Colorism, the privileging of those with lighter skin and the discrimination towards those with darker skin, is an aspect of South and South-East Asian culture that unfortunately many have to experience. Colorism is not the same as racism, as it occurs within the same racial group towards certain ethnicities or individuals of a specific social or economic class. From a young age, it is ingrained in these societies that lighter, fairer skin is beautiful, while darker skin is not. Many children are told not to play in the sun or drink tea as it could darken their skin and are similarly told to try homemade skin whitening treatments. It is such a deep-rooted issue that there are even many homemade methods women try when pregnant to make their baby lighter-skinned, and there are countless videos and websites with tips on how to lighten a baby’s skin.
These dangerous trends continue into adulthood when you are told to lighten your skin if you want to marry into a good family. As well, many ads on TV promote skin whitening treatments and creams. Unfortunately, these products and procedures thrive in South Asian countries as they are so widely sought after. To better understand this issue, it’s crucial to look at the vital role colonialism has played in the enforcement of white supremacist beauty standards.
The Colonial Roots of Colorism
Prior to colonialism in South and South-East Asia, darker skin was associated with the lower class as they spent time outside working in the fields all day. As such, wealthier people who did not have to work outside under harsh conditions had lighter skin, creating the association of lighter skin with wealth and high status, and darker skin with inferiority.
However, with the onset of colonization, Europeans reinforced these ideas as they closely associated lighter skin with themselves. The colonizers were seen as “superior” and many wanted to imitate them, and thus, lighter skin was seen as higher in economic class, beauty, and caste. Being lighter-skinned and thus more closely associated with the British led to many gaining economic and social standing. The British ingrained the idea that fair-skinned individuals were the ruling class while darker-skinned individuals were to be ruled. This led to a deep desire for paler skin that has continued long after decolonization.
This issue is especially prevalent in India, where the combination of British colonization and a caste system has resulted in discrimination towards darker-skinned people. The caste system operates where those at the top, the Brahmins, are wealthy and are from a high social and economic class. Those at the bottom, the Dalits, also called “the untouchables,” were people that no one wanted to associate with. They did menial tasks and were often street cleaners. It was nearly impossible for someone to change their caste; what you were born into was what you were forever. The British reinforced and encouraged the caste system so that those of the upper caste, who did not do manual labour and thus often had fairer skin, were seen as superior. Those of the lower castes who worked manual labour jobs, and thus often had darker skin, were seen as lesser than.
Colorism in the Beauty Industry
The beauty industry is a major contributor to colorism in these societies. Skin whitening products and procedures dominate the beauty industry in South and South-East Asia, generating a multi-billion dollar industry in the Indian subcontinent alone. The products are advertised everywhere, promoting the notion that lighter skin is beautiful and should be desired by everyone. It does not help that many influential celebrities often promote these products and procedures, as they must also uphold the beauty standard due to immense pressure from the public to be light and fair-skinned. An example of this is in the South Korean K-pop industry, where celebrities with darker skin often face backlash and discrimination based on their skin color. Pale skin is deemed beautiful and is praised in the industry.
These trends do not only have negative social effects. Many of these products are made with harmful chemicals, such as mercury and a bleaching agent called hydroquinone, that damage the skin. Hydroquinone removes the top layer of skin, which increases the chances of getting skin cancer as well as liver and kidney damage.
Implications for Individuals and Society as a Whole
Individuals who do not conform to these beauty standards are often degraded and seen as unattractive, as darker skin is associated with negative characteristics, with lighter skin being associated with more positive characteristics.
There is also immense pressure from family to conform to beauty standards. Arranged marriage is a common practice in South Asia, and when looking at potential suitors, skin color is considered a prominent factor. Both men and women are rejected or accepted for proposals based on lighter or darker skin. However, women are usually more affected by these beauty standards.
As well, not only is a lighter skin tone desirable, but other features such as lighter colored hair and eyes are as well. It is unsurprising that many want to conform to these standards, as the media largely only shows actors with lighter features. Constantly being shown that lighter skin is more desirable and should be sought after influences individuals to try and achieve it. Pressure from family and knowing that they will get treated better is also a motivator to try and lighten their skin.
While the association of caste status with skin color isn’t as notorious as it once was, this legacy of discrimination still has ripple effects. Further, many procedures and products are not affordable, and thus those with access are largely the wealthy, perpetuating the notion that fairer-skinned people are of a higher class.
In a brave stance, there is a growing movement of those who have rejected these Eurocentric beauty standards and take pride in their skin color. There is also pressure on cosmetic companies to not produce skin whitening products. In 2020, there was a growing dialogue in South Asian communities about these products’ damaging effects on the skin, and how these companies have portrayed dark skin as “ugly” compared to lighter skin. This has led one of the largest skin whitening product producing companies, Unilever, to rename its popular cream called “Fair and Lovely,” to “Glow and Lovely.” While this decision is a step in the right direction, the product is ultimately still a whitening product and continues to reinforce colorism. Nevertheless, given that this issue is so deeply ingrained in society, it is expected that any kind of change will come about slowly and gradually over time. It is important to encourage even seemingly small actions such as these so they continue in the future.
As well, others have been facing backlash for promoting colorism. A popular South-Asian dating site, “Shaadi.com,” came under fire for asking users to select their skin tone when setting up their profiles, allowing other users to then search for potential partners based on skin color.
Despite this progress, South Asian societies and industries still have tremendous work to do with regard to dismantling colorism. However, the new generation is starting to take immense pride in their skin and are actively working to rid their societies of discrimination.