Skin lightening in South Asia is why we have an anti-Blackness problem

A backlash against the celebrities endorsing the process gives hope that the Indian subcontinent will finally reject Eurocentric beauty standards.
Image: Tannishta Chatterjee
Indian actress Tannishta Chatterjee has spoken out about being bullied for her darker complexion.Prabhas Roy / Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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By Natasha Noman

Bleach cream, used to lighten the color of one's skin, is a multibillion-dollar industry in the Indian subcontinent. It is also a testament to the sordid legacy of colorism and the damage the ideology inflicts on those who encounter it. That's part of why there's finally been blowback against the celebrities who endorse it, providing some hope that in this era of re-evaluating issues of race and diversity, South Asians will reject Eurocentric beauty standards and, by extension, white supremacy.

The damage of skin-lightening therapies is both individual and collective. Bleach creams can use chemicals like mercury and the depigmenting agent hydroquinone to reduce the amount of melanin in the skin. They can be poisonous and lead to kidney failure, among other dangerous side effects. The psychological damage, to the individual and society, can be just as profound. Darker-skinned people, especially women, experience a sense of worthlessness or inferiority.

As is the case in America, skin color often helps determine social hierarchies and acceptance in the subcontinent.

This phenomenon of colorism — exalting lighter skin and assigning it higher value, thereby reinforcing racial power imbalances — isn't limited to South Asia, of course. A study on colorism among Black Americans found that darker skin correlated with "lower socioeconomic status, more punitive relationships with the criminal justice system, diminished prestige, and less likelihood of holding elective office." And as is the case in America, skin color often helps determine social hierarchies and acceptance in the subcontinent.

As a child in the early '90s, I was told by family and friends in Pakistan how lucky I was that I was half-white. I was also told to stay out of the sun, lest it ruin the manufactured benefit of my complexion — which, perhaps to their dismay, was still unmistakably "desi" (the colloquial word for "South Asian") and therefore needed to be managed carefully.

Thankfully, colorism has started to enter the fore in South Asian public discourse. Indian actress Tannishtha Chatterjee in 2016 spoke out about being bullied on national television for her darker complexion; indeed, Bollywood is a paragon of colorism that casts fair-skinned actors in leading roles almost exclusively.

This helped prompt a backlash when Bollywood superstars such as Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Sonam Kapoor (both fair-skinned) started posting about solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Critics argued that not only were their careers made possible because of colorism, but that they also actively reinforced these biases by being brand ambassadors for skin-whitening creams.

Whatever their culpability, they are part of a longstanding tradition. Colorism in South Asia has roots that stretch back centuries at least.

Jayati Ghosh, a professor of development economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi specializing in gender and development, assessed that it "predates colonialism," as there are instances further back of ruling classes with fairer skin, such as the Mughals, who had dominion over large parts of South Asia from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

But there's no doubt, Ghosh continued, that "colonialism added to it because it so happened that your rulers were also then white or pink or gray or whatever," a playful reference to George Orwell's description of Brits as pink rather than white in "1984."

Of course, the notion of racial superiority was legitimizing and self-serving for white (or pink or gray) Brits, and skin color became the ultimate stratifying agent in the societies they took over — though the subcontinent had many colonizers, including the French, the Dutch and the Portuguese, the British were unquestionably the dominant force until independence in 1947.

When it came to employment opportunities for locals, the colonial government tended to favor fairer-skinned Indians over darker ones. This is an enduring pattern. An analysis of a government scholarship program to train disadvantaged women for jobs as flight attendants found that 100 of these women were unable to gain employment because of their dark complexion — though eight were reported to have ended up as ground staff.

You can likely "tell the household per capita income from the color of someone's skin," according to Ghosh, echoing the aforementioned study on Black Americans. And she noted: "The upper [Hindu] castes tend to have more light complexions, and it's seen as one of those advantages or expressions of their superiority."

This is to say nothing of spousal opportunities. Numerous studies have examined the correlation between marriage prospects (largely synonymous with social mobility) and skin color. In one study, when women were presented with profiles of potential spouses for their children, their choices demonstrated that skin color could "even overpower traits such as general competency and physical attractiveness in both men and women." (Shaadi.com, the definitive online platform for finding marital matches among desis, allowed users to filter according to skin color until recent objections pressured the company to remove this feature.)

Brands that profit from and exacerbate colorism realized that they needed some course correction. But what they've done has been disingenuous and, perhaps unsurprisingly, merely cosmetic.

In the current climate, the brands that profit from and exacerbate colorism realized that they needed some course correction. But what they've done has been disingenuous and, perhaps unsurprisingly, merely cosmetic. For instance, rather than pull these products from shelves, Unilever is rebranding its highly popular whitening cream "Fair and Lovely" as, simply, "Lovely." And while L'Oréal has touted representation and diversity through its "Dark and Lovely" page and product line on its U.S. website over the past few years, the Indian site for Garnier, a L'Oréal brand, sells a whitening line called "PowerWhite."

But it would be misguided to simply blame the companies that make these products and the consumers who buy them. As a paper on skin bleaching research attests, "skin bleaching may be a rational response to being born in racially and economically segregated societies." Rather than focus on the symptoms, we have to go a step further and identify the source of this white supremacy to truly reckon with it and begin to move forward.