Light skin equals beautiful and dark skin equals ugly. I was introduced to this colour based discrimination prevalent in India at a very young age within my family. I was taught this discrimination actively. My young, mouldable and rather naïve mind perceived this discrimination as a given. The privileging of the fair skin seemed like common sense to me; something inescapable, especially since it worked in my favour.
As a fair skinned girl in a North Indian family of Uttar Pradesh, my skin colour has always been an aspect of obsessive pride for my family. For as long as I can remember, every compliment directed towards me always had something to do with the way I looked which was directly related to how gora (light skinned) I was. My light skin was such a highlight of my personality for the people around me that slowly it became the only highlight for me as well. As a little girl of seven or eight I had internalized this contradictory perception of skin colours so much that I felt superior in having a lighter skin tone. This was also instilled in me through endless comparisons with cousin sisters, family friends or school friends who had dark or relatively darker complexion.
This comparison never always worked in my favour since I obviously wasn’t the “fairest of them all.” I always aspired to have an even lighter skin tone; the kind I witnessed on the glowing television screens or the front pages of the magazines. My self-worth was involuntarily attached to my complexion and I clung onto it as hard as I could. Even with the social privilege of a light skin, I was constantly trying to better it and was immensely frightened of losing it.
The paranoia cultivated in me was so much that during my teenage years, when my skin tone darkened a shade or two, my self-worth took a huge plunge. I tried every method in the book and my mother’s ‘indigenous’ knowledge to lighten my skin shade. I harboured insecurities and took pleasure in comparisons with girls having darker skin colour. “At least my state isn’t that bad,” used to be my saddening line of thought.
Thankfully, that phase passed and I grew out of my prejudices as and when I was introduced to newer ideals of beauty. But as I look back, I recall some cringe-worthy (sometimes funny) moments that reveal the staunch prejudice regarding dark skin that have circulated in my family since I can remember.
I recall the day my niece was born and how everyone fixated on the skin colour of the four hour old baby. She was instantly given comic names like ‘kallo’ or ‘kariya’ that were colloquial synonyms of black. The word was spread throughout the family that the baby was healthy and the mother was fine but “bas thodi kaali hai but theek hai. Shayad kuch samay baad rang badal jae. Papa mummy toh dono gore hain” (She is just a little dark. Maybe after some time the skin colour changes. Both her parents have a fair skin).
It was really troubling to witness this attitude towards a newborn. It was equally troubling about three months later when the entire family had a video chat with the little baby and expressed their collective relief afterwards: “chalo rang to saaf hogya hai. Ab iss parivaar ki lag rahi hai” (Thankfully the complexion is clearer now. Now she looks like a member of this family).
Similarly, whenever any wedding is about to happen in our huge joint family, it always starts with one question: “ladki/ladka dikhne mein kaisi/kaisa hai?” (How does the boy/girl look?). By look, it is always assumed that one is talking about the skin colour because beauty is always associated with the colour of the skin.
So when my gora (fair) cousin decided to marry a dark skinned girl, everybody took turns to convince him against it. The funny part was that no one knew exactly why they were trying to do so because the divisions of class, caste and religion were not working in their favour. Their reasoning was something vague like, “a fair guy would look better with a fair girl.” It was actually pretty surprising to see how this reasoning was used to devalue the love shared between the couple; it was genuinely considered bigger than it.
Of course my family isn’t to be blamed entirely. Discrimination based on skin colour is deeply rooted in the normal Indian psyche. Skin colour forms various layers, variables and acceptability with the Indian society. For a long time now, beauty standards have been governed by the media. The media glorifies the fair skin in male and female models. Moreover, television stars, movie actors and actresses openly endorse fairness products. If one observes closely, it is hard to ignore the predominance of light skinned models on the billboards.
However prejudices associated with dark skin do not limit themselves in defining what’s beautiful or not. Acceptability in the Indian society is not merely limited to skin colour even though a fairer skin colour is constantly desirable. Many derivatives are responsible for a person’s reaction towards someone’s skin tone. These derivatives play a role in the acceptability of the person. For example, an upper caste or upper class man or woman are more acceptable than their lower caste counterparts. However, within the same class or caste, lighter skinned individuals are almost always preferred to those with darker skins. Similarly gender also is a part of one of these derivatives, a man with a darker complexion would be more accepted if he has a good financial status than a woman.
It is also important to note that caste prejudice is invariable connected to colourism in India. It is often believed that all Dalits have dark skin tones. Even though this assumption is clearly misplaced, it is a commonplace belief in the Indian society.
My mother is a person who has been born, brought up and marinated in this discriminatory setup. It is very difficult to change the perspectives of someone older than you. If someone has survived for more years on the planet than you, it is inevitably assumed that that person has the ‘right kind of wisdom’ and well, you’re wrong.
My mother, who is an upper caste, upper middle class, fair woman, never bothered to question the hierarchies based on race, caste, class, gender or skin colour. Or, as she would say, she never had the time to do so. The invisible privilege that she enjoys also weed out for her, any problems that crop up with the existence of such hierarchies and discrimination. Moreover, she even contributes in strengthening these hierarchies on a familial level quite ignorantly.
Even then, I consider my mother to be a progressive Indian mother who is open to somewhat newer perspectives. In today’s day and age when body shaming, skin colour based discrimination, limited ideals of beauty and the violence of caste and class structures are actively being questioned and deconstructed on social media platforms, our parents are always on Facebook consuming all of it. The base of such ideologies of division is unstable right now. While some people reject it as a corrupting new thought propagated by the ‘irresponsible millennials who have no concept of culture’, others struggle with what beliefs they should adhere to and what to let go of. My mother falls in the latter category as she calls me up for explanations when she reads something online and it strays away from her pre-existing ideals and beliefs. But one cannot ignore the effects of the fact that she moves about in circles that are filled with people who have the former line of thought; people who do not shake the foundation of her entire belief system like the new perspective do.
However, her sheer effort and the fact that I am really close to her, makes me want to share every aspect of my life with her. She has been my go to person all my life in times of happiness as well as crisis. So, it is only natural that I wanted to tell her about my first relationship.
Even though she is someone who will directly think of marriage when I tell her about any boy, she does listen to my relationship stories quite enthusiastically and with minimal judgement, mostly. In any other case, I would have just walked in the house and declared my relationship status to her accompanied with pictures and stories. However, since I had chosen to be with a boy who had a dark complexion, my approach was different. The politics of introducing the fact that you are seeing a dark skinned boy is full of scheming, planning and plotting. I did not hope for an immediate approval. I even prepared my mind for a disapproving shrivelling of nose or a sigh of disappointment but I still was adamant to facilitate acceptance.
Forgive my hypocrisy, but instead of trying to dive headfirst into the topic and attempting to radically argue how skin colour is irrelevant or how acceptance or admiration cannot be guided by something as superficial as skin tone, I chose a direction that would be more hassle-free. I had my reasons and my very real anxieties. To be honest, this bias attached to skin colour is so deeply rooted and internalised, that on some level, even I felt like I was disappointing my mother. I was looking for aspects that would compensate for the dark skin and encourage acceptance.
I was home for the holidays. It was a scorching summer and all the June conversations revolved around how bad the weather is. My mother and I spent our days laying on the bed in an air conditioned room. There were multiple instances where I could have told her about the recent development in my life on the very first day of my arrival but instead I resorted to a more manipulative approach.
I began with talking about this ‘new friend’ I had made in the past months. I was careful not to mention him too much as well. I have a clever mother. However, my mentioning was strategic. After spending twenty-two years of my life with her, I knew the attributes that pleased my mother and I told her stories about this boy who helped me so much when I was shifting flats in Delhi. In one conversation, when we were discussing the general messiness of the male kind and my mom was frustrated with my father, I slyly mentioned how there is only one guy I know so far who loves to be neat and tidy. I was conniving enough to tell my mother how my ‘new friend’s’ mother sent home cooked meals for me. How very sweet!
Other little anecdotes of this ‘new friend’s’ politeness, chivalry, intelligence and kindness were sprinkled across conversations throughout summer. I was extremely scared about my mother’s disapproval and hence refrained from telling her till the very last week of my vacation.
Since the boy was also a Malayalee, I had been sure to bring up some positive stereotypes attached to Malayalee people as well. It was a tough endeavour to casually break into conversations like these, but I managed.
Seemingly trivial yet degrading commentary and disdain over darker skins has been regular feature in my family. Skin tone related jokes and judgement is a Monday morning breakfast in the house. “How did she even become an actress, she is so dark,” is what they would say when they saw a picture of Priyanka Chopra in some newspaper.
I was usually unaffected by such statements and brushed them off as ignorant banter because it never personally affected me. I never felt personally attacked by such comments and to avoid unpleasantness in the house, I stayed clear of arguing over them. But that summer was different. It felt bad to hear those seemingly harmless ‘jokes’ and remarks. Moreover, they further discouraged me from opening up to my mother. Every joke confirmed her eventual dissatisfaction.
It was three days before I had to go back to Delhi that I gathered some courage and opened my Instagram page and pulled out a photo of K and I. I really wanted to share my experiences with my mother and tell her how happy I was. I had consciously pulled out a picture where his skin appeared the lightest it could and felt mad at myself while doing so. As I said, I was adamant for acceptance.
I had even armed myself with very specific information about his class, caste and financial status that would compensate for his dark skin. I was aware of the questions that would come my way and I had rehearsed my answers to all of them.
I moved my phone towards my mother while she was scrolling through her Facebook newsfeed on her phone, watching a random video of a money drinking coca cola. I was careful enough to lace my voice with honey and appear as docile and non-defensive as I could. Taking a strong defence never works well with Indian parents.
“This is the boy, I have been talking about. I am sorta in a relationship with him,” I avoided eye contact like I was ashamed of some unknown thing. My mother picked up my phone and abandoned her’s on the bed next to me. She instantly tried to zoom the picture by pinching the screen to focus on the guy’s face. She squinted her eyes for clarity of vision and moved the phone a little away from her face. Defeated, she sat upright and picked up her reading glasses from the bedside table. After placing the glasses carefully on her slender nose she resumed her inspection of the image.
This small act felt like it lasted for a day! Even after she had inspected the photograph for two full minutes, she was silent for what felt like an eternity. It felt like she was also trying to formulate an appropriate response; a response that would not hurt or offend me.
After a long time she finally spoke but what she said wasn’t very pleasing. She inquired about the seriousness of my involvement in a manner that made it clear that she was hoping I wasn’t very serious. My heart instantly sank to my stomach but I wasn’t ready to give up. My voice automatically took a curt turn and told her that this relationship mattered to me. Almost instantly I got what I had feared; the sigh of disapproval. I felt frustrated and angry but I knew better than to start an argument over it. Arguing wouldn’t bring about acceptance, I told myself to push down the bubbling anger.
“Is he a south Indian?” the series of questions began. This was the good part, I was prepared for this. I nodded my head to convey the yes and also pointed out the fact that he is from Kerala but has lived in Delhi all his life. I felt a pressing need to tell her that in his mannerisms he is more North Indian. I guess I did not want the regional prejudices to get attached to the already existing skin colour prejudice even though I knew they were hardly detachable.
“From Kerala? Is he a Christian? A converted Christian? You know lower caste people convert to Christianity?,” the agitation in her voice increased and she was no longer careful about not offending me. Her eyes widened and the crease between her eyebrows deepened. Her nose involuntary shrivelled up and horror was palpable on her face. This reaction and such line of questioning was infuriating. “You wouldn’t have asked me all this if it was a fair skinned boy,” every cell in my body was urging me to blurt out these words. I wanted to argue the very premise of such commentary but I had some convincing to do. Ignoring the rebellion within me, I calmly answered her queries even if my voice was involuntarily laced with acid now.
“No he isn’t a converted Christian mom, he is an upper caste Hindu for God’s sake. His name itself is of a prominent Hindu God. He is a Nair to be precise. They worship the same Gods. Not everyone in Kerala in a converted Christian,” my defence was satisfactory for my mother as her body loosened a bit and she sat back against the headboard of the bed. However, it was quite shameful for me. My inner voice was vigorously shaking her head in immense disapproval of the stand that I was taking.
I knew what the next question would be and my mother did not disappoint me. “What does his father do and where is he studying?” This is one question that every girl’s mother has irrespective of a boy’s physical attributes. What became troubling was my mother’s surprised reaction when I told her that he was from an upper-middle class family as well. Seeing his skin colour, she had already assumed in her mind that we did not share the same class and was rather surprised when I told her something