“My mother always tells me the story of how I was born whiter. One day, when my mother was pregnant my grandmother gave my mother four white sweets called Rasgulla. She was told that if she took them, her child would be born fair. She took one each morning until I was born, I was white. During the pregnancy of my younger brother she did the same thing, and he also came out white. My mother’s sister did not apply my grandmother’s idea of becoming whiter during her first two pregnancies, so her first two children were born dark. However when she was pregnant with her last born she decided to take the sweet and my cousin was born white.”
There I sat, looking at Sanjana, a beautiful fair skinned, dark eyed and dark haired girl from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh in North India, as she told me the almost like mystical myth of how she was born light. In the background the fan viciously span, creating a soothing rhythm and breeze as we bared the Indian heat, she giggled, “I don’t know how true this story is, but whatever it was it seemed to have worked”.
Colourism is something that is not new to me. Growing up in Britain as a dark skinned black girl, I would always hear comments such as, ‘You’re pretty for a dark skinned girl’ and ‘You don’t have dark skinned features’. Such phrases in what the other person thought I’d receive as a compliment left me feeling uncomfortable and inadequate. It was as if dark-skinned women were not supposed to be beautiful and that my skin tone was associated with ugliness. As time went on colourism in Britain had become less noticeable amongst young black people, but nothing would prepare me for the immense scale that colourism affects everyday life in India.
To my surprise, during my first visit I learned that a lot of Indians share the same complexion as me and majority of them are deeply tanned and brown. Constant images of very light, basically white women dominate Indian media but to my dismay, these women were nowhere to be seen. This led me to question why the images of the women on the windows of each store, every billboard and all over the TV were basically white? Maybe these women do exist in India and I wasn’t looking hard enough to spot them, but I soon came to realise that to find an Indian of a white complexion was like trying to find a white person in Kenya’s rural village of Mulunguni.
When I continued on to ask Sanjana if she felt that she is treated with privileged in comparison to her darker friends, her joyful giggles turned uncomfortable. Then soon into silence, she moved back on her chair and held her hair back “I feel so weird talking about this”. She placed her hand over her soft face as she tried to get her words out. I felt that our completely different shade of brown made her feel, as if what she wanted to say would somehow offend me. “I don’t know, I don’t want to be able to say these things, to be racist, I love black people and it’s just colour, but it’s the way it’s seen here!” I see the frustration by the expression on her face and hand gestures. She was frustrated living in such a society with closed minded views.
I noticed that the emphasis put on colourism in India was linked with beauty and marriage. During my first lesson on India’s living past at Symbiosis University for Liberal Arts, this assumption was clarified. Professor Vijay Kunjeer said that, no matter how intelligent, wealthy or of a high of a social class a bride may be, if she is not of a fairer complexion, then she most likely will not be accepted by her partner’s family because of the believe that having a fair wife will bring a fair child. As you can imagine my first thought was, biology is an amazing thing but not as simple as that. Not too long after, an overwhelming feeling of disappointment flooded my body. Women who looked like me where out-casted simply based on the tone of their skin.
Professor Kunjeer’s words echoed Sanjana’s experience. “My darker cousins always look up to me as if I’m too cool just because I am fairer than them and some are also jealous at the fact that I am fairer than them.” She looked a bit confused as to why anyone would want to be jealous, my first thought was maybe it has nothing to do with her skin tone but the fact that she is simply beautiful. “The place that I come from skin tone matters a lot. Being white is more superior to being black, meaning that you will get a husband before someone who is black. Probably because they think I may get a better guy for marrying or something.”
After I spoke to Sanjana I had time to reflect. It became clear that colourism is an issue that affects mainly women in India where beauty and marriage are interlinked. This was not much different to the old expectations for women all around the globe. It left me wondering, can women escape the media’s expectation of beauty or are we slaves to it no matter how far we run?