White by another name is fair

We like to cover up, both literally and figuratively. Out on the chaotic Indian roads, otherwise emancipated scooter-riding young girls mask their faces, necks and wear elbow-length gloves. They prevaricate, blame pollution for their protective gear. Melanin, however, is the unstated enemy. Girls reach a certain marriageable age and the sun becomes anathema. We have a euphemism for the desire to be white. It is normalised as a striving to be ‘fair’ or light-skinned.

From a very young age, our girls are graded according to the lightness and darkness of their skin colour. And this determines how life is lived, how successful they become, and what kind of person they end up marrying. Their skin colour will determine their station in life. A whole cosmetic industry has been built to reinforce the prejudice. The bedrock of this business is what is called fairness cream. Very few call it what it really is—whitening cream.

In the advertisements nowadays, unlike before, and after a lot of criticism, they are a bit more careful. Only a bit. Fairness creams will now sponsor shows about women’s empowerment. They like to emphasise the illusion of choice. Advertisements have stopped showing the girl who applied fairness cream, passed for white and found a ‘better’ groom; or the girl who went for that crucial interview and was perceived as being more accomplished as she had successfully passed for white. But nothing has changed. The ads may not show these particular crude images, but outside the studios, reality is very crude and cruel.

You can see this at work in Bollywood. The more successful stars are as white as you can get them and usually recruited from the same film families. Very few dark non-family outsiders make it in the Bollywood factory. Models are flown in from Eastern Europe to gyrate as extras in elaborate shiny dance pieces, act in commercials and perform as cheerleaders on the sidelines of cricket matches.

Bollywood is merely the reflection of what is the very foundation of society. The caste system is built on a gradation in colour from white at the top and all the way down to black. Everyone sees this, but no one wants to say it aloud. The caste system is institutionalised racism. They will give you complicated historical grounds for caste, about how society was divided on the basis of what people’s jobs were: priestly clans, rulers, landlords, traders and then all the lower castes in a tangled bunch of unwanted ‘others’ or ‘tribals’ at the bottom rung of the ladder who were supposed to do the menial jobs and had access to none of the resources. But even this twisted, offensive justification is a cover-up.

When a famous Australian cricketer of mixed heritage came to this country, the crowds in one city’s cricket stadium booed and made monkey gestures at him. We heard rationalisations like the Aussies are just getting it back for the sledging abuse they dish out to other countries’ players on cricket pitches. There is no covering this up, but cover up we do, politely terming racial abuse “caste prejudice”.

In this country, there is a common urban myth that north Indians are ‘fair’ and south Indians ‘dark’. Shrink that scale to caste, certain upper castes are ‘fair’ and lower castes ‘dark’. And so the permutations go on endlessly. When we were in college, my friend and I belonged to the same caste, but the skin-colour difference between us was explained away with the reasoning that within the same caste, some sub-castes were superior to other sub-castes. And yes, she had more ‘suitors’, to borrow a term from Downton Abbey.

Take, for instance, the hierarchy of colour between siblings. In the same family, the ‘fair’ sibling is the one everyone rests their hopes on, and the dark one, well, this one will have to scrimmage for everything, throw more tantrums. Their personalities will inevitably be different. The ‘fair’ one enjoys adulation and hence will be outgoing, more extroverted, the ‘dark’ one will become the reticent brooder. While one goes through life with self-confidence, the other can expect a lifetime of, well, self-victimisation.

I am simplifying here, dear reader, but from this generalisation you can extrapolate. Each personality will work out these start conditions in their own ways, and emerge into adulthood with varying coping mechanisms. I cope by writing, seeking ‘whys’. If you ask someone why they do something, you will hear self-justifications and self-deceptions, to which neither you nor I are immune, even as I write and you are reading this. But I look now to name  the unpalatable little cruelties we have been covering up our whole lives.

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