“It starts when children are young: the moment a child is born, relatives start comparing siblings’ skin colour. It starts in your own family – but people don’t want to talk about it openly.”
India’s hatred of dark skin, rooted in years of colonization, haunts naturally dark-skinned people there. While under British rule, white colonizers demeaned those with dark skin, favoring those with fairer skin. The British superiority in India showed the power struggle between the fair and the dark. As a result, even amongst Indians, those with darker skin were, and continue to be, looked down upon.
Darker skin represents a connection to the past and its traditions, while Westernization is considered to be modernization, creating a desire for pale skin. Fairness seems to equate to intelligence, power and beauty, leading many to try to achieve such skin.
Skin-lightening products, like “Fair & Lovely,” “Pond’s White Beauty” and “Lotus Herbals Whiteglow” are commonplace in Indian grocery stores, and make up an industry expected to be worth over $24 billion by 2027 globally. The media portrays lighter-skinned families in advertisements and TV shows, and Bollywood favors lighter-skinned actresses as the stars of films, creating an inaccurate ideal for Indians to look up to. This representation issue has been addressed more recently by many.
Yet, colorism might be most noticeable at the grassroots level. Comments from Indian relatives or acquaintances like “The bride is pretty, but dark,” “Oh, she’s so beautiful and fair!” and “She’s so dark, hopefully the baby won’t be as dark,” continue throughout the life of a “darker” Indian individual, and serve as microagressions pinning a negative connotation on those with a darker shade of brown.
This implicit bias has been internalized by Indian society and culture for decades. It does not outwardly show itself in the same way the United States’ prejudice systemically affects Black Americans, but it still accepts and normalizes the belief that lighter is better.
Colorism has led to very implicit discrimination that affects the greater society but also trickles down into everyday microagressions such as being told to drink saffron milk so your child doesn’t inherit the same dark genes you did, or that being pretty and dark is surprising or rare.
It’s a heavy burden and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. And unlike the comments employed to “other” and homogenize South Indians, this shade of colorism is internalized and in some ways, more painful to deal with. After all, it’s not strangers who are trying to boost their own regionalist identity—but family members who honestly believe that if you were a shade or two fairer, you might be considered beautiful.
Campaigners standing up against the world’s bias towards lighter skin are fighting more than just bad medical practice and consumer habits. They are battling millennia-old preferences for lighter skin.
Colourism and skin lightening in India is a stellar case that shows us the need of using intersectionality to capture the depths of an issue. Our preference for light skin does not merely create beauty standards but also intersects with caste, class, and gender, and actually shapes the idea of womanhood in India.