Colorism: How to overcome darkness of the heart

Omg itni kaali kaise ho gayi tu?”

(OMG how did you turn so dark?)

“Muslimon jaise kapde kyun pehne hain?”

(Why are you dressed like a Muslim?)

“Arre chamar lag raha hai be tu.”

(You look so bad that it seems like you’re from a lower caste)

“Arre bahut aam kha raha hai. Pet kam kar yaar!”

(You’re eating too many mangoes. Time to reduce the size of that belly!)

Just some of the casual comments we Indians throw at each other from time to time isn’t it? From body shaming to being racist and casteist, we do it all.

It’s appalling to talk about what we, as a community, partake in, almost everyday in India, in the name of “just kidding!”

Aunties have separate cups and plates for those who are a different religion, caste or class from us. Just because!

Uncles don’t mind commenting on someone’s body shape or size publicly.

A different religion or caste or even class means alarms setting off in our heads as if it’s time to be prepared and be armed for the unnatural to occur. True for darker skin color as well.

Anyway, in this writeup, I want to focus on color. So let’s get back to our love for the fair and hence, lovely!

Color and caste are interconnected in India and have taken roots so deep and strong that most of us are not even aware of how tragically we suffer from prejudices based on them.

“Rang saaf hai” is problematic because it assumes that anything dark is not “saaf” (literally means clean) or in other words, is “ganda” (dirty).

Our Hindu gods are also pretty complicated when it comes to color. I might go into that in detail in a separate post some day.

We don’t even spare our children. Do we?

“Yaar tu to gori hai, tera bachcha kala kaise ho gaya?”

(Babe you’re so fair, how did your child turn out so dark?)

The even more subtle hints can be found in statements such as:

“Put some ubtan on him/her and see the difference in a month’s time.”

“Arre baahar dhoop mein Zyada mat ghoom beta. Complexion kharab ho jayega na.”

(Don’t go out in the sun too much dear, you’ll ruin your complexion)

So how can we face our own biases and those of our society/communities on a daily basis? How can we at least take that first step towards finding a solution to the biases that exist because of the way we have been raised?

First and foremost, it’s important to keep a check on our own privileges and work towards more inclusion and compassion for the ones who suffer only because they are darker in color or belong to a different ethnicity, caste or class than us.

Let me go back in time to my school days, when for a brief period, I was called “Kaali Mai.” I was told by a loved one to take it as a compliment, because? Well, we do have a Hindu goddess named Kali so why take offense?

This must be when I had just entered my teens. But way before that, something similar happened when I was asked to play a bear in a junior class because, of course, I couldn’t be the rabbit.

My friend, who was among the fairest kids in class, was chosen to be the white animal.

Did it affect me then?

Actually, back then, no it did not. But it did affect me much later when I was explained why I was chosen to play the brown bear and not the white rabbit.

Did I rub my skin harder in the shower to feel fairer after that? Maybe yes or maybe no.

So yeah, I’ve faced it too. I, Me, Myself, who according to the husband, falls in the “fair” category because he sees himself as darker than I am.

It’s crazy how my classmates found it amusing to call me “Kaali Mai.” Not a single friend of mine objected to it or questioned it. Children can be pretty cruel you see. They learn from what they see and hear around them, in their homes, in their immediate friend circle and in schools.

(The 1990s India wasn’t too keen on self reflection you see.)

Children don’t have the capacity to be sensitive, without positive intervention or reaffirmations. Of course, there are exceptions. I sometimes wonder how much of that sensitivity can be termed innate.

Children’s upbringing shapes their thoughts and views of the world outside. They do what they see.

Indian women perpetuate colorism (similar to racism and yet, different) more than the men is what I have personally experienced.

They have been conditioned to think that fair is the best! Be it the mother who wants a fair bride for her son or the grandma who prays for a “gora” grandchild.

Dark men want fair wives and dark women also prefer fairer men so that at least their unborn child be fair. Yes it’s that twisted!

So first and foremost, women please stop obsessing over getting “fairer” or having a lighter complexion than what is natural to you. Let’s be proud of our skin color and own it like a boss! Let’s not buy products that that’ll make us lighter or fairer.

It’s also high time mothers stop rubbing the s*#t out of their babies in order to make them look a shade lighter.

And if those around you have a problem with the complexion of your child, please stop them and ask them to explain in detail as to why they said what they said.

I mean it.

Doesn’t matter if it’s your own mother or your aunt or that friendly neighbor.

(Of course, the list includes the men too!)

Change your own heart towards the biases that exist in your head.

Ask yourself why do you get uncomfortable when someone comments on your skin color? Are YOU the one who gives them a chance to do it because you don’t love your own self enough and have been talking negative about it? Give this one a thought first.

Are you intervening every single time someone points out your color or your caste or your body shape/size to you?

The battle against prejudice is a practice and unless you do it daily, it won’t transform into change at any level.

You have to call out the sexism, the racism, the “colorism” that’s all around us.

You cannot be a silent observer or a receiver and tell yourself “oh, let me just stay away from such people.”

No that’s escapism and nothing else. So please don’t indulge in it.

This goes for all the other types of shaming that are prevalent in the name of “I care for you that’s why…”

I’ve had more than a couple of friends who have messaged me saying that they so want to talk to their family or relatives about certain issues but fail most times.

Either they lack the courage or they don’t have the right argument to support their viewpoint.

Here’s what I think we can do in such situations.

  • Be informed. Educate yourself on the history of the issue you want to talk about. Find the right resources to support your stance. You must be armed with the right knowledge so that you don’t succumb to the emotions that can fly high during such discussions.
  • Be compassionate and remember where the other person is coming from. Of course, a person’s background or their age doesn’t give anyone the authority to be racist or be part of casteism, but as a wise person, you need to put yourself in their shoes to understand how to make your point in a way so that they’ll at least think about it.
  • Social media today is an excellent medium to share your thoughts. Don’t shy away from sharing what you feel about certain social evils without blocking certain “friends” and “family members.” Let them read what you think. Be courageous. It’s ok to have a different point of view. You don’t have to please everyone every time.
  • But don’t be arrogant about it. Always be open to discussion and debate. Let them know how strongly you feel about certain social issues and how much you want to engage positively to bring about a change. It might get awkward or uncomfortable the next you meet them and have the conversation, but that would be the very first step towards change.
  • If you’re part of a WhatsApp/social media group that supports racism or sexism in the form of cheap jokes and distasteful memes, please call them out. You might get blocked but that would be great wouldn’t it?
  • For your mental health, minimize your interaction with those who are adamant about their prejudices or those who just don’t want to look within. It’s better to stay away from toxic relationships that affect your mental health and peace. You absolutely have the right to do so. Just be civil whenever you see/meet them. And please pick your battles.

It’s up to us to change the world and set the right example for our children. The very first step is to accept that you HAVE prejudices. There’s hardly any person in this world who doesn’t. We’ve all been conditioned that way by society. Believe you me.

For those who are parents or have children in their household, talk to them about color, caste and gender in a way they understand. You might shield them from the issues at home but once they’re out in the world, they’ll face them and might also become a part of the problem.

Let’s start with our homes and those in our immediate environment.

PS: You might not end up as the most popular relative but there are chances you will end up sleeping more peacefully at night, knowing that you’re trying your best.

Remember, dark is just the absence of light, the light of compassion in one’s heart.

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Writer. Buddhist. Feminist. Looking for freelance projects.