The Effects of Colorism Today

While I am not South Asian, I still personally experience colorism in my life. As the darkest-skinned of my siblings, my relatives encouraged me to stay out of the sun and to use lightening creams to become desirable. However, one particular experience stands out to me.

My mother is a skincare connoisseur, so I often shopped for beauty products with her. As we walked through the malls, I noticed countless products promoting light skin tone as beauty standards. Even though her skin has been already fair, my mother still bought and used these products regularly. If my mother thought light skin was pretty, does that mean she sees her dark-skinned brothers and sisters as ugly? What about her children, who are all darker than her?

From my experience, it’s obvious that discrimination based on skin color is a huge issue worldwide. This is especially true among South Asian communities and the diaspora. Let’s dive into the history of this discrimination, its place in society, and how people fight against it.

Desi Colorism Culture

The History of Colorism in India

Long ago, in ancient India, one’s skin color wasn’t tied to caste or status. Many deities like Kali and Krishna are described as beautiful with their dark skin, and older temples have statues made in dark stone. Epics like the Ramayan, Rig Veda, and Mahabharat featured dark-skinned (and wonderful) heroes. However, as more of the lower caste worked under the sun, they got darker. Therefore, over time, skin color became shorthand for someone’s caste status.

Discrimination based on color got worse when the British arrived. The fair-skinned British claimed themselves to be superior and often discriminated against their subjects based on skin tone. For example, they hired lighter-skinned Indians more often and gave them extra advantages over their darker-skinned counterparts. Over their 100 years of rule, these practices shaped the population’s perception of light skin, solidifying society’s colorism.

Colorism In Today’s Society

Colorism today affects every aspect of life, especially when it comes to marriage. Consider the Netflix reality series Indian Matchmaking, where the protagonist constantly considers lighter-skinned women as more desirable for their complexion. Advertisements and billboards for skincare products say that you’re more likely to find a job, a husband, or happiness if you have fair skin. Skin color filters are common on dating and arranged marriage sites, making it harder for dark-skinned people to find a match. On top of that, “fairness” is one of the first descriptions of matrimonial sections in newspapers, regardless of religion or caste. Additionally, since a proposed marriage has to gain the couple’s elders’ approval, having darker skin dramatically reduces the likelihood of tying the knot. For example, one study on Indian marriages found that darker-skinned candidates were rated lower by prospective mothers-in-law.

Colorism in the Beauty Industry

The beauty industry takes unfair advantage of this discrimination. “Fair and Lovely,” a brand that sells skin-lightening products, thrived on the insecurity of darker-skinned women since 1975. In their advertisements, they claim that lightening one’s skin makes one more likely to find a job, a husband, and so on. They have recently changed their name to Glow and Lovely in response to criticism; however, the rebranding is not enough for many.

Makeup brands add to this unfair perception of beauty standards. For example, many foundation shades refuse to cater to darker skin. Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty is the first true challenge to these unfair beauty standards. On launch, Fenty Beauty boasts 40 shades and promises to add more. Thanks to their success, other makeup brands such as Morphe and Pur launched more shades to compete. However, for the darker shades, many have unreasonable undertones and are therefore unusable. On the flip side, drugstore brands don’t carry darker shades at all. This proves that darker skin is more of an afterthought in beauty products.

All in all, discrimination based on skin color negatively affects mental health. A study of prejudice based on skin color found that darker-skinned people’s mental health was worse than lighter-skinned people in both the short- and long-term. Even people of the South Asian diaspora can’t escape colorism. Brooklyn native Samantha Ram shares that, as the dark-skinned child in her family, she was constantly told she was ugly by her relatives, which influenced her self-image from childhood until adulthood.

Cultural Shifts

Today, the Black Lives Matter movement sparked worldwide scrutiny of this discrimination. While there are campaigns such as Dark is Beautiful, Brown is Beautiful, and Unfair and Lovely that are already addressing this issue, the Black Lives Matter movement energized those efforts even more. People realize that they cannot support BLM while simultaneously holding onto colorism in their own cultures. Additionally, people are calling out Bollywood stars and beauty pageants for promoting this discrimination. Marriages of “love” are becoming more common, where couples risk estrangement of marrying without their family’s approval. Social media plays a key role in dismantling colorism, as the younger generation is finding more like-minded allies who reject colorism.

Regardless of who we are, colorism affects us all, whether or not we see it as “our” problem. We must all come together to call it out and dismantle colorism, which will ultimately improve all our communities’ well-being.

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