Colourism: How Indian Society Otherises People With Dark Skin

Both racism and colourism are often used interchangeably. However, a basic difference between the two is that racism is discrimination based on one’s ethnicity and colourism is discrimination based on one’s skin complexion.

Tarini Gandhiok
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India’s obsession with fairness is an ironic paradox given the country’s tropical climate and the high melanin index of its populace. Recently, Suhana Khan, Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan’s 20 year old daughter, questioned this very obsession in an Instagram post that called for an end to the rampant colourism in India and chronicled her personal experiences of being trolled for her brown skin tone. Colourism, defined as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their colour,” is a deeply rooted societal predicament in India that continues to divide and discriminate to this day.


Also Read: It’s Unfair To Vilify Suhana Khan For Protesting Colourism All Because Her Father Endorsed A Fairness Cream

The History Of Colourism In India

The terms racism and colourism are often used interchangeably in discussions surrounding discriminative acts . However, a basic difference between the two is that racism is discrimination based on one’s ethnicity and colourism is discrimination based on one’s skin complexion. Notably, India wasn’t always afflicted by the unbridled colourism it propagates today. Ancient Indian texts, particularly the Mahabharata and Rig Veda, mention and celebrate dark-skinned heroes and heroines like Lord Krishna and Draupadi. The Indian society first learnt the notion of colourism after it was invaded by the Mughal rulers.

Inherently fair-complexioned, the Mughal rulers reigned over the darker-skinned Indian subjects and introduced power dynamics into the sphere of skin colour.

These seeds of colourism were only nurtured further during the colonial invasion of India. Under British rule, the fair-skinned lords and viscounts preferred similarly lighter-skinned Indian candidates for important administrative jobs and positions. Amidst such practices and subtle brain-washing, the common Indian man, too, started idealising white-toned skin as the epitome of all things beautiful and powerful.

How Indian Society Propagates Colourism


It would be unfair to lay all the blame for India’s colourism at foreign doors. Even after being left to their own devices post-independence, Indians continued to perpetuate their obsession with fairness by ‘othering’ amongst their own. The Indian mindset that promotes colourism completely discounts the genetic make up and climatic conditions that lead to more or less production of melanin (the pigment that decides skin tone) in humans.

The Indian society has gone on to otherise its darker-skinned members through a variety of mechanisms – Bollywood movies continue to portray the villians as dark-toned while the heroic protagonists are almost always fair. Even certain Bollywood movies that ostensibly aim to ‘normalise’ darker skin tones (like Bala) fall prey to fake ‘wokeness’ by resorting to blackfacing actors instead of casting actors with actual dark skin. The Indian fairness cream industry, which continues to ingrain a false relationship between fairness and loveliness into the minds of the Indian populace, is worth billions of dollars today. In a move that was hailed as too little, too late, Indian fairness cream brand Fair and Lovely recently rebranded itself as Glow and Lovely. The name might be different, but the associated connotations of the fair being beautiful continue to shine through.

Also Read: Will India Finally Get Over Its Obsession With Fairness Now And Embrace “Dark” Skin?

Women Are The Worst Victims Of Colourism

It cannot be denied that colourism has a negative effect on all genders. However, women often feel more compelled to aspire to a fairer skin tone as they generally feel more pressurised to meet unrealistic societal standards of beauty in order to secure prized catches in the matrimonial market. This concept is known as ‘gendered colourism’. A common refain in matrimonial advertisements scouting for potential brides is “fair, tall, and slim.” Conversely, potential grooms are still acceptable if they are “tall, dark, and handsome.” In fact, many of these colourist advertisements place fairness at the same pedestal as educational qualifications of a woman. Furthermore, a recent study has proven that Indian mothers-in-law consider skin colour as a prime factor while choosing their prospective daughters-in-law.  The recent Netflix series Indian Matchmaking displayed the same unjust phenomenon in various episodes.

In a society where people are conditioned to automatically view fairness of skin colour as equivalent to fairness of character, colourism also creates inequality in terms of opportunities for darker-skinned individuals. Reduced to just a ‘pretty face’, employers often judge potential female job candidates on the basis of their skin tone which ultimately decides the level of their ‘attractiveness’. Kavitha Emmanuel, the director of Women of Worth, a Chennai-based organisation, started a campaign called “Dark Is Beautiful” in 2019 to fight gendered colourism in India. In an interview with New York Times, Emmanuel said that in fields like entertainment, hospitality and modelling, being fair-skinned is a major qualification for women in India.


The Way Forward

A problem as pervasive as colourism in India cannot end with a single rebranding, a single dark model on a billboard, or a single scathing Instagram post. However, it’s imperative to keep the conversation around colourism going so that future Indian generations don’t view their dark skin tone as a bane. To learn to be proud of our ‘wheatish’, ‘honey-toned’, and ‘dark’ skin colours, we first need to unlearn the years of conditioning that render skin tone as a paramount measure of one’s worth.

Also Read: I Don’t Wish To Be Fair And Lovely I Am Happy Being Dark And Ugly

Picture Credits: Times of India

Tarini Gandhiok is an intern with SheThePeople.TV

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