Too brown, Too dark, Too Ugly

Top left to bottom: Advertisements for Fair & Lovely, Clean and Dry Intimate Wash and Vaseline’s Fair & Handsome, from Meets Obsession

Recently, a close member in my family gave birth to a beautiful boy. I have yet to visit her, but I have seen a picture of the tiny infant. He is adorable. Although, we must all admit that newborns are quite odd-looking with their squishy faces, slightly flattened head, and half-opened eyes that seem too large for their faces. But gazing at the picture, I could see my mother in the corner of my eye, waiting for a chance to comment on something that I had not picked up when looking at the photograph – the colour of his skin.

This angered me. Not surprisingly, I must say as this is just one of those random moments where I remain completely baffled by the way my family thinks. She went on about how my family members, including the mother and grandmother of the baby left the infant alone in the crib. No one was cradling him, no one was going “awww” over him, no one was touching him – all because of the colour of his skin.  But what really infuriated me were my mother’s comments. “It’s the first time in our family such a kalu child is born. Everyone was shocked. But the shock will wear off after a day. Then, they will carry the baby”, she said. After I told her that I doubt that’s the reason, considering the colour of the mother, who is considerably tan, she replied “That’s tan no. The baby is really kalu.” She claimed that her statements were based on what people think, and not hers. I let it go, without delving further. But then the next day came and I found out exactly who my mother was. I came across some messages which were sent to my sister abroad. The only thing my mother could think of, to describe the infant was…

“The baby is dark”.

The conversation went on to describe how apathetic they felt to the child because he was “so dark” along with the words “sin no” repeated countless times. When questioned, my mother simply said she was being “realistic, this is how the world is, this is how people think”. Of course I knew this. I even knew that few members of my extended family seemed to think that fair people were prettier than darker people. But these were infants, newborns, babies. Surely, one cannot think such a way?

I am saddened and embarrassed to see this side of my family, to know that people who raised me, people who I’ve grown up with, believe that fair equals pretty and dark is ugly. It is surprising to know that even my sisters think such a way, after years of exposure on effects of discrimination from movies, Youtube clips, newspapers articles and television.

I fail to understand how people, never-mind the older generation, but people in their 20s who are educated and have come to a realization that some parts of yesteryears culture are incredibly unreasonable still think this way? Why is it that dark-skin is not considered beautiful?

But wait a minute.. isn’t there a remedy to this already? Cue the ever-present miraculous tubes of ‘Fair & Lovely’, with commercials that display that side effects of fairer skin include the appearance of one’s true love, increased job prospects, and indubitably gaining the love of one’s own parents, something only ‘Fair & Lovely’ would have you believe is impossible for darker children to gain.

I’m sure you have all seen the self-deprecating advertisements of fairness creams. The instances are laughable, the context is absurd, and the message, although constantly surprising that the human mind can stoop to such levels, is preposterous. From commercials that depict “You’re so dark, you’ll never get married” to print advertisements that portray “My husband loves me more because I am much fairer now” (here’s looking at you Ponds), the marketing approach of fairness products seem to have affected the way people think. It has seemingly introduced a new set of values to our culture, based on the notion that being fair makes you an object of desire which means people will flock around you like moths to a flame. It has been established as a prerequisite for success in both the personal and professional front, heightening the natural anxiety of men and women and their ability remain comfortable in their own skin. No matter how bizarre the story line is, there seems to be no better way to market a product than to feed on pointless cultural views and human insecurities.

This year a new phenomenon was introduced, which truly, in my personal opinion, heightened the concept of fairness creams to a whole new level. It seems that society has found yet another reason to hate your body, which means another opportunity for women to make themselves more attractive to the opposite sex. Turns out that the colour of your lady parts is extremely revolting to our society, so here lies the perfect remedy, an Indian product called Clean and Dry Intimate Wash. Check out the commercial here.

As you can see, it is not simply enough to make people feel bad that they are dark, but now everyone has to be insecure about the natural colour of their lady parts. I was doing some research on this matter and came across a rather hilarious comment by an Indian advertising executive. Here is what he had to say about fairness creams.

“It is hard to deny that fairness creams often get social commentators and activists all worked up. What they should do is take a deep breath and think again. Lipstick is used to make your lips redder, fairness cream is used to make you fairer—so what’s the problem? I don’t think any Youngistani today thinks the British Raj/White man is superior to us Brown folk. That’s all 1947 thinking!

The only reason I can offer for why people like fairness, is this: if you have two beautiful girls, one of them fair and the other dark, you see the fair girl’s features more clearly. This is because her complexion reflects more light. I found this amazing difference when I directed Kabir Bedi, who is very fair and had to wear dark make-up for Othello, the Black hero of the play. I found I had to have a special spotlight following Kabir around the stage because otherwise the audience could not see his expressions.

When you have experience like I have—about 50 years in advertising and more in theatre—then you realise that a lot of people don’t talk out of experience, they talk out of book knowledge. They say, “Oh my God, fairness creams… are they saying that Indians are not as good as Europeans?” It’s nothing to do with that.”

Read more here. So how did we get here?

The colonial legacy in our country is one of the main contributory factors for the belief that fair is powerful, fair is beautiful. The white race subjugating the darker race has been stressed in history, which has established an invisible system where the fairer people are those who are successful, powerful, rich, while the darker people are poor, unsuccessful and powerless. Herein lies the cultural view of fair skin considered as a social marker for high class while dark skin is considered as a social marker for low class while being associated with labour or field work. This has given considerable impetus to the notion of superiority of fairness.

Then, of course lies the American and Indian influences, which has caught the imagination of the masses with its yearly production of celebrities, movies and television shows. Our tele-dramas are often filled with women, who put on layers of make-up to appear fair. A walk down the street, and you will see that such thinking has affected people in all levels of the social ladder, wearing such heavy make-up that it appears similar to a face mask. Matrimonial columns is another depiction of colourism, revealing the influence of a person’s skin colour on marketability to marriage partners. In recent times, it has become clear that men too deal with instances of colourism, heightened by an increasing number of male fairness creams launched in the market today. Check this video here.

Personally, as a Sri Lankan woman with the ability to tan deep brown quite easily, the few occasions I have ever felt uncomfortable with my skin colour has been as a result of people of my own race and not as a result of growing up in a predominantly white country, as anyone would probably expect. This was during my schooling years, when I used to play netball almost every day. An aunt greeted me with a “My… you have got so dark. I remember when you were little. You were so fair”; all this with a tone that meant I had once possessed the fair complexion that is so passionately prized by South Asian communities and now, since I was tan, I was no longer pretty in her eyes.

This needs to change. I am tired of people being judged because of the colour of their skin, which quite frankly, they had no control over. I am tired of people making others feel ashamed because they are dark, to feel burdened by how they look, to feel degraded for their physical attributes.

If darker people do not see people who look like them being regarded as beautiful, this attitude will always remain the same. If they do not receive any positive reinforcements about their skin tone, they will always turn to fairness creams in a desperate need to be accepted by society.

  • luxmy

    Leave alone the colour of my skin
    Leave alone the religion I follow
    Leave alone the language I speak
    Please look at how I care for you and other humanimals and animals and trees and grass and everything that keeps the planet intact for generations of living beings to come.

  • Lankan Thinker

    I agree with what you say that prejudice / attitudes based on the colour of skin should be rejected and eliminated from society. Of course, this also applies to prejudice based on any other physical or cultural characteristics of people.

    My sense of the reason we value lighter skin tones had less to do with an aspiration to look like westerners, but more to do with the fact that traditionally, a fair skinned person most likely was born into a situation where there was no need to labour in hot sun. As a result there is a cultural conditioning that leads people to believe that fairer skin is an indicator of a higher social standing.

    In the west there is a reverse effect, where most people want to have what is called a ‘healthy tan’ – i.e. a darker skin tone. It has developed to the extent than fake tanning products and artificial tanning salons have become a major business in the beauty industry. However, the underlying attraction of this appearance might be due to the fact that, in the past only the wealthier people had the money to travel to sunny climates and spend time tanning themselves in the sun. Therefore, in northern europe, having a tan is a sign of your social standing and prosperity.

    Just my theory …

    • http://www.facebook.com/Not.fair.still.lovely Tanya Pereira

      I’d like to invite you all to check out ‘Not Fair, Still Lovely’ at
      http://www.facebook.com/Not.fair.still.lovely

      It would be great if you could post your opinions/comments/thoughts/poems/articles or anything else on here so that those on this page can be inspired and encouraged to love the skin they’re in….no matter what beautiful shade of brown!

      Also feel free to support the page by clicking ‘like’ and to share the link on your wall or with your friends.

      • http://www.groundviews.org Groundviews

        Thanks for starting this FB group.

      • The Ranting Ranter

        This is great. Thanks for sharing.

  • Wallflower

    Maybe we could start by painting the devil white.

    • http://www.blacklightarrow.wordpress.com David Blacker

      I think the government is already doing that ;)

  • anbu

    Look at our religious iconogrpahy

    Extremely pink skinned Buuddhas – love to see a very brown skin or black skinned one like most of us(one sees Chinese loooking Buddhas in China or Western looking Buddhas at FWBO- federation of western budhist order)

    fair goddeses – Luxmy ma( though one see Black skin Krishna)

    Virgin marys – kneeling to pray infront of European skin and blue eyes ‘gods’

    The Muslim Turks etc brought the fairskinned complex to India too

    The whole fair skinned Aryans and Black skinned Dravidians – schism brought in by the European colonial scholarship and the way we have bought into it is also testimony to this.I always find this ludicrous since I know soo many beautifully Black skinned Sinhala people and Green eyed Tamils.

    Unliker the ‘Black is beautiful’ amongst African Americans we SOuth ASians are yet to see that.
    Things are changing though
    EG: Kolavari fame Dhanush in Tamil Cinema is relatively dark than most actors and a heart throb too

    Even the Sinhala language has built in the complex
    Sudhu – white
    piri sudhu – clear white literal translation- but it means clean
    suddha – white person
    All having the root of sudhu

    I was shocked that English medium educated cousin in Colombo singing Eyes soo blue nursery rhyme at me…In the UK it is almost obsolete due to inclusive multi culturalism

  • http://--- punchinilame

    The colour of the skin is most dealt in Indian Films and this
    was most interestingly debated in the prize-winning Vijay TV
    programme “Neeya Nana” where the tan or dark skin was voted
    winners by the paricipants, the judges and students separately.
    So dont be discouraged.

  • sabbe laban

    When you say “racism”, most of us tend to think that it is a despicable practice carried out by the Caucasian races to discriminate against the darker skinned people. In closer examination it shows that this is not no, considering the racism you experience from the “darker skinned” people!

    If you look at the North Indians, they have this stereotyping notion against their Southern counterparts(Sri Lankans included!), because at a glance you can see that the North Indians are very fair. This may be due to(as “Lankan Thinker” says)the traditional attitude towards the toiling, sweating, poverty stricken manual worker. And the working class people in India mainly belong(still so, to a large extent)to a lower caste of untouchables. Therefore the fairer high caste North Indians identify the darker-skinned South Indian races with the Kshudras or the untouchables! No wonder that there are so many “fairness creams” becoming sell-outs!

    In Sri Lanka too, “Sudu Putha” and “Mage Sudu” are definitely preferred words over “Kalu Putha” and “Mage Kalu”!Sometimes the Sinhalese seem to consider themselves as “fairer” than the “Kalu” Tamils, and this could be one factor for the type-casting of Tamils as “inferior” by the Sinhalese! Unfortunately though, I am unable to differentiate the Sinhalese from Tamils based on their complextion! Did it all start after the arrival of the Western colonists? I doubt this contention, as there seems to be a natural bias towards the “white” over “black” in the human mind!(one may say that this is “conditioned”, but on the other hand , for something to be “conditioned”, there should be a reason for it be regarded “superior” in the first place!) If not why the hell do we identify ‘good’ with ‘white’ and ‘evil’ with ‘black’? It would be interesting to speculate how it would have been like, if a black race from Africa colonised us instead of the white Europians in the 16th century! Would we have equally aped them, the way we do now?

    The fair skinned Chinese too are judgemental towards the African races based on their skin colour and this sometimes even surpasses the “white supremacist” mind-set of the Caucasians according to my experience!

    Even among the African races the relatively fair skinned peoples seem to consider themselves with a sense of superiority. In Rwanda the Tutsis and Hutus(are said to have)had a slight shade of colour difference and this went on to become a major criterian in the genocide which took place.

    My conclusion is that the human mind has a natural prejudice towards something “white” or fair over something “black” or dark! There may be exceptions like, “I like a black car” or “I like a black woman”, but on the other hand, how many of you would like to paint your house in black?

    • anbu

      fair skinned north Indians=- I dont thbink so. yes thre are some. But I have travelled extensively in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh etc. Lots of people I met had brown n black skins. North iNDIAN have many colur gradients. People see ultra light skin Indian in Bollywood and think they are all the same

  • Lasantha Pethiyagoda

    Skin colour has indeed destroyed many careers, prevented people from gaining recognition, prevented people from ‘attracting’ partners who had already been ‘conditioned’ to seek lighter tones, and possession of this feature has enabled many to unfairly exploit situations where ‘merit’ as we know it are hardly considered. While racial prejudice by Westerners against darker skinned Asians and Africans can eb understood (although not acceptable) what rancours is when your own kith and kin abuse it (as the author describes in detail) with total insensitivity regarding the subject’s feelings on the matter. A scientific enquiry from sociological perspectives would be very welcome!

  • http://srilankalandoftheblind.blogspot.com/ PresiDunce Bean
  • magerata

    If I don’t have a job in the future, I will be able to survive by selling Michael Jackson skin care products (Bleach) in SL and India!

  • myself

    I think people should look more than just the skin color. When a person dies, the skin is gone. It doesn’t matter your skin color. What matters is the heart intention.

    And there are a lot tanned skin people who looks amazing in the same way that there are a lot of fair skin people who are really ugly!