When being fair is unfair: The complexion as an inequality standard
‘Debunk racist ideas and belief system; Deconstruct what the media or products have to say’
It is an automatic, natural but immediately apparent point of difference that may only be skin-deep but creates huge social and economic inequality and has spurred a whole industry of cosmetics that promises to remedy it – for a price and a larger cost in esteem and opportunity.
How can we counter the tendency, an issue which is not new for the Indian subcontinent but has also special importance for the world given the flow of immigrants from the impoverished 'darker' Global South to the 'fairer' (physically but not always morally) Developed North and the consequent racial tension and violence was the topic at a session titled "Why Being Fair Matters, Especially When it Doesn't" at the just-concluded Jaipur Literature Festival.
And accompanying the spirited discussion were readings from two poets, who have experienced the problem personally.
In a spoken word performance, which highlighted the "acceptable forms of being black" in the US, American poet Jovan Mays also went into the treatment of black athletes like Serena Williams and LeBron James by the sports industry in his "Black Like: We are not black enough to leave fingerprints, we are not black enough to eclipse your sun". Media activist Jyoti Gupta, who in her "The Colourism Project", defines colourism as "the practice of conscious or subconscious misuse of one's light skin as an advantage", said that what started as a research paper turned into an ambitious project with two aims.
"Firstly, to shift the media narrative on skin colour from profitable to equitable," she said, giving the case of the lucrative Indian "skin lightening beauty industry", with products like armpit and vagina whitening creams, accompanied by suspect ways of promotion and marketing.
The second objective was to promote the "incorporation of an intersectional approach in the narrative of colourism", she said, noting caste, gender and class also come into play here. "The oppression faced by a dark-skinned rich, upper-class Delhi girl would be different from the kind faced by a dark-skinned woman in a low-income section struggling to find a job."
Gupta also noted that in India caste has historically played a role, citing the ancient art manual "Shilpashastra", which depicts shudras – "the lowest caste in the strata" – as dark, diminutive and cross-eyed.
Using the example of popular skin lightening cream Fair & Lovely, youth activist Puneeta Roy asked Mays if there was "such overt marketing" of similarly racist products in America. Whilst Mays believes there is no such direct marketing for skin lightening products, he cited the way hair products that Europeanise black women's natural hair dominate the beauty subculture.
Things are not much better in Malaysia, according to spoken word poet and journalist of Indian-origin Melizarani T. Selva, who pointed out that the Malay word for "white" is equated with royalty, whilst the word for "dark" translates closely to "cute".
Recalling how her mother had taught her to "put her face on" with two different face creams and a layer of baby powder, she said:
"We teach our daughters that being dark is less pretty through this vague kind of beauty."