing up. On special occasions – weddings, engagements, match-making ceremonies – these tubes were passed from hand to hand and squeezed liberally on to dark cheeks. Having inherited the family business, my brother now sells the cream, and tells me it is by far his highest selling product. A mere 25-gram tube sells for Rs 54, not an inconsiderable sum in a small town in Bihar for a cream that must be applied daily, or more than once a day for “maximum effect”.

Hindustan Unilever’s cynicism – first in exploiting the gullibility of the dark-skinned Indian and now in climbing aboard the inclusion bandwagon – will go unpunished, as perhaps it should, because the people of India do not mind much. Bollywood stars with lighter skin than ours continue to vouch for the cream, and it is easy to find people in my town who will swear that, in some lights and from some angles and on some days, the cream has made their skin lighter and therefore more beautiful. And now that the stigma of the name has been removed in our newly deracinated world, Hindustan Unilever can extol the virtues of the cream without guilt, and without running afoul of political correctness.

The people in my town will continue to put gobs of Glow & Lovely on their noses, rub it in, examine themselves anxiously in the mirror, be pleased to see a lighter patch here or there, and feel smug that we Indians are not so dark that there is no hope. Even coal-blackers, after all, have the consolation that there exist entire nations in the world where everyone is darker than the darkest Indian. That, by the way, is another nugget with which mothers in my town console their dark-skinned children.

Sujit Saraf is a novelist and playwright. His most recent novel, Harilal & Sons, won the Crossword Award for fiction. He is the artistic director of Naatak, an Indian-American theatre company in San Jose, California.

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