Colorism as an indicator of social status heavily impacts self-image, promoting insecurity and harming mental health.
Comments about one’s skin cut deeper than we may realize. Skin tone and complexion are tied to familial roots and ancestry, meaning there is a deeper, more meaningful connotation attached to skin than meets the eye. Each individual has a unique identity, which skin plays a role in molding. The issue of colorism is not just skin-deep.
Colorism has long been a prominent factor in determining social status among the South Asian community. However, the stigmatized belief that darker skin colors signify impurity is flawed and perpetuates a false narrative that instigates discrimination and identity confusion.
In order to combat this issue, we have to explore colorism from a historical standpoint, as well as from a social perspective. Also, we must explore the extent to which skin tone, in interaction with social status, affects our perception by others–which in turn influences self-perception.
A personal perspective
Disclaimer: In broaching the topic of colorism as an Indian who has lighter skin, my intention is not to speak on the behalf of individuals with darker skin tones about their lived experiences. Rather, I hope that through my discussion of this topic, I will be able to shed light on the importance of acknowledging one’s own privilege within a given community and utilizing it to advocate for individuals who are more adversely and frequently impacted by colorism and its implications.
As an Indian individual living in America, I have seen colorism manifest outside its original caste context, in more mundane yet still harmful ways.
Until I was a teenager, I did not realize the implications of being an Indian with lighter skin. However, when I would visit family in India, I noticed they seemed to make it a point to comment when I appeared “darker” as a result of getting tanned by the sun. This got under my skin, prompting me to wear hats and long-sleeved shirts.
When I reached my teenage years and started having conversations with family members about dating, I was told not to be with someone who had darker skin than me. I found comments such as these unsettling and discriminatory, and felt frustrated in my struggle to respond.
Knowing that I am an Indian person with lighter skin, this was the moment when I first became aware of my skin color privilege within my own culture. It was then that I started to recognize the importance of fighting against such microaggressions to put an end to the perpetual cycle.
How is colorism different from racism?
The difference between colorism and racism is that while racism occurs as discrimination across racial groups, colorism “can occur [both] intra-racially (within groups) and interracially (across ethno-racial groups)”.
In the specific context of intra-racial South Asian communities, colorism is certainly a prominent issue and has been for centuries. In several South Asian cultures, as a result of generational influences, darker skin is viewed as impure and undesirable, while fairer skin is perceived as beautiful and favorable.
How did colorism come to be prominent in South Asia, specifically in India?
The notion that lighter skin is more valuable than darker skin has been reinforced countless times over the course of centuries by outside influences, such as colonialism. This influence changed the depiction of the caste system, from initially being a tool for order to becoming a hierarchy furthering discrimination. Trivializing colorism’s role, especially in the context of the caste system and colorism in India, is unjust.
The non-colorist origins of the jati: the caste system in India
The caste system that has been prevalent in India for centuries has long been notorious for granting individuals different amounts of privilege and respect on the basis of social categories.
The notion that the origin of the caste system was to ostracize lower-tier groups, however, is flawed. Rather, the caste system sought to divide and assign tasks necessary to society, while still recognizing the importance of each individual role.
The caste system originally intended to classify individuals based on their occupation and not their birth or status–much less the color of their skin. The occupational groups (varnas) consisted of Brahmins (priests and teachers), Kshatriyas (warriors and nobility), Vaishyas (merchants and craftsmen), and Shudras (laborers and commoners).
Despite the distinctness of these categories, they served to harmoniously uphold the parts of Hindu society as a whole. The Purusha Sukta (a Vedic Sanskrit hymn) in the Rigveda (a sacred Hindu text) expresses this sentiment by describing the varnas as “the four orders in society originated from the self-sacrifice of Purusha, the primeval being, who destroyed himself so that an appropriate social order could emerge.”
According to the text, Brahmins are “born from the head”, Kshatriyas from the arms, Vaishyas from the thighs, and Shudras from the feet. In this way, sacred texts depict the varnas as stemming from the same body but representing different organs. This indicates that Hindu scriptures never intended to enforce a stratified hierarchy to begin with, but rather a unified society. However, over time the caste system became more birth-based, making it more rigid and oppressive to individuals of lower castes.
These oppressed individuals are known as the Dalits and Adivasis. Texts referred to them as avarna (deprived of any varna, or occupational grouping).
“Dalit” literally translates to “oppressed”, which is accurate when observing the discrimination experienced by these individuals. They have been referred to as “camdala, untouchables, casteless” and have been unjustly oppressed by the caste hierarchy.
Chokhamela, a revered saint considered “untouchable”, articulates his daily hardships as a Dalit. The book, From Untouchable to Dalit by Eleanor Zelliot, depicts several of Chokhamela’s songs, which highlight his anguish at being born into this caste and holding a despised place in society as a result. He expresses this pain and suffering to God in the following:
“if You had to give me this birth, why give me birth at all? You cast me away to be born; You were cruel. Where were You at the time of my birth? Who did You help then?”
The Adivasis, the indigenous tribal people of India, consists of a diverse group of individuals who speak more than 100 languages and are distinct in ethnicity and culture. Although not regarded as “unclean” by caste Hindus as Dalits are, Adivasis were also not included in the caste hierarchy, instead “[governing] themselves outside of the influence of [a] particular ruler”. As the earliest settlers of India, they lived in mountain and hill regions throughout India and did not interact with mainstream society outside of trade (as a result of being ostracized).
How caste correlates with colorism
The acceptance of an individual in Indian society does not only depend on one’s caste, but also on one’s skin color. While an upper caste individual receives more social acceptance than a lower caste individual, it is not always the case that individuals of higher caste have lighter skin and those of lower caste have darker skin.
In this way, color influences regard within each caste. Individuals with lighter skin are generally regarded more highly within a caste. This means that an upper-caste individual with lighter skin would be perceived as having higher status than a higher-caste individual with darker skin.
Again, caste originally didn’t have much to do with color. For instance, people of lower-status groups like Dalits tend to have darker skin because they typically do the most physical labor. They are not part of this group because of their darker skin, but develop darker skin as a result of working directly under the sun.
Influence of colonialism on colorism in India
Colonial invasions in India initially did not directly preach the notion of lighter skin being superior to darker skin. However, de-facto colonial attitudes significantly influenced the spread of colorism in India. An example of these unspoken but influential attitudes? British colonies who came to India had fair skin and “claimed themselves to be a ‘superior’ and ‘intelligent’ race,” viewing the darker-colored Indian population as inferior.
Throughout colonialism, the British asserted their dominance through their exploitation of Indian individuals for labor, employment, and resources–often based on skin color. Lighter-skinned Indians received preferential treatment and were seen as allies, which gave them social advantages over the “black-colored” Indians, who served in the army and menial workforces.
This evident segregation experienced by the local Indian population highlights the extent to which skin prejudices were pervasive. They became entrenched in the society during colonialism, remaining that way even after India gained sovereignty.
Examples of colorism in Indian culture today
Several examples of colorism in Indian culture exist, particularly in how the media and companies portray skin tone to the public. From product advertisements in television show breaks to Bollywood movies, lighter-skinned models and actors receive more roles than darker-skinned models and actors.
The majority of individuals chosen to act in advertisements are famous, well-adored celebrities who have lighter skin, such as Alia Bhatt, Shahrukh Khan and Katrina Kaif. In addition, many of these advertisements promote “fairness” products, including Hindustan Lever Ltd.’s ‘Fair & Lovely’ with 76% of the market share and Cavin Kare’s ‘Fairever’ with 15% of the market share on an annual basis.
Even in Bollywood, the majority of actors and actresses that obtain representation in films have lighter skin tones. This makes little sense, given that individuals with darker skin make up the majority of the Indian subcontinent’s population.
Furthermore, typically when darker-skinned people feature in Bollywood films, they play the roles of villains and criminals, viewed as “barbaric and unruly,” like in Chennai Express.
The film Chennai Express also depicts South Indian characters as darker-skinned and uneducated, as they are unable to communicate effectively in English. In reality, the majority of South Indian individuals–though often “darker”–can speak multiple languages and have stable jobs and incomes.
Colorism divides North and South India
Such assumptions show that South Indians are typically more discriminated against than North Indians. Comments about South Indians being “darker-skinned and short[er] in stature” are hurtful and simply inaccurate. These comments and media portrayals perpetuate stereotypes about South Indians–and aside from causing direct harm, stereotypes undermine the identity of individuals who do not fit into them.
Colorism in other South Asian contexts
Colorism is also prevalent in other South Asian countries, such as Nepal and Bangladesh. In Nepal, the concept of “untouchables” is reinforced as in India. And in Bangladeshi culture, brides are expected to have fair skin. There is a common thread of colorism in most South Asian contexts, which is unsurprising given a history of colonialism across the region.
Colorism and healing
To gain more perspective on this topic, I spoke with international colorism expert and advocate Dr. Sarah Webb. Dr. Webb started the program Colorism Healing, an initiative to raise awareness about colorism as a global issue and to promote healing through creative and critical work. She also hosts community workshops, speaks at conferences, and has resources on colorism that are accessible internationally.
Dr. Webb stresses the importance of “opening up to self-awareness and mental health hygiene” for individuals to begin healing from lived experiences with colorism. As a society, we must remain open to “cross-cultural conversations to observe nuances between time and space and across different races and ethnicities” in how colorism has evolved. By addressing which aspects of colorism have remained prevalent in different cultures, we can better equip ourselves with the knowledge and awareness to rewrite those narratives.
How do these deeply-rooted implications influence self-image?
For individuals who receive colorist comments about their skin, it can be a challenge to not let it affect the way they perceive themselves. However, I believe the blurring of this distinction is amplified when it comes to the relation between skin color and self-image, because of the constant pressure to conform from external factors, such as the media, billboards, and even family.
It hurts when others tell you to change something about yourself in order to be beautiful or valuable. Especially when it is something you cannot naturally alter. Despite how minor a microaggression may seem, such remarks eventually add up to form how society perceives an individual, which in turn influences one’s self-perceptions. Dr. Webb attributes this to “the people around us acting like mirrors” in that it is important to surround ourselves with people who uplift us.
How can we stop applying harmful stereotypes to ourselves and others?
After seeing how colorism is detrimental to the way we perceive one another, as well as ourselves, it is important to discuss how to combat the issue. For this to be effective, we need to first understand our roles as advocates by recognizing our privilege, educating ourselves, being introspective, and amplifying unheard voices. As Dr. Webb says, “we must not float, but swim upstream” when stepping into our roles as advocates.
How to be a better advocate and ally
Recognizing privilege involves doing our best to be intentional in utilizing it in a way where we can uplift individuals who do not have it. By acknowledging the advantages that privilege gives us over other individuals who may not have it, we can better advocate from a place of understanding.
To advocate effectively, we must be willing to have our existing preconceived notions challenged, so we can shift our perspectives. Maintaining an open mind and having a genuine desire to unlearn underlying biases and preconceptions is necessary for us to rewrite them. We can achieve this by being open to having vulnerable conversations with our surrounding community, which includes peers, families, teachers, and leaders. This can allow us to expand our knowledge, and as a result, our perspectives on privilege.
It is important to reflect on the extent to which privilege allows us certain advantages over others and in which contexts. We must also learn to be perceptive of the people and communities we surround ourselves with and try to diversify the populations with whom we interact.
By recognizing our own privilege, we are one step closer to being better advocates and amplifying unheard voices. Practicing empathy and openness to vulnerability can allow us to give individuals more of a platform to speak out about their views and experiences.
Altering the color narrative
Shifting the narrative of colorism requires “active decolonization by changing the traditional model of education to liberate society and promote rhetoric”. The current model used in most education systems of ‘banking education’ places emphasis on rote learning and memory. However, philosopher Paulo Friere asserts that the “key to awakening awareness and liberation among the oppressed is critical and liberating dialogue.”
Education is a vital instrument against colorism. It fosters greater advocacy and encourages conversations about differences in lived experiences. These discussions can help reduce stigma and allow us to recognize interpersonal barriers created by privilege.
In order to keep fighting against colorism and altering the narrative, we must engage in cross-cultural and interdisciplinary research. Perhaps more importantly, we have to start a dialogue with one another and share our experiences to move forward, beyond colorism.