- 30 October 2020
Page last updated October 2020
As South Asian women in the West, we face two sides of colourism
At a family event, one of Zoya Anwer’s relatives pointed at a picture of her and asked Zoya’s mother: “What happened to her?”
“She wanted to know why I was so much darker than my sister. I was only 13, but this incident stuck with me”, recalls Zoya, who grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, with an older sister who is fair-skinned, unlike herself. “Every time we went out, everyone would compliment her and say how pretty she looked, but only a few would say that to me as an afterthought.”
Any woman who grew up in South Asia will be able to share similar experiences of colourism, which is the belief that lighter skin is superior. No matter how far the region thinks it has come from the colonial preference for fairer skin, it’s always lurking around somehow — from comments by ‘well-meaning’ aunties to beauty websites advertising home remedies for fair skin, there is an entire beauty industry working to brainwash women into believing that fair skin is the key to finding both love and success.
Within families, colourism can be expressed by withholding praise and acknowledgement of those with darker skin, says author and entrepreneur Nandita Godbole, 48, who grew up in Mumbai, India: “This is particularly harmful when elders not only use colourism to dole out judgement, but also additionally withhold affirmation – to reinforce their judgement, and hierarchy of social order.”
“I would be told not to wear red because it would make me look ‘dull’. What it really meant was that red doesn’t look good on people with darker skin”
Girls and women are taught at various stages of growth that lighter skin is simply better. Elders prescribe massages at birth thought to help lighten skin or ask children not to play in the sun. Girls are called names and bullied for having dark skin in school, while at the beauty salon, they’re told to bleach and lighten their body hair to be considered attractive. “I would be told not to wear red because it would make me look ‘dull’. What it really meant was that red doesn’t look good on people with darker skin”, says Zoya.
This conditioning can have a lasting impact on someone’s perception of their own skin colour, and worse, their self-worth. “These emotionally abusive traumatic experiences, when inflicted by people you have intimate relationships with, can lead to attachment concerns and increased anxiety”, says behavioural health researcher and psychologist Ruchita Chandrashekhar.
In a society that invented the word ‘wheatish’ to refer to the aspirational complexion for those with darker skin, women are actively discriminated against based on their skin colour. This also reinforces the stereotypes of the ancient Hindu caste system, where manual labourers’ skin colour — darkened after hours of working in the sun — was associated with lower caste.1
“We believe we’re accepted only because we’re light enough, but someone who’s two shades darker might not be”
What then happens when South Asian women move to Western countries, where white and light-skinned people aspire to have darker, ‘tanned’ skin? At face value, it might seem as if darker skin tones are accepted, but this is simply another side of the same colourism.
Zoya’s perception of her skin colour has changed since she moved to Germany to study about a year ago. “I have unlearned a lot of behaviours that were second nature to me. Even though I brought my makeup along, that in Karachi was used to make your skin tone lighter, I have never felt the need to use it,” she says. “I also wear the colours I like now, regardless of how they look on my skin.”
While on a surface level, this seems positive, these affirmations have a darker underbelly. “This possibly affirmative relationship with your skin is rooted in exoticisation and fetishisation of Brown skin,” explains Ruchita. “It can create a sense of dissonance and causes you to once again attach your self-worth to your skin colour, rather than who you are. The cycle continues when you go home from countries that don’t get a lot of sun, and people note with approval that your skin has become fairer.”
This might then lead some to internalise colourism, which is then perpetuated elsewhere. “This internalised colourism is projected onto other people with darker skin, especially Black women, because we believe we’re accepted only because we’re light enough, but someone who’s two shades darker might not be,” says Ruchita.
And then there are constant reminders that as dark-skinned people in white and light-skinned societies, we are outsiders
And then there are constant reminders that as dark-skinned people in white and light-skinned societies, we are outsiders. Nandita moved to the USA in 1995, and in one specific incident, experienced a microaggression where her daughter’s darker skin tone simply wasn’t acknowledged by her dance school.
“When my daughter started with a dance company at the age of 3, [she] was one of two Brown dancers in any of their performances,” Nandita says. “Their make-up guidelines for performances indicated a specific colour palette more suited for Caucasians that would not work for her skin or the colour of her eyes and would make her look clownish in comparison.”
Not wanting to pass on her own trauma of being judged for her skin tone, Nandita shared her concern with her daughter’s instructors, however, it was clear that they didn’t perceive there to be a problem. Nandita instead worked with her daughter across the course of several years to perfect makeup and lipstick shades suitable for her complexion, and that made her feel confident on stage.
Unlearning colourism is difficult but necessary. By being conscious of how it influences our behaviour towards ourselves and others, and constantly challenging these standards, we can ensure that the harmful cycle of beliefs and behaviours ends with us.
Featured image is an illustration of a South Asian woman, split between two scenes: one night and one day
Page last updated October 2020