Status Symbols in India and their Colonial Roots – Part I: Colorism

Featured Illustration: Uday Deb

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The roots of colonialism in India have been firmly in place since 1858, when the British Raj came to power. India was completely transformed, and even since its independence in 1947, the country’s colonial past is apparent in the everyday lives of all Indians. A country that was built on a caste system, status symbols, and hierarchies has always been evident in India but exacerbated and developed throughout British rule. The white supremacy established by British colonialism has effects today seen in status symbols and standards of beauty, language, and architecture.

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What is colorism?

Colorism is defined as “differential treatment based on skin color, especially favoritism toward those with a lighter skin tone and mistreatment or exclusion of those with a darker skin tone, typically among those of the same racial group or ethnicity.” Colorism in India has been an ongoing discussion for many years but recently elicited more discourse as social media gained popularity. This form of discrimination is rooted in colonialism and anti-blackness, as it can be traced throughout both India and the world’s history.

The ideology of colorism originates as a justification for slavery and the oppression of people of African descent, as tying blackness to inferiority and whiteness to virtue and beauty became yet another piece of false reasoning for slavery.¹ A man who strongly believed in this was Charles Darwin, who created his own ideology known as social Darwinism. He strongly believed in the division of race and that physical appearance was tied to status — specifically that European-looking individuals were inherently better.

As the British Raj began gaining power after their initial presence in 1858, social Darwinism simultaneously grew in popularity in India. This ideology exacerbated colorism in India ², which itself had been built upon caste prejudice. Because of the established caste system already in place, many lower-caste Indians were subject to intense outdoor labor and naturally had darker skin compared to upper-caste individuals.³ When the British Raj came to power, they built upon this system and were known to give jobs and promote Indians with lighter skin, viewing them as “allies.” They were given preferential treatment in education, employment, and enjoyed more economic benefits.

Colorism in India has since been apparent for decades. The rise of skin bleaching and lightening creams skyrocketed in the 1970s with companies like Fair and Lovely (now known as Glow and Lovely) gaining huge popularity and being promoted by famous Bollywood stars. Bollywood itself has been another example of colorism in action. Countless people around the Indian diaspora have spoken out about the lack of darker-skinned representation in Indian entertainment media, with most stars, particularly women, being light-skinned and even promoting skin-lightening products. Colorism is still very apparent in India today and its roots lie firmly in British colonialism and the colorist system they created.

Ariana Bhargava

Ariana Bhargava is a high school student based in Massachusetts. She writes for Reclamation and Brown Girl Magazine. She is passionate about storytelling, activism, and photography.

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