The first time my mother tried to lighten her complexion, she was five years old. She recalls the day she spent repeatedly scrubbing her face with a bar of soap, so much so that her skin cracked. The next day, she was delighted to see her reflection in a window. “I looked so fair, and it made me feel so happy, even though my face hurt a lot,” she says.
As the daughter of first-generation Pakistani immigrants, my mother’s desire to have fair skin is not unusual. “In our culture, light skin is recognised as a sign of beauty and power, and dark skin is associated with people of lower class,” she tells me.
Earlier this year, the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer reignited a global movement against the systematic oppression of black people. While the protests started in the US, they called for a deep introspection in all parts of the world.
In South Asian communities, this means addressing the problem of colourism. With roots in both European colonialism and the ancient Hindu caste system, colourism is a form of discrimination that treats people of lighter skin as superior over those that are darker within the same race and has existed in the Indian subcontinent for more than 2,000 years.
An indicator of the true scale at which a preference for light skin still dominates our communities today is the magnitude of the skin-lightening industry, which in India alone, was estimated to be worth $450-535 (£354-421) million in 2019.
Here in the UK, many of these products are banned as they contain mercury and hydroquinone —ingredients that have been linked to skin, liver and kidney damage with long-term use. Yet, the demand is high and is being met by illegal trade both in shops and online. In September 2019, the Local Government Association, which represents councils in England and Wales, issued a statement urging people to avoid buying these products after several large-scale seizures.
Last month Hindustan Unilever, the creators of the popular skin-whitening line Fair & Lovely said they would be rebranding the product to “Glow & Lovely” after years of criticism that the brand name promotes colourism. In its statement, Unilever said “no association should be made between skin tone and a person’s achievement, potential or worth”.
But Radhika Parameswaran, a Professor in the Media School at Indiana University, Bloomington, who has studied colourism, tells me that the replacement of ‘Fair’ to ‘Glow’ is unlikely to undo thousands of years of prejudice. While Fair & Lovely first hit markets in 1975, skin bleaching has existed in South Asia long before cosmetics appeared, in the form of beauty rituals. These involved using cream of milk, turmeric and lemon juice to lighten the skin of children from a young age.
“Even back then, people would say that applying these to your skin would make you ‘glow’. I think people know ‘glow’, along with ‘brighten’ is a euphemism for skin lightening,” says Professor Parameswaran. “So, given how resilient colourism is, I’m not sure ‘Glow and Lovely’ is going to do much to attack it in any substantive way.”
While some activists have called for Unilever to cease production of the cream altogether, figures suggest that the global skin-bleaching industry will be worth an estimated $31.2 (£24.5) billion by 2024. Professor Parameswaran says she thinks a global ban is unlikely to happen in the next decade. “Even if it did, I would not doubt that women would still use lemon juice or other forms of bleach because it’s a very deeply ingrained practice,” she says.
The history of colourism can be traced back to the ideology of the Indian caste system, an occupational division of people, which still exists in South Asian communities today. Although the origins of the caste system are unclear, it is thought to have first been used as early as 1500BC.
People in “lower” castes were those who worked in manual labour, which involved being outside under the sun, creating the association between lower class and dark skin. At the “top” of the caste system were light-skinned people with military and intellectual power, a perception which was later reinforced by European colonialism.
Sharmin Hossain, political director of Equality Labs, an organisation with aims to end caste oppression, Islamophobia, white supremacy, and religious intolerance, explains that “the hierarchy and impunity that comes with the culture of caste discrimination in our home countries shapes so much of our relationships with black communities in the UK and the US.”
One caste, Dalits, are so low in this hierarchy that they are excluded from the caste system altogether. Considered impure because of their perceived dark skin and occupations, such as street sweepers, garbage collectors and drain cleaners, they are amongst those facing the most intense colourism. Of course, as Parameswaran highlights, “there is no empirically proven correlation between caste and skin colour”.
This prejudice can be life threatening for people like Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a Dalit woman who was born in the US. Dalits were previously ostracised as “untouchables”, a term that implied they were subhuman and ensured they were excluded from many social spaces. Although untouchability has been outlawed in India, Nepal and Pakistan, social discrimination and violence against Dalits still exists in South Asian communities. Today in the US, a significant number of Hindu temples still do not allow Dalits to enter.
Soundararajan, who is the executive director of Equality Labs, has faced rape and death threats and untouchability from South Asians. Speaking on her experience, she says: “A Brahmin [a member of the highest caste in India] woman gave me a paper plate instead of a real plate when she found out that I was Dalit.”
“We are seeing a large silence across our communities about casteism,” Hossain says. “Anti-Dalitness is how we learned anti-blackness. Many upper-caste South Asians think their struggle is to fight white supremacy, while Dalit people are fighting discrimination at the hands of these dominating castes.”
One aspect that perhaps most highlights the depths of the South notions of caste and light-skin privilege is the arranged marriage system. Historically, the patriarchy of South Asian cultures did not allow women economic independence. This placed a greater importance on who they married.
Professor Parameswaran says because light skin was synonymous with beauty, it was seen as a form of “cultural capital”, which could be used to gain upward mobility. “If you were a fair-skinned woman born into a working-class family, you could still attract a man above your social ranking,” she explains.
This standard of beauty still exists in South Asian cultures today. It is the reason why, when my aunt’s now husband initially came to visit her, her cousin of fairer complexion was not allowed to meet him, for fear that it might affect my aunt’s marriage prospects. “People don’t realise they have these prejudices, but even now when people talk about beauty they will say ‘she’s so fair, she’s so beautiful’ in the same sentence,” my aunt explains.
Further mobilised by the Black Lives Matter movement, social media has seen a rise in the number of young South Asians working to fight colourism. As a child, 33-year-old Seema Hari was bullied to the point of thinking she was ugly because of her dark skin. “I was declared defective because of my dark skin from the day I was born,” Haari writes on her Instagram, which she uses as a platform to speak about the issue. “My work is to share the parts of my journey which I think will help other people going through the same thing, but also I hope that by seeing what I had to go through people will question their own values and negative stereotypes of dark skin,” she tells me.
Haari’s personal journey—from internalising people’s comments about her skin to now rejecting South Asian beauty ideals and “finally finding complete self-acceptance”—was one which took decades. But while dismantling the continued oppression of communities such as Dalits, and biases against dark skin is an uphill struggle, Hari’s complete shift in perspective is proof that people’s attitudes can be changed.
Positively, last month Asian matrimonial site Shaadi.com removed its skin tone filter following an online petition. The filter had allowed users to select their own complexion as well as filter those that they matched with based on skin shade.
While the decision is an indicator of change, these longstanding attitudes of Casteism are deeply seated in the psyche of south Asians and lay the groundwork for racism, Hossain says. “For us to show up as allies for black people, we need to look at where we can be accountable for violence against dark-skinned people in our own communities. That is where we stop the cycle of hate and open ourselves up to a future of justice.”
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