The first time New Zealand resident Harsharin Kaur visited India, the country of her ancestors, as an adult, she was struck by the amount of pressure there was for people to change the colour of their skin.
Billboards of upcoming movies seemed to show that only light-skinned men and women could make it in the country’s film industry. Television advertisements for skin care products emphasised that the fairer a woman’s skin, the more likely she is find a job, a husband, or happiness.
“There were Garnier and L’Oreal – companies that I’d never seen promoting those products in New Zealand. But in India, there were all these advertisements about it,” says Kaur, who runs the popular Instagram page The Indian Feminist.
In late June 2020, amid public backlash, L’Oreal announced that they would remove the words “white”, “fairness”, and “light” from all of their skin products – in particular from their Garnier product line, which has thus far been widely marketed as a range of whitening products in South Asian countries.
All this in a country whose population is far more likely to be dark-skinned – a necessary protection against the harsh UV rays from the Sun that come with living closer to the equator.
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The form of discrimination that favours light-skinned members of the same ethnic group is known as colourism. A widely discussed phenomenon in black communities, colourism has been, until recently, barely spoken of in South Asian circles, despite the amount of trauma and even death it has left in its wake.
Colourism remains a phenomenon in black communities, as evidenced by this advertisement for skin-whitening products in the Ivory Coast (Credit: Getty Images)
But the May 2020 killing of George Floyd that sparked worldwide protests and conversations surrounding anti-racism has brought about a social awakening for people in South Asian countries and their diasporas.
A new Netflix reality series called Indian Matchmaking also has sparked significant debate after its protagonist, a globe-trotting Indian woman who hunts down potential spouses for her clients, put lighter-skinned women and men on a pedestal, championing their complexion as an obviously desirable attribute.
In the wake of these protests and continued highlighting of discriminatory ideals in pop culture, more and more people have begun to denounce colourist ideals and the products that espouse them.
Some companies have responded. Unilever, the parent company of the popular skin care brand Fair & Lovely, also announced that all skin care products under its umbrella would have the words “fairness”, “whitening”, and “lightening” removed, and the Fair & Lovely brand would be renamed Glow & Lovely.
Unilever recently announced that their Fair & Lovely brand would be renamed Glow & Lovely (Credit: Getty Images)
A spokesperson for the company says these changes to the brand were already underway, but have been accelerated in light of recent events – such as the launch of a widespread petition calling for the company to pull Fair & Lovely from shelves altogether, and people on social media denouncing Unilever CEO Alan Jope for criticising systemic racism while continuing to market and sell the incredibly profitable £256m-a-year line.
And while changing the name to Glow & Lovely has garnered the company some praise, experts say it’s not enough. It is – after all – still on the shelves.
“I don’t know if it’s any different. I commend them because it was probably one of the most recognisable brands. But I’m disheartened to hear that it’s ‘Glow & Lovely’ because glow really is just another way of saying ‘lightening’,” says Nikki Khanna, a professor of sociology at the University of Vermont who has been studying race relations and colourism for more than 20 years.
“The word ‘glow’ itself – the image it is conjuring and the advertisements they produced through the years are [of women who have] this glowing white image. My hope is that we see a repackaging again – and when I say ‘repackaging’, what I mean is a complete elimination of this product.”
While much more research needs to be done, several studies have pointed out the damage caused by colourism.
One consequence is the effect on mental health. One study, for example, found a correlation between symptoms of depression and prejudices against darker skin tones among Asian-American women.
Some research has found that colourism impacts mental health (Credit: Getty Images)
“Historically, a lot of communities have held ‘blackness’ as a bad thing and there are lots of connotations of [people who have darker skin tones] being ‘dirty’ or ‘less educated’ that people have culturally transmitted across time, within and outside of their groups,” says Alisia (Giac-Thao) Tran, one of the study’s authors and associate professor of counselling psychology at Arizona State University.
“Within the South Asian community, this has a long history with ties to the caste system and social hierarchies.”
One of the most prominent manifestations of older generations imposing colourist ideals occurs in the realm of matrimony – as seen in Indian Matchmaking. In South Asian communities, it is common practice for parents to arrange the marriages of their adult children by meeting prospective spouses and their families. Historically, the young couple can only spend their lives together if the elders approve of the match, although in recent years more and more young people are choosing to go the “love marriage” route through which they select their own partners, sometimes at risk of estrangement from their families.
One study on Indian arranged marriages found that darker-skinned marriage candidates were rated lower in preference by prospective mothers-in-law, compared with their light-skinned counterparts.
These findings are not surprising. Preferences for light-skinned brides have been prevalent in arranged marriage newspaper advertisements for decades; light-complexioned women often are highlighted in these ads as a way to attract more prospective grooms.
Prominent Indian marriage websites like shaadi.com carried these practises into the internet.
The Indian marriage website shaadi.com recently removed the last vestiges of its skin-colour filter (Credit: Alamy)
The matrimonial website originally asked its patrons to indicate the colour of their skin using a scale of descriptors that ranged from “fair” and “wheatish” to “dusky” (meaning dark), and then allowed users to select their preferences in a potential life partner using skin tone as one of the filters.
“Newspaper ads used skin colour as one of the filtering mechanisms and we replicated that. Companies evolve, just like people do, and four or five years ago, we decided to step away from using skin filters in the matchmaking process,” says Adhish Zaveri, director of marketing for shaadi.com.
But a remnant of this skin tone filter remained on the website: the user interface for selecting a skin tone remained, even though any requested skin tone specifications were ignored in the actual search results.
When news of it reached a Facebook group of South Asian women living in North America, a petition was immediately launched to bring it to the attention of shaadi.com.
“Within 24 hours, we had 1,500 signatures,” says Hetal Lakhani, a Dallas, Texas resident who created the petition. “Shaadi.com decided to get rid of the filter.”
While colourism in South Asian communities has been largely overlooked until the past decade, social media and the internet are changing that.
A biracial Indian-American woman, Khanna’s most recent book Whiter: Asian American Women on Skin Color and Colorism is a compilation of personal essays on the impacts of colourism written by women from various South Asian backgrounds living in the United States.
Her experience in researching the book, she says, is a good example of how today’s digital landscape is changing the discussion around topics like colourism.
Bollywood stars often have lighter skin tones (Credit: Getty Images)
Khanna began this project in 2017 with a call for submissions on Facebook. “Social media was really advantageous to help me get the word out to women way beyond my own social networks,” she says.
Khanna says she was initially surprised by the number of people who had no idea that colourism was an issue among Asians and diaspora communities.
But over time, that’s shifted – in large part thanks to social media campaigns like Dark is Beautiful and #brownisbeautiful. Such campaigns have started to create a space for dark skinned South Asians to talk about their shared experiences, break the silence and alter the discourse on colourism in their communities.
Tran agrees that social media can play a key role in dismantling these centuries-old beliefs – in particular by giving individuals more access to like-minded allies who question colourist views. Many of these people tend to belong to younger generations that are starting to realise the generational gap in the discourse surrounding racism and colourism. Instead of internalising these values, they are seeking to reject them.
“These small conversations, these small interactions: they’re a big piece – and they amass to eventually helping us overcome generational prejudices that permeate our societies,” says Tran.
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