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  • Ammaarah Tabani

The Issue of Colourism within South Asian Countries

Colourism, as many are well aware, is when one gives preference to lighter skin tones over darker ones. It has little to do with social, ethnic or geographic identities and affiliations and more to do with one’s physical features and is commonly practiced amongst South Asian societies. South Asia to this day experiences the burdening effects of colonialism. In a nation that was once ruled by imperialists, the ideals and influences left behind still continue to impact beauty standards and social mentality 7 decades later. Many raised in South Asian regions subconsciously disdain those with darker skin as their notion of self worth is skewed towards lighter skin tones, putting many of their own people at various disadvantages, whether those being social, economic or educational.

Pre-colonial India hadn’t discriminated against people solely based on skin color. There had been acceptance regardless of diversity and physical appearance, and any existing hierarchy was not constructed on the basis of colouristic ideals, but rather based off of unrelated factors such as religion, geography, etc. Ancient texts depicted several gods, princesses, and heroes as dark skinned, making evident that darker skin tones were not an undesirable trait. This can be said for several South Asian countries and manifests the fact that prior to the imperialistic era, colourism was at most a minor issue.

Such ideologies impact women especially as we live in a society where a woman's beauty is often given equivalence to social capital. Thus, there's no question as to why women are often highly susceptible to the pressures of achieving societal beauty standards. So when a standard is set, as ridiculous as it may be, women who possess such capital are advantaged , and women who lack said qualities are often pushed to horrible lengths to achieve it.

Individuals are forced to comply with narrow and restrictive Eurocentric ideals, ideals that don’t fit the majority of the population within countries in South Asia, specifically; Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. One that strays from this narrow depiction of beauty is simply considered as unattractive. Skin lightening products represent a large portion of South Asia's dermatological market and in India this market now claims the largest share in cosmetics. Such products are heavily advertised and marketed in various post-colonial countries and make up a multi billion dollar industry in spite of their harmful ingredients. Consumers are fed harmful principles and dogma through advertisements, propaganda and narrow representation. They are then told that there are solutions to these “problems,” and by doing so, blatantly imply that dark skin is a quality that requires “fixing”. Evidently, various brands capitalize on the negative cultural perceptions and low self esteems of women. Being an impressionable teenager in a society that fetishises lighter complexions, it’s difficult to not give into societal pressures that are demeaning to self worth, and thus these shallow principles live on.

Colourism is pervasive in media, celebrity culture, and advertising, which constantly endorses skin lightening products, thus influencing people’s attitudes and beliefs towards the subject. The majority of actors and actresses in Bollywood and Lollywood are often lightskinned. Images of colored celebrities are frequently altered to comply with the light skin obsession, skin whitening cosmetics are often promoted on billboards throughout the country and representation is often limited to those who share greater resemblance to caucasions.

Those of dark complexion are provided with fewer opportunities in comparison to their lighter skinned counterparts. In certain sectors, they are frequently limited to jobs that require little public exposure and interaction. Take for example, the entertainment industries in these regions. As profitable and influential as they may be, they are fundamentally flawed as directors and producers often employ actors and actresses that actively work to minimize their resemblance to South Asians by altering traditional features.

In regions where propaganda is designed to ingrain colonial standards of societal beauty, a simple solution would be to represent all diversities in a positive manner, rather than simply preaching for further representation. If we have been conditioned to view light skin as superior, then the same methods must be implemented to decolonize our mindset that had been used to gain control to begin with. Until women of all diversities are represented in the mainstream media of South Asian society, they will never truly be empowered to recognize their own authentic ideals, and thus the influence of colonialists will linger on.

Recently some of the largest and profitable cultural institutions are being called into question. Colourism in South Asian entertainment industries has been recently dissected by fans and experts due to the awakening of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Many steps have been taken in the right direction to deconstruct anti-blackness in the region. However, as so many have been brought up with racist beliefs, dismantling them has and will prove to be a prolonged and demanding cause.

The Negative Connotations of Dark Skin In Pakistan (Narrative Essay)

Growing up in a Pakistani family in Canada, I was raised with a certain set of values and beliefs that significantly differed from those of my relatives in Pakistan— that’s not to say that any particular belief is correct, I'm simply acknowledging that they often contradict one another. When people refuse to clearly express their personal values and beliefs and instead conceal their true opinions with ambiguous vaguely-defined words, it’s often labelled as cowardly. Although, when the multiple undertones offer them a safety blanket by allowing them to express their racist opinions, they hide behind the various connotations that those words hold. Connotations are essentially an iceberg; on the surface they’re shallow and meaningless, but look a little further down and their hideous truth is unveiled.

A few supposedly harmless words hold the potential to turn something beautiful into something terrible. It’s overwatering a plant, holding more knowledge than you wish you had. The negative connotations of dark skin with the addition of seemingly harmless words, shaped my view of the racism in my home country.

I grew up receiving several backhanded compliments, not from my immediate family, but from my relatives in Pakistan. Their oblique words accompanied me everywhere I went; mosque, parties, picnics, etc. It didn’t take me long to recognize the falsities, the seamless additions that turned a kind word into a poisonous one. Recognizing the implications of those few words was a skill I attained with age. It was a simple algorithm; gather the data, analyze the mistakes, tweak, rinse and repeat. I began to recognize their tone, their unnatural use of words, and eventually I saw the patterns. There was a clear trend in the people from whom I received such comments and my trip to Pakistan made the interlocking pieces of the Jigsaw click together flawlessly. The addition of a few words which add racist connotations stem from a common belief in Pakistan where having a darker skin tone is seen as substandard, almost faulty.

Travelling to Pakistan had been a dream of mine ever since I was young. I had spent my entire life listening to stories, eating traditional foods, keeping up with Lollywood and embracing the culture. When the opportunity to visit arose, we booked a plane ticket and were on our way. I set foot outside of the airport after a long, dreadful flight and was thrown back with the scent of thick, warm polluted air which interlaced with the intense humidity and wrapped itself around me like a second skin. A vivid picture of an unapologetically urban, bustling city infiltrated my view. It was a living machine, an industry-based smog of pollution, coating every crevice of the visible troposphere. What I found was that what I previously presumed to be simply a growler extended far deeper into the murky waters than I could have hoped.

The boundless bulletins were venom, corrupting the mind of the city. Nowhere was it plainly expressed that “fair skin is beauty,” but it didn’t matter. The propaganda that lined the buildings implied there was solely one type of beauty. I witnessed that plastered among the billboards, printed in the papers, and in the unconscious thoughts of my relatives layed a negative nuance of dark skin. Public perception made it as if different shades of skin concealed biased shades of meaning. Many of the most influential people, the people I’d see in ads, the people who were considered “beautiful,” all shared one trait that drove their success more than anything else. I could have dwelled in ignorance and overlooked the obvious prejudice, but it’s like flashing a light against an individual’s face and trying to convince them that it’s not there. It’s nearly impossible, but still it seemed like a predominant portion of the country made a willing choice to look past the light and remain persistent in their dark views. I witnessed a shadow of ignorance boroughed so deep in the minds of the masses, that it’s presence was nearly forgotten.

When we had reached my aunt’s house, the first few words she spoke were innocent and kind, “Awhh you’re so cute and so sweet!” She gave me a tight embrace and soon would follow the words I knew I would hear, but dreaded the thought of hearing. She spoke to my mother and helped us unpack our bags. I recall the small, cramped but lively room in which we took temporary residence. There was a door which always remained open and through a barred metal gate, the warm suffocating breeze would filter in and out of the room. The mattress was as stiff as a rock and the pillow was dense. My mother and grandmother rested on the bed and I took refuge on the cushioned bench on the other side of the room. My aunt was of lower-middle class and lived in a small flat, not nearly large enough to hold the number of people who resided there. She joined me and my mother in our room and that's when it happened. After a few minutes of trifling conversation she turned to me and said, “You know you’re lucky, you have such light skin, for someone born in Pakistan. Look at my skin, so dull and dark.” I witnessed a slight envy in her eyes, an envy that vexed me. I blamed her for her narrow mindset and thoughts, but the issue wasn’t her, it was the vicious insinuations that polluted her life. The pronounced undertones found in every source of news, media, and entertainment hissed such negativity into the minds of the vast population.

The longer I stayed in Pakistan, the country I had grown up being so fond of, the more it seemed impossible for it to remain afloat. The deeper I looked upon the unveiled truth, the more lucidly hideous it became. The mind of society began to seem so reptilian and cowardly with negative innuendos thrown around, afflicting and hating the majority of the population. I found that words on their own, they mean what they say, they're two dimensional whereas undertones sink deeper, their meaning vast and misused, come to life, three dimensional life.


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