Unlearning to Learn: On Colorism and Sexism in Punjabi Families

Featured Illustration: Ayush Kalra

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If this written piece resonates with you, I’m glad you took the time to read it. If you’re offended by what I have written, I’m okay with that — to each their own. I’m going to start off by saying that I acknowledge the struggle that my parents, family, and my people have endured and I’m grateful for them. Being immigrants, new to Canada, struggling to fit in and make a living isn’t easy. I also acknowledge the privileges that I have gained. With that being said, it doesn’t mean I should say yes to everything that is asked of me. I will not go against my beliefs. It is easier to say yes and agree with everyone’s ideas, beliefs, and notions even if they are against who you are as an individual.

I have learned over the years that if I have nothing good to say on behalf of someone’s opinions or comments, I will restrain myself so as to avoid unprovoked verbal attacks. Some have been raised with advice, ideas, and beliefs their parents provided for them that worked for survival. Nonetheless, they fail to realize that what they say, and their actions might hurt their kids. Some kids feel like they have to walk on eggshells in hopes to please their parents. However, if you, being their kid, open your mouth or stand up for yourself, have feelings, and ideas or beliefs of your own that don’t align with your parents, then you’re left with no support. I acknowledge that sometimes parents can’t relate to their children’s struggles, but sympathizing with your kids and being by their side is all that matters. I’m definitely not a parent, but kids are not clueless. They grow and become their own individuals and that is okay. From my point of view, individuality and being authentic to yourself as you grow, are key in growing up to be someone who you are proud of.

My name is Rupinder Kainth and I was brought into this world in October 1999. When introduced to the family, I was told I wasn’t really what my family expected. My family wanted a son instead of a daughter. I was also told that I was a bit darker in complexion than what my family had expected. Despite this, my mom herself was darker than the average light skin olive-toned Punjabi woman. Obviously, being an infant, I didn’t realize that these sexist and colourist judgments were unnecessary. Making judgments like this is actually a normal thing in many Indian and Punjabi families. Overanalyzing a kid when they’re born is nothing new. Most Indian and Punjabi families don’t think it’s a bad thing to make sexist and colourist remarks about a child.

As I started to grow older, I realized how much colourism plays into India’s culture and beliefs. Although I am Punjabi, these beliefs, ideas, and standards of beauty apply to the people of Punjab because it’s one of the states in India. India is a place where brightening creams, using lighter foundations, editing skin colours, and skin tinting are encouraged — and it’s not only encouraged in Punjab but every other state or city in India. Along with colourism, growing up, I realized many Punjabi families carry sexist beliefs, especially when it comes to starting a family. From my experience, many Punjabi families emphasized the role of having a son in the family. I do not have a bias for daughters, but appreciation and care for a son in a Punjabi family is very important compared to the daughters. With that being said, I also know that many Punjabi families actually treat their kids with equality despite their gender or sex, which is why I am taking the time to write this so that Punjabi daughters are reassured that they’re here to be great, and they’re needed.

Many mothers are often pressured by their families to have a son because they’re a trophy item. This is where sex selection comes into play, which shows that society back then and now expresses a strong desire for sons. Studies from health organizations and women’s groups report over 10 million missing women in India who have been culturally pressured to have sons. Between 1994 and 2003 is when ultrasound and sperm sorting technologies were no longer allowed to be used because it would be easier to decide what the mother would do if she had a daughter. Male superiority in families results in low priority for women, especially mothers. Many women who would get married very early in life and even some women in the present day are instructed to keep conceiving until they have a boy — this puts mothers at high risk, which includes not having access to resources for childbirth, such as learning about the risks of having multiple children. Many women have had an abusive household where the husband is abusive and controlling. Additionally, it was believed that conceiving a boy was harder and more rewarding than conceiving a daughter, when in reality, childbirth, in general, is a very tedious, time-consuming, and rewarding journey. Not only do Punjabi and Indian people hold importance after having a son, but many brown people in general have this obsession — thinking that a son is a blessing, and a daughter is nothing but a responsibility and burden.

These beliefs are not rooted in Sikhism — they are part of a larger cultural issue that is still prevalent to this day.

My whole life, I haven’t seen any difference between boys and girls. Although I have been told there’s no difference between sons and daughters, I have come to the realization that the difference is made by family, peers, and parents. This is a very sensitive topic for many Indian and Punjabi families to digest. Many parents, peers, and relatives find the preference for wanting a son in the family as second nature, therefore they don’t admit their thinking is wrong. I understand that it’s a sensitive topic, but at the same time, having this preference and obsession for wanting a son in the family is bizarre, egoistic, and sexist. Sometimes I find it funny because nowhere in Sikhism does it say that a mother should keep having babies until she has a boy to take the family name. One of the basic teachings of Sikhism is equality amongst all people — men and women are equal before God. So, when I’m told or hear that a son is needed in order to complete a family, I am shocked because it should not matter. When I realized that sons were held on a pedestal compared to daughters in Punjabi families, I realized that many families go through this dilemma and it’s very common worldwide. Over the years, I took it upon myself to do research about this and realized there are many parts to this problem.

Colourism, when I was younger, wasn’t as apparent until I turned fifteen. Being a young girl, Bollywood films like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and Kal Ho Naa Ho were in constant rotation. As I grew older, I noticed that the Bollywood industry and what all these famous superstars stand for further promotes deeply held prejudices and practices against dark skin and Black people. The fact that darker skin tone is looked at as a problem in India’s society is a huge issue in and of itself. The even bigger problem is the fact that Indian and Punjabi people leave their homeland, migrate to other countries, and still carry these prejudices against dark skin and Black people. Rakesh Choudhary, in his paper “Drought of Brides in the Fertile Lands: A Study in Context of India”, explains that it has been stated for a long time that dark skin is related to being ugly and dull in intelligence. Many brides who get an arranged marriage in Haryana, Punjab, and Rajasthan are victims of colourism and are in long-distance relationships with their families and therefore let go of their cultural roots, thereby negatively impacting their mental health.

In India, there is an obsession with light, olive-toned skin colour. The most infamous brand, Fair and Lovely, has been around since 1978, using famous Bollywood actors to promote their products for skin lightening. India’s Advertising Standards Council (ASCI) had come up with the Dark is Beautiful campaign — this campaign didn’t have many supporters and wasn’t as advertised as a Fair and Lovely campaign. Many of the supporters that were dark-skinned or Black were told that they could lighten their skin. The notion that dark-skinned or Black people can’t be smart, well-dressed, and talk well is all deeply ingrained in social prejudices. Not only does India’s society hold these prejudices, so do many other countries.

Despite growing up and realizing there were many cultural problems in Punjabi and Indian families, I still ended up okay. My childhood was amazing, and I wish I could be a kid again over everything. The moment you start to grow up, you begin to realize all things are difficult in life and you will always have battles to fight, but you also learn that you’re not alone. Although it’s heartbreaking that many people have gone through what you believe is just your problem, it can be assured that everything will be okay. I feel like I have learned so much from my parents and relatives and their biased cultural prejudices so I can in turn learn what not to believe and do when I have kids or don’t have kids in the future. In no way am I saying that what they have taught me is all false information, it’s just certain beliefs and ideas don’t align with mine. Sometimes, these cultural beliefs and thinking can’t be changed because they are passed on from generations.

Being a child of an immigrant family living in the 21st century, I feel like it’s my duty to teach myself what’s right from wrong. I’m also not bringing down anyone for how they think, sometimes that’s all they know and what they’ve been told by their family, parents, and peers. I’m still learning to unlearn negative cultural beliefs and I’m nowhere near perfect at all and never will be, but there’s always room for improvement.

. . .

References

Choudhary, R. (2014). Drought of Brides in the Fertile Lands: A Study in Context of India.

Paul, A. (2016). Beyond the pale?: Skinderella stories and colourism in India. Ideaz14, 133.

Puri, S., Adams, V., Ivey, S., & Nachtigall, R. D. (2011). “There is such a thing as too many daughters, but not too many sons”: A qualitative study of son preference and fetal sex selection among Indian immigrants in the United States. Social science & medicine72(7), 1169-1176.

Winkvist, A., & Akhtar, H. Z. (2000). God should give daughters to rich families only: attitudes towards childbearing among low-income women in Punjab, Pakistan. Social Science & Medicine51(1), 73-81.

rupinderkainth

3 thoughts on “Unlearning to Learn: On Colorism and Sexism in Punjabi Families

  1. This was beautiful, and I believe so many people within the Punjab and Indian culture as well as outside of it needed to hear this. From one racialized woman to another, you are making this world a better place for all of us.

  2. This is an amazing piece of work! It’s so true of the whole colour issue in our society! My Becky lives with it day in day out!

  3. as your mother I am proud of you to bringing you up as a intelligent person, you very well said about Indian Punjabi families and colourism.

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