Equating Colour with the Good, Bad and Ugly - the Inherent Biases within South Asians

Black Lives Matter is a campaign and organization that speaks out against atrocities happening across the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom to people of Black communities.  Many of us South Asians, children of immigrants, wholeheartedly support the movement. We support our Black friends, colleagues and neighbors; we protest with them and voice their grievances. Being minorities ourselves in the West, we fight our own battles against racism. But yet, our immigrant parents are also racist against the Black community and dark-skinned individuals. I am sure my second generation friends and cousins would agree when I say most of our parents told us to stay away from making Black friends. They were hesitant to let them come over to hang out. And those with family businesses - I have watched the model minorities hire and use Black people to complete work like cleaning the bathrooms, taking out the garbage, and mopping the floors. Tasks typically associated with darker-skinned individuals in India.

South Asians often forget that our culture is a web of deep-seeded racism that is perpetuated against darker skinned communities in our culture by light skinned individuals. Historically, it is no secret that our forefathers and ancestors treated those of lower castes and darker skin colors the same way Black people have been treated by White people in the West.

Now the questions arises. Why does discrimination against darker skinned communities occur in present day India? What are the root causes of these ideologies? Why are fair and beautiful synonyms in many Indian languages? When it comes to arranged marriages, why are dark-skinned daughters considered a liability? One way to explore these questions is by viewing the situation through the Social Dominance Theory (SDT). SDT draws our attention to the maintenance and stability of group-based social hierarchies. It means to maintain social dominance and oppression by creating consensus on ideologies that promote the superiority of one group over others. 

For example the reverence of European beauty standards by South Asians—light skin, light eyes, light hair color and the myth that “Black is ugly” are ideologies perpetuated by the dominant group to keep darker-skinned communities in subordinate positions. Dark-skinned communities are made to feel that they do not deserve to be educated, eat in nice restaurants, serve as high ranking officials or hold a job as a receptionist in a corporate office because only light skinned, attractive women are suitable for the position.    

The large shift in group-based hierarchies began 2000 BCE when Aryans migrated from the countries west of India and mixed with the original habitants of India. This ushered in Brahminism and the caste system which perpetuated oppressive ideologies towards the Dalits. Castes designated occupations and it just so happened that the darkest-skinned communities were deemed “untouchables” and perceived as unclean people. They were given the tasks of toilet cleaning and garbage picking. 

In the West, the white plantation owners of America and the “Zamindaars” (land owners) of Northern India share common practices in the way they treated dark-skinned communities. Both were wealthy landowners whose labour force consisted of dark-skinned people - the slaves and the Dalits. Slaves and Dalits were at the mercy of their Master; frequently beaten and punished for things they had no control over. These communities worked long laborious hours in their Masters’ fields and homes in return for two meals a day and cramped shelter. Slaves, like Dalits, were not allowed to drink out of the same water fountains, use the same bathrooms or shake hands. 

The lighter skinned slave and Dalit women had it better than their dark-skinned counterparts. For they were brought into their Master’s home to work as housemaids, cooks or wet nurses. Slave and Dalit women were often sexually assaulted or raped by “upper caste” men who felt they had every right over these women.  The intercaste children produce from these relationships were referred to as the English version of a bastard or “kutcha butcha” a phrase from British Colonial times which literally means “half baked bread” was used to describe mixed race and sometimes illegitimate children in India. In the West, children born from white masters and slave women were called “mulattos”. However, these children born out of wedlock would never be given the chance to climb the social class and caste ladder. The Indian children still had the blood of the Dalit woman. In the West, the “mulatto” children were kept at the lowest social ladder by the “one drop rule.” This social and legal principle asserted that any person with even one ancestor of Black ancestry is considered a “Negro”. In other words, “mulattos” were still considered to be the lowest ranked on the social ladder despite having White blood in them. 

Let’s fast forward to present day India. Our family, friends and relatives who live in India continue to treat darker skinned individuals inappropriately or simply dismiss them. Whether this is done overtly or subconsciously, they are still practicing oppression.  I see the way maids/servers are treated when I visit family in India. They are often given orders and demands when it comes to work. They are also made fun of to their face. While serving us tea, at my aunt’s house in Punjab, a male servant was the joke of the party - “He is as black as a crow; he will be lucky if anyone marries him, forget about a beautiful girl.” The emphasis was on anyone. The server laughed with the guests, but I could see the hurt on his face.  As South Asians, many of us have an aversion to dark skin that we have internalized to the point that we do not realize we are perpetuating racism.

Our everyday life revolves around skin color. From the time we wake up in the morning, we must make sure the first thing we lay our eyes on is pure and white, anything dark would be bad luck, according to superstitions.  Next, the sun; this beautiful ball of roaring light that helps us thrive everyday has become a nuisance for us. We are told to avoid being in the sun. It’s no wonder 70% of people living in India are Vitamin D deficient. Almost every cream on the market is infused with skin lightening chemicals that are proudly advertised on its packaging. 

Let’s face it - we perceive black as ugly and evil. Have you ever seen a black Hindu god or goddess? They are all portrayed in light pristine colours. Even the goddess Kali, who is depicted in a dark skin tone, is not painted black but a dark navy blue. Even Krishna, who is portrayed as dark-skinned in scriptures, is often shown in fair or blue skin. Our culture is obsessed with whiteness. The Hindu elephant god Ganesh is portrayed in pure white colours when elephants are not even white? Even pictures of Sikh Gurus are depicted in light skin tones, although they could have been dark skinned individuals. 

In recent years, India’s film industry has produced a few films on dark skin tone. One such example is the comedic Punjabi film Kala Shah Kala (2019) which translates to “My black romeo”. The character playing a dark-skinned bachelor is Binnu Dhillon who is on the hunt for a beautiful bride. But his family and friends make it very clear to him that it will be very difficult for him to find a wife because he is so dark-skinned. He tries various things to make his skin lighter such as facials, whitening creams and even tries to wear colors that make him look lighter. But nothing works. He is constantly made fun of for his dark skin colour throughout the film; it is what makes the film so popular. In the end, a beautiful light skinned girl gradually falls in love with him because of his qualities. The film makes the argument that the only reason Binnu Dhillon was able to make a girl fall in love with him was because of his down to earth qualities.  The message I got after watching this film was Black is never beautiful however, with time, if given a chance, can be loveable. If you ask me, this message does not sit well with me. 

The Bollywood movie, Bala (2019), is another film that focuses on unconventional beauty standards. There is no doubt that thick luscious hair and clear white skin are two important physical traits South Asians strive to have. In the film, Bala Shukla, played by Ayushmann Khurrana is a man in his late twenties who struggles with premature baldness and wears a wig to cover his bald head. He is also a fairness cream salesman and is attracted to a light skinned model. Latika, played by Bhumi Pednekar (who is not dark-skinned in real life), is portrayed as a dark-skinned and intelligent young woman who is constantly criticized by society for her skin tone. Latika is not at all bothered by her skin tone and loves herself regardless. However, her skin tone is constantly getting her into trouble. For example, there is a scene in the film, where Bala cheats off of Latika’s school assignments (during their elementary school years) and passes them off as his to his crush, a light skinned pretty girl. When Latika confronts Bala in front of his crush, he berates her, using her skin colour as a weapon of choice. This particular scene from the film is another reminder of how dark-skinned individuals have continued to be treated with disrespect. Researchers call this the “bad is black” effect. New York University professors conducted six studies that showed a link between skin tone and whether a person committed a criminal act. They also found that media portrayed darker photographs of citizens, celebrities and politicians during their transgression. Thus again, equating to the idea that “bad is black”. 

Fast forward to present day. Here we are with our Black colleagues, friends, neighbors marching in protest of George Floyd’s vicious murder. “Hand in hand, we can.”  But at the same time, we have not changed our own mindsets on how we perceive dark colors, dark skinned people and Black communities. I have to stay second generation South Asians see people of different colours and races as their equals but we still have deeply engrained biases and I still overhear people equating fairness with beauty. Until we, as a whole, do not see people of every race and colour as our equals; there will always be wars, murders, civil unrest and most of all, there will always be inequality.  



Aryan Migration: Who are our ancestors, really?

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Niva Sandhu

Bollywood Film Fame Canada has been a source of original content consisting of real conversations, reviews, and news of everything film, music, and entertainment for 15 years.

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