By Rudi Ann-Miller
India is a vibrant, colorful nation, but when it comes to skin tone there is only one color everyone wants to be: fair.
2014 Yale World Fellow Nandita Das is an anomaly as one of the few dark skinned Indian actresses. In her talk at Luce Hall, Das condemned beauty companies, fellow Bollywood stars and the media for perpetuating this phenomenon of colorism.
Colorism is defined as skin color stratification and oppression in which those of lighter complexions are favored over their darker counterparts. In India, a dark complexion bars many women from opportunities such as good marriage prospects and employment. People therefore aspire to be fair-skinned which begs the question: exactly how does one aspire to be a skin color? Not for lack of trying, fairness creams such as Fair & Lovely for women and Fair & Handsome for men have cropped up. Beauty companies capitalize off of the insecurities of dark skinned boys and girls. Even Indian actors and actresses resort to using these creams to become fairer and more marketable.
But while Bollywood mega-stars, including Shahrukh Khan, became the public faces of fairness creams, Nandita Das decided last year to lend her image to the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign. Launched in 2009 by the non-profit organization Women of Worth, the campaign “challenges the belief that the value and beauty of people (in India and worldwide), is determined by the fairness of their skin.” Although Das knew colorism in India was an important issue, she never fathomed its salience until the massive response she received from the campaign. Das credits her parents for never putting the colorism complex in her head.
In India, the caste system and the ‘white’ Aryan tradition are cited as the sources of colorism. But colorism is also an issue in Jamaica, my country of birth, where men and women routinely whiten their skin, risking infections and cancer from the toxic chemicals. In India, skin color prejudice led to a mob attack on three African men in the Delhi metro on September 28th.
“Indians are very racist. There is no question,” Das states. “We need to accept that we are racist before we can get rid of colorism.” Thankfully, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) has tried to regulate the whitening cream industry by prohibiting advertisements that demean, discriminate, or have messages equating fairness with better self-esteem. According to research firm Nielsen India, fairness cream sales experienced a negative growth of 4.5% from 2012-2013. Moreover, spoofs of fairness cream advertisements have popped up recently indicating increasing public disdain for the products.
All societies need to take responsibility for the self-hate they perpetuate. To quote actress and Yale Drama School graduate Lupita Nyong’o, “Beauty is not something that you can acquire or consume.” What we all need is to “feel the validation of [our] external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. There is no shade in that beauty.”
Rudi Ann Miller is a sophomore in Silliman College. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.