Vidita Priyadarshini, Editorial for the IHEYO Newsletter April/May 2016
The recent incidents of attacks on Africans in New Delhi have sparked the debate on the peculiarities of the phenomenon of ‘colourism’ in India. While Western scholars have written extensively on colour and race, in the case of India, it continues to hide behind many variables such as region, caste, class, and gender.
The variation in skin colour across different regions of the subcontinent has been extended to argue that historically there was an acceptance of diversity of physical attributes with the absence of a rigid beauty standard, and that the beginnings of the trends of colourism were fairly late in its history.
Without getting into the debates about the evolution of said trends, I would like to delve into its manifestations in modern India, and the implication it has in the form of violence in our communities.
Skin colour is attached to the Indian psyche in ways which makes it look indistinguishable from caste, class and religion, primarily due to its interactions with them. Skin tone forms various levels of acceptability, even though ‘fair skin’ – with all its relativities – remains the preferable one. The overwhelming market size for ‘fairness creams’ has been estimated at USD 450 million, according to a study done in 2013. The marketing strategies adopted by most products also suggest a clear bias towards whiteness, and not just fairness, when Caucasian models are preferred in advertisements. This standard applies to both women and men, however not in equal degrees – women continue to face the brunt of the desire for ‘fair skin’ (the ‘fairer sex’, anyone?) Skin whitening creams do not focus just on the face. There are products for lightening of the vagina and nipples, indicating the importance it is given in terms of sexual desire.
However, the biggest story is not about media portrayal. There is strong evidence of a mental association between skin colour and caste and class status, especially in North India. Men and women of upper caste status who are light skinned are preferred. Dark skinned men with higher financial status are considered ‘eligible’ for light skinned women as partners (a cursory look at matrimonial classifieds in newspapers will explain this.)
The caste and class status explains colourist discrimination through the inferiority normally associate with jobs requiring physical labour. Traditionally, menial jobs in agriculture, and otherwise, were thrust upon people from lower castes. Bonded labour and jobs such as manual scavenging were performed by lower castes, which also inevitably became lower class.
The triggering of distress migration, and their consequent relocation to urban centres, has also led to a peculiar manifestation of the skin-colour struggle. Migrants who come in search of better opportunities are meted a treatment similar to the feudal and casteist order, force to work on low wages and under dire conditions. There is an assumption of inferiority which forces them into jobs with low wages, which also reinforces their caste-class status.
Imagining the social repercussions of fine-grained and differentialist racism that colourism exemplifies, in opposition to categorical racism as experienced in the West, poses some startling challenges. Some scholars worry that the language which talks of structural disadvantage might be lost. Since this colour hierarchy is not race-based, it rarely is seen as a question in debates on group injustices. The institutional colourblindness – refusal to accept colour-based discrimination as a valid category of analysis – is proving to be dangerous. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj claims that India cannot be racist. Complex identities mean more difficulty in understanding different forms of discrimination.
The assumption of everyone being an equal minority is perhaps the most dangerous stand that modern states have taken. We also see a shift to expectations of greater personal responsibility, as there are no group-links when identities are seen in a complex manner. While we lose our classificatory abilities, there is a rise in the imagination of greater assimilation.
India has topped the Global Slavery Index in 2016. It is no wonder that the violence it inflicts on the majority of its peoples reflects itself through social trends in worlds seemingly disconnected from this violence, but plays a major role in feeding into it. Discrimination and exclusion based on skin colour is so deep-rooted that it is embraced by both the victim and the perpetrator. Instead of being colourblind, analysts should embrace the multiplicity of faultlines, however administratively inconvenient they may be, to reflect the complexity of discrimination as much as identities themselves.