We believe what we want to believe — and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
A recent Ipsos poll revealed some pretty grim findings on racism within Canada, including that nearly 50 per cent of Canadians think racist thoughts are normal and that one in four Canadians believe it has become more acceptable to be prejudiced against Muslims and Arabs.
However, racism and discrimination do not just happen between communities, they also happen within communities. Shadeism or colourism is prejudice based on skin tone, usually with a marked preference for lighter-skinned people. The lighter skin preference is seen in many countries across Africa, Asia and South America.
Shadeism has permeated and spread wider as people have moved across continents. I recently read a powerful statement in a piece in the Guardian on colourism that I can’t seem to shake: “What makes this all so hard to talk about is the internalized white supremacy. If white people disappeared from the planet tomorrow, colourism would still exist in our communities, and that is maybe the most painful part. Why people would rather say it isn’t real.”
The words stung because I feel their truth. While we seem to acknowledge discrimination outside our communities, there tends to be a reluctance to talk about it openly and honestly within our communities.
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The Dark Side of Beauty
One of the most obvious examples of shadeism is society’s beauty ideal of “fair is beautiful” — and more specifically, that white beauty is what is deemed as beautiful. Makers of skin lightening products have capitalized on the social stigma and lowered the esteem of dark-skinned women, exploiting them with messages of a more fulfilled life with lighter skin.
According to a report from Global Industry Analysts, the skin-lightening industry will sky-rocket to a $23-billion business by 2020. It is estimated that in India alone, over $430-million worth of skin lightening products are consumed annually — and as staggering as those numbers are, they aren’t surprising. In India and Pakistan, ads for skin lightening creams and cosmetics make up nearly 90 per cent of overall advertisements on prime time television.
And while these messages definitely have a much stronger impact on women in terms of beauty ideals, there has been a shift with men also being made to feel less about their dark skin. In 2005, Indian cosmetic company Emami launched a “Fair and Handsome” cream for men, which was endorsed by mega Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan. At present, there are about half a dozen skin lightening products for men available in the Indian market.
READ MORE: Why top brands keep producing products that prompt backlash
Education and Employment Impact
The difference in pay rates between darker-skinned and lighter-skinned men mirrors the differences in pay between whites and blacks in the U.S. Another study says that dark-skinned women in India and surrounding countries have fewer opportunities to join the workforce as journalists, sales associates, flight attendants, models, actresses, receptionists and other jobs that “require exposure to and interaction with the public, who will judge as unattractive.”
And such discrimination begins at an early age — if you are a dark-skinned girl in the U.S., you are three times more likely to be suspended from school than your light skinned peers. Even up to 2017, before commercial surrogacy was banned in India, a study found that fair-skinned, high caste women were being paid more to be surrogate mothers than their dark-skinned, low-caste rivals.
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Darkness vilified … and erased
When my family immigrated to Canada from England in the early ’80s, I saw very few people who had any resemblance to me on television or film as I was growing up. Instead, I would try to find myself represented in Bollywood, but that too proved problematic and was like trying to finding a needle in a porcelain haystack.
Virtually all female leads to this day are fair-skinned, and when you do see a dark-skinned female, she is usually cast in a minor role, most likely vilified or hyper-sexualized.
Like many other kids, I remember hearing those same cautionary tales to “stay out of the sun so you don’t get too dark,” or being slathered in homemade concoctions by relatives.
And then there were the myriad of subtle and not so subtle comments and backhanded compliments around my skin tone: “you’re not that dark” or “you’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl.”
I wasn’t too concerned with my skin tone until one particular summer. One stand-out instance changed my perception of myself for many years to come. I was visiting England for a family wedding, and an unknown Aunty approached me and said, “You’re a pretty girl, but it’s a shame you’re not fair or you’d get more ‘manga.'” (Manga is a Gujarati term for wedding proposal).
I was not looking to be a teen bride or had marriage anywhere on my mind, but that comment stuck. (Although, dark-skinned women actually are less likely to get married than lighter-skinned women.) When I returned home, I began to see things differently. The comments about my darker complexion hurt a little more, and I wondered if maybe my melanin-rich skin did, in fact, make me less attractive than my fair-complexion friends.
As I internalized those feelings, I saw my self-esteem drop. I also came to learn about the caste system around that same time in my life, and the two are heavily inter-woven in Indian culture, with a link between skin colour and social status.
There were a lot of internalized feelings of inferiority and inadequacy that I went through over the next decade as I came to understand the politics of shadeism. And it wasn’t until I was close to my 30s that I really started to feel good in my skin and embrace my melanin.
With thanks to formidable directors like Deepa Mehta casting incredible actors like Nandita Das, who played phenomenal roles in Fire and Earth and then producers and actors like Mindy Kaling, Lupita Nyong’o and Regina King to directors like Ava DuVernay, we were shown that dark-skinned women’s beauty and stories were more than worthy of being celebrated.
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The Path To Change
I don’t have a magical fix on how to escape the chains of colourism, nor do I think there is one. But I do know the first step is to talk about it — both outside and within our communities.
We have to have those real, raw, difficult, uncomfortable and painful conversations to right our wrongs. We have to put pressure on advertisers, mass media, including the television and film industry, to present more inclusive notions of beauty.
And at a grassroots level, we can use social media as a force for good. We can take part in some of the powerful social campaigns like #DarkIsBeautiful or #UnfairandLovely that are working to change perceptions around beauty or create our own campaigns in pushing the dialogue forward.
We have to acknowledge the need for change outside our communities from white power structures and also recognize how we are contributing to such discrimination within our communities.
Ultimately, I hope we are able to empower our next generation of young impressionable minds that beauty is neither black nor white — it is much more than skin deep and enhanced by treating oneself and others with compassion and kindness.
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