The Money in Colorism

Colorism didn’t leave with the British. And it didn’t change with Fair & Lovely’s rebranding.

The colorism discourse in South Asia has taken the shape of many valid arguments: the skin whitening products, the matrimonial industry, and the obvious link to imperial white supremacy. But in a time when we’re reevaluating the intricacies of colour prejudice, South Asians deserve more than a hasty Instagram story sharing Fair & Lovely’s rebranding to the hilariously lazy name that is Glow & Lovely. From Pashtuns to Tamils to Sharchops to Bengalis and everyone in between, the rich colour diversity that constitutes the South Asian demographic is unrivalled worldwide, and yet the desire to attain whiteness trumps them all. 

But if, as is a common belief, the idea of white superiority is a remnant of the British, how and why is it still alive today? In truth, colorism is an investment. While the system that benefits the lighter-skinned was built on centuries of imperial oppression, today, colorism has been harnessed by several industries to turn a profit. Colorism preserves and monetizes a social structure with a degree of influence on everyone, from your neighbour to your favourite Bollywood star.

It is this division of people in which the economics of colorism is most apparent. As a result of internalizing constant Western and local media alike that ‘white is right,’ we turn to skin colour to judge not only a person’s apparent beauty but their social and economic status as well. A recent study at REVA University, Bangalore, showed that 50% of participants believe that those with fairer skin are generally richer and 44% believe that those with fairer skin are better educated. What everyone should understand here is the deeply troubling dogma that is ‘the fairer you are, the more set up for success you are.’ These deep-seated convictions reveal an ugly link to casteism, which only supports the ‘colour factor’ in financial and social success. 

The abolishment of discrimination based on the caste system in the Indian Subcontinent did not stunt its effects, but it allowed it to morph in ways more implicit, more subjective than before. Those employed in manual labour jobs, as well as those who live in poverty, experience long-term skin darkening and are then associated with being of lower ‘caste,’ as jobs requiring manual labour were historically reserved for Shudras and Dalits. 

However, the kicker is that there is no link between skin colour and caste. While skin colour simply varies with the geographies in South Asia, the modern-day hierarchical caste system is prevalent in every corner in the region. And yet, the preconceptions that economic and social success is only achievable for those with lighter skin colours pose a barrier to a region with generally darker skin colours. The South Asian economy, carried by the primary sector, is charged by the exploitation of the hard labour of the melanin-rich and the disadvantaged workers, complete with casteist wage discrimination and trade union exclusion.

And this skew can quite aptly be portrayed in pretty much any advertisement for a skin-whitening product, where a deeply troubled dark-skinned woman is rejected by a love interest or a job offer. She finally prevails after becoming lighter-skinned by using some cream or the other, evidenced in a Ravan-esque whitening sequence. But quite frankly, too many times has the colorism discourse in South Asia stopped at Fair & Lovely. In truth, the South Asian media is obsessed with white skin. In advertisements ranging from toothpaste to intimate parts wash to cars to even Domino’s, one could never tell just by media that India has any skin colour darker than perhaps a wheatish complexion. While this may seem only ignorant at first glance, remind yourself of the very purpose of advertisements. Advertisements are meant to influence and persuade, to inspire a change in your consuming patterns, and show you just how much better your life can be if you use this one product. 

What this means is that the media industry has recognized an ideal to aspire to – an ideal of conforming to Eurocentric appearance standards – and monetized it by presenting lifestyle products used by light-skinned commercial models. This implicitly drives home a message that “You need this to be like the fair woman on TV” or “You need that to be like the fair man in your newspaper ad.” And it works! The constant barrage of light-skinned propaganda propels the skin-whitening business to swell at a sinister 15-20% growth rate every year in South Asia. Of course, the dark irony of the situation is that the media industry grows fatter by simultaneously inflaming our skin-based insecurities and then by selling us what they deem the solution, cancerous bleach that is the dermatological equivalent to “paint stripper.

And just like most wrongdoings, Bollywood is not innocent. As an industry, Bollywood has expansive cultural influence and is intricately woven into the South Asian narrative. However, for an industry built for a South Asian audience, Bollywood upholds and protects certain colorist principles that make it somewhat inaccessible for the rest of us. From appropriating South Indian culture (let’s not even talk about Chennai Express) to the lack of Northeastern representation entirely to widespread stereotyping, Bollywood regurgitates colonial-era standards of light-skin supremacy to such an extent that even successful actresses fall victim to the industry, undergoing skin lightening treatments and other procedures to attain more Anglo features because to play the Juliet in any Bollywood movie necessitates having glowing, scrubbed white skin. 

Additionally, when you have Priyanka Chopra taking on the role of Mary Kom from the Northeast or Akshay Kumar playing Arunachalam Murugunantham and Mathunny Mathews from the South, there is a systematic cultural hijacking that only further contributes to colorism in South Asia. The lack of representation is a problem itself, but the Bollywood belief that actors with deeper or different skin tones are not as easy to market as their lighter-skinned counterparts perpetuates a frustrating cycle where Bollywood rema
ins an exclusive, light-skinned club. Thus, we consume desi stories of heroes and heroines that feel unrelatable, and yet they are heralded as icons of India. And this is definitely in part of their socially desirable skin colour, and all the glamour it affords them. 

Oftentimes in the colorism discourse, our fingers point to the British. Of course, two centuries of white colonization would leave lasting wounds in the South Asian region; however, to describe colorism as a fight of the past completely disregards the impacts felt by us today. Colorism did not leave with the British. It is kept alive today by monied interests that profit from our anxiety associated with the baseless stereotypes associated with having darker skin. In South Asia today, colorism is upheld by local industries that buy into socially constructed beliefs that to be darker would mean a lifetime of bad luck. But the good news is that the very social beliefs that these industries use to turn a profit are beliefs held personally by all of us. Unlearning generations of these beliefs is difficult, but it is not impossible. And progress alone would compel those benefiting from colorism to rethink what they are carrying onto the future. And, well, wouldn’t that be lovely?

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

We have grown since then, putting out bimonthly issues (we are contributor powered: apply to write for our next one!), and weekly reviews of culture, and news that is important to us.

You can find announcements, more news, and get to know our staff on social media: give us a follow, and learn how you can get involved today!

We do not claim to speak for all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. We are just here to give them a place to speak for themselves.

We hope you’ll join us.

My Cart Close (×)

Your cart is empty
Browse Shop