Talking About Color in India

Featured Artwork: Manasi Vaidya

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“Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible.”  –Maya Angelou

Traveling the world is something we all dream of. Our lives seem so small, and the world so large, absolutely brimming with wonders we have yet to feast our senses on. Whenever some family member would come back from a trip to Europe or the States (these two being the favorite destinations for every Indian person), they would come back laden with gifts and souvenirs and anecdotes that regaled the others at the dinner table for a good hour or two.

“You must go there, it is absolutely stunning,” they would always say, and we would fantasize about gorgeous landscapes, whether it was rolling green meadows or a turquoise ocean or a lively city, charmed by the descriptions being handed out like another largesse.

My daydreams would, however, often be interrupted. “It’s a lovely country, but they can be so racist,” my aunt might say. “They don’t like Indians. They don’t like black people or brown people, and they can be really unkind.”

This would always gall me. I want to say it galled me because I was struck by the cruelty of racism in speech or action by these white foreigners, but I hesitatingly question myself, because I know the kind of idealism white skin is associated with in my own country — possibly, I expected these people to know better because they were white. Because they were white foreigners.

This is unsettling, but it is true. We are fascinated by foreigners, especially if they are angrez. We see white skin, we are hooked. We say that person is ‘British’ or ‘American’ — someone black is automatically straight from Africa, and anyone with East Asian features is Chinese, or if we’re feeling particularly generous, Japanese. Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, and so many others are all made to huddle under the umbrella of ‘Chinese.’

What is interesting, yet concerning, is that we are often willing to make a concession for anyone with white skin. Even if it’s a slight one. We can acknowledge various European nationalities — oh, that person is French, they are German, they are Polish, they are Swedish. For many Indians, Europe is comprised of many countries, Africa is one big country, and Asia comprises mainly of China and Japan.

We hold white people up to some high standard; maybe because we are still working on how to weed out colonialism. We need to remember that our history does not begin with the East India Company, and while it is an important part of our story, it is not the main theme.

Is it wrong to expect all white people to be good? And how much of the racist mindset in India is their responsibility? These are questions that we’re asking ourselves now, when we should have asked them before. It should not take a murder to open up a necessary discussion. But Gianna Floyd was right, her daddy did change the world. Floyd’s death has set the boulder rolling for speaking up and speaking out, as more and more people are taking it upon themselves to speak to their communities and their families, because we are slowly realizing that racism isn’t something that pervades faraway continents and interrupts our daydreams. Racism is its own kind of virus, and it has infected the world at large. It is a pandemic too, and it has been here long before COVID-19.

In India, fair skin is something that often guarantees an advantage in many areas of life, especially when it comes to looking for a spouse. Matrimonial advertisements openly ask for fair grooms, and more so, fair brides. If the prospective bride or groom is fair, it is boasted about. That is common knowledge, and somehow not enough people speak of it. Fairness creams are still in the market. The moment someone starts getting tanned from being outside, they are cautioned against it. People are told that if they’re too dark, they won’t get married. I have too many memories of sitting with older people and overhearing the statement, ladki kaafi khoobsurat hai, rang bohot saaf hai. Translation: the girl is quite beautiful, her color is clean. And I have few memories of disrupting such discussions with the question, “Logon ka rang ganda bhi hota hai?” (“People have dirty colors as well?”) with the question effectively causing people to splutter and be defensive, or earn me a quelling look from a parent or aunt.

We need to reflect on our way of thinking. Are we racist? Are we doing the same thing we condemn others for? Who do we blame these prejudices on?

I don’t have these answers, and I don’t know if we should call ourselves racist. All I know is, these questions only lead to other questions. Do Indians believe in the racial superiority of white people? Or are we simply color-conscious, in the cruelest of ways? These are discussions we need to have, not just on the internet, but with our friends, especially with the ones who stalk fairer desis on Instagram, and with our families, especially with the buas and chachis who tell you to use certain creams and remedies in hushed tones. We need to call out the random, distant acquaintances who lament the fate of our darker-skinned cousins. These are debates we need to open, and gently steer people away from their inexplicable fascination with white skin, as well as questioning our own reactions, and trace their roots, whether it is colonialism or an especially color-conscious environment.

As Maya Angelou says, our prejudices serve to do little more than make the past convoluted and fragmented, a half-written reality, and put our futures in peril. If we do not unlearn the systemic oppression and hatred bleeding from our eyes, our mouths and our hands, we risk burning our bridges to ashes in a time when we need to be building more of them. Prejudice makes us turn away when others reach out, and in doing so, no critical analysis is needed to know that we are turning away from the human instinct of bonding — something we need to foster now more than ever.