In the Vijay starrer blockbuster Gilli, the hero’s teenage sister comes back home dark and sweating after a failed search mission of Aiswarya Rai and Sachin Tendulkar in the hot sun. Her mother asks her: “Nee ennadi enginukku kari alli potava maari vanthuirukka?” (Why do you look like one who has been feeding coal to the rail engine?)
In a much recent horror movie Kanchana, the hero falls in love with the sister of his highly Brahminical accented Tamil speaking sister-in-law. As the hero tells his sister-in-law of his liking to her sister, she tells him, “Ava unna vida colour da” (She is fairer than you.)
In the past few weeks like many others in this country, I too got emails asking me to sign a campaign against Emami India and Sharukh Khan. A visit to the campaign page in Facebook told a lot about the ideas associated with dark skin and the motivations of the group.
In an interview Nandita Das, the celebrity campaigner says, “Do you mean to say that there are no dark colored upper class women?… Especially in mainstream you have to have woman who is fair” (www.desiyup.com ).
And this is precisely why I think the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign is absurd. Most of the entries in the fan page underscored that they have been ostracized for being dark; that they have to work extra hard to prove their worth. And most significantly the campaigners belonged to elite urban backgrounds.
While Nandita Das is campaigning for the acceptance of dark skinned individuals, she is talking within the limitations of an uppercaste/class highly successful woman who was looked upon as dark and dusky despite her beauty and talent. In the same interview she says that dark should be looked upon as beautiful and not an exception. The inherent flaw in the campaign is the glossing over of discrimination based on caste, class, region, and race as one associated with skin tone.
Take the case of Arpit Jacob for example. Arpit, a native of Kerala, recounts his experience of studying in a school in North India. In the school he was called Kalia (black) and haspi (negro). Because of the ridicule he suffered, he says he joined a college in south India “where there were more dark skinned people.” It is true that Arpit has been the butt of ridicule in school for his skin color. But the real reason for being ridiculed is the fact that he is a southerner and his skin color is different from his northern class mates. It is no wonder that he felt comfortable in a college in south India with like skinned people. Unfortunately in the article, Arpit goes on to generalize on the effects of focusing on negativities in life (darkisbeautiful.blogspot.in ).
Diya Paul, a communication professional recounts her trauma of enduring her paternal grandparents’ mournful “ivvelevu karuppa porenthutaa (she has been born so black!)” and her father’s anguished surprise that his daughter is black despite a “fair like a foreign import or a North Indian” mother. Added to this was the general disbelief in her circle that she could not have born out of her biological mother. She says she even went on to ask her mother if she was adopted or was there a goof-up of babies in the hospital (www.weekendleader.com/ www.Facebook.com/darkisbeautiful). While it is clear that the author’s family and her circle are fair skinned people, we need to ask who the dark skinned ones are.
In the “Dark is Beautiful” fan page in Facebook, there is a vote to trace the origin of skin color bias in India. Out of the four choices – caste system, British influence, Cultural divide between the North Indians and South Indians, and Bollywood – caste system has earned 36+ votes followed by cultural divide between North Indians and South Indians with 27+ votes. Compared to this colonial influence and tinseldom had earned only a negligible 6 and 8 vote. While the campaigners have indeed realized the factors originating skin color bias and the followers have made it quite evident through their votes, the campaigners have camouflaged caste and regional bias as superficial a bias as skin color.
The Emami Fair and Handsome advertisement sought to be withdrawn is viewed as spreading the message that one need not work hard when their skin is fair. Well, the truth of the argument is beyond question. But the difference is why is dark skinned detested? Why are dark skinned people looked down upon? Hira Shah, professor of South Asian Studies, York University points out the power and authority associated with the rulers in a colonial set up and the evil doers as dark skinned in many of the Hindu scriptures (http://vimeo.com/16210769 ). In the African- American context, colorism had its origin in the condescending treatment enjoyed by children born out of “slaves and their white masters” (abcnews.go.com ) who naturally had lighter skin. The bottom line of Professor Hira’s analysis is that fairer skin means power, authority, and goodness. In the African-American context it means privilege. Darker skin means the opposite.
The role of media, tinseldom in perpetuating the fair-successful-beautiful-good equation is beyond doubt. On answering the charges of why Fair and Handsome and why Sharukh Khan, Kavitha Emmanuel – founder Woman of Worth – says that they have to start somewhere (darkisbeautiful.blogspot.in ). She also says that “This is not an attack on brands or brand ambassadors, but on the toxic belief that only fair skin is beautiful” (www.Facebook.com/darkisbeautiful ). And for this reason alone the credibility of the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign as people’s movement is shaky. If the campaigners do not want to rub on the rough side of powerful people, whose conscience are they trying to awaken? How will brands sell fairness creams without putting forth the idea that fair is better?
In the Indian caste based structural hierarchical society, is it not a fact that the lower you went the darker was the skin? Is it not a fact that people in the south are darker than their northern inhabitants? If you accept dark as beautiful, does it mean that there won’t be discrimination based on these categories?
The hatred for dark skin tone arises out of a sense of shame to resemble someone who you would look down upon and vice versa. The campaigners without addressing the associations of the dark skin are merely saying, “Look we have dark skin, but we are not like them.”
Nandita Das while acknowledging the presence of caste and culture behind the obsession with fair skin thinks that “current causes should be targeted first.” I cannot restrain from asking, when is the right time to talk about caste and culture based color discrimination? It is naïve to assume that caste and culture based bias will be forgotten if dark skin is accepted as beautiful. It won’t be an exaggeration if I say even if the dark skin is accepted as beautiful the question “whose dark skin?” will still remain unanswered.
At the very minimum the campaign does not point out that those who discriminate on skin color are showcasing caste and regional superiority attitude. Without pointing out the reason I am not sure what the campaigners aim to achieve. The campaigners never said, “See, you are being casteist in the guise of color, you are being racist and so on.” Until there is discrimination based on caste, class, region, and race there will be discrimination based on skin color. Even thousands of “Dark is Beautiful” campaigns will not eradicate it.
A campaign which willfully disengages with social realities is only an elitist movement which need not be taken seriously. Unfairly, the Bollywood glam-quotient has earned the campaign undue attention from world over. At its present form the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign is usurping the voices of those dark skinned people who have lesser means of overcoming the bias to prove their talent. As Anjali Rajoria says, the campaign is one that of “highly successful upper caste women who are protesting the loss of few more lucrative mainstream opportunities due to their relatively darker skin tones” (http://www.dalitweb.org/?p=2039 )