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Subversive Colorism in India

In a growing age where the Eurocentric standard of beauty has permeated practically all parts of culture, it’s important to acknowledge the negative effect that this has had on how individuals perceive themselves. The cultural effects of colonialism in India (specifically British occupation for over 200 years) were astonishingly devastating as they halted the industrial revolution from fully permeating Indian culture along with leaving much more lasting effects, one that we still feel today — colorism. 

What is Colorism and how has the British Occupation of India influenced it?

The dictionary definition of colorism is “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.” This begs the question, if it is within Indians themselves and isolated to their feelings towards each other, how have the British influenced this? And what does colorism look like in India?

Colorism in India has nuzzled its way into nighttime rituals and snarky comments that come from preconceived negative associations with a darker skin tone. They come with a romanticization of “fair” children along with home remedies that will ensure that your unborn child will come out fair skinned and lighter in hope of appeasing unrelenting and unrealistic beauty standards. The fight to be white in India has led to mass consumerism of products that promise fairer skin such as Fair and Lovely, a company that has amassed over twenty billion dollars globally. 

Phrases such as “She is beautiful, but she is dark” are used casually. I recall my own grandmother saying, “Your dad used to be so cute and light as a baby.”

All terms that mean nothing yet are ingrained in the deepest parts of India’s not-so-hidden colorism. 

During colonialism, lighter skinned Indians would receive higher paid government jobs. Their darker skin counterparts would have a lower chance of rising in society due to their darker complexion. This began to reinforce the association between lighter skin and a higher social status as lighter people were treated as higher than those with a darker complexion. 

In the nineties, western culture and media reached India. It immobilized the beauty standard to a more stagnant view, one of what European people looked like in a way that demonized Indian features.

How does this affect society today? What does Colorism look like now?

Colorism in India today has programmed younger generations to fall victim to the misconception that “lighter is better.” In grocery stores, you’ll see shelves lined with Fair and Lovely. You’ll see Bollywood actresses being praised for their Eurocentric features. You’ll see storefronts adorned with “Indian” ladies in traditional wear, only to later find out that the models are actually Ukrainian.  

You’ll see a national glorification of white people and all the access and socioeconomic gains they attain and believe you can have that too with a 16-ounce bottle of Fair and Lovely. There are white models splaying the screens of the younger generation as they have greater access to technology which equates to greater access to indulge in an inherently toxic and demeaning beauty standard that contributes to their own inherent biases. 

Colorism still penetrates society in remarkable ways. Lower caste people tend to be darker skinned, labor workers and are often disregarded and less favored than their lighter Indian counterparts when seeking a job. Employers still seek out the lighter-skin employer as they are associated with traits such as being more personable and more bound for success — traits that cannot be gauged from looks alone. Climbing socially becomes harder when you are darker skinned in India, the glorification of lighter skin has managed to disseminate the line between social status and skin color. 

What’s being done about this? 

Colorism is less subliminal and more evident in India as movements such as “Unfair and Lovely” have attained national attention. These protests aim to shine a light on how unfair the practices of favoring someone based on skin tone are and aim to make Indians aware that their skin tone isn’t a defining factor in who they are. This movement also helps to pull people out of poverty as poverty and colorism are synonymous. These go hand-in-hand as one exacerbates the other enabling people to succumb to a devastating fate based on the skin color they have. Addressing colorism also addresses individuals facing estrangement on the fringes of society based on skin color as colorism and it’s detrimental effects run so deep in Indian society. 

It’s important to address colorism and acknowledge the damaging effects it has had on a post-colonialist society in order to truly work on determining and fixing the root of the problem. Modern activism has served to bring the problem out of the limelight but the problem still runs rampant in society.

News writer for her campus!!! She/her and am currently at the university of florida
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