Colourism in the South Asian Community

Written By: Niroshini Mather

Now more than ever, the daily struggles faced by the Black community are being brought forward in light of the recent murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of the police. As a result, many of us have begun a much needed introspection to determine how, inadavertently or not, we have enforced the systemic discrimination of this vibrant community.  

Due to our stance as people of colour, the South Asian community has often disregarded their involvement in the discrimination against Black Canadians. How can you be part of the problem when you face some facet of the problem yourself? However, this perspective is severely flawed when recognizing the abundance of anti-black stereotypes and stigmas that have become entrenched in our community’s behaviors and thus make us just as complicit in the discrimination of the Black community. The dominance of colourism in governing South Asian beauty standards is just one example of such anti-black beliefs that continues to persist amongst our community members.

Colourism, a term originally coined by the American Novelist Alice Walker, is a form of prejudice stemming from flawed social implications attached to skin colour within the same race (“Discrimination Based on Colour”, 2020). In the South Asian community, light skin is seen as desirable, an image of beauty, while darker skin is viewed to be shameful, a flaw to be covered up. This distorted perception of beauty dates back to the beginnings of the caste system and European colonization. The wealthy spent more time indoors, preserving their skin tone, while the poor were left to work in the blazing sun. European colonization only reinforced the association of whitewashed features and skin colour with wealth and beauty over darker toned skin. 

It is naive to assume the issue of colourism is minimally present in South Asian communities in Canada. As a dark skinned girl growing up in Toronto’s Tamil community, I know too well how colourism ideals continue to dictate our community’s perception of beauty. There were constantly backhanded remarks, the “if only she was a few shades lighter”, or the persistent nagging to try the latest skin lightening fad. What is most frightening is how my younger self didn’t recognize how distorted this perception of beauty was. Rather, I assumed the association of beauty with light skin was a known fact, a universal standard on beauty and desirability. My naive acceptance can be explained by how entrenched colourism ideals are in our everyday life. In South Asian programming, there is at least one commercial advertising the use of lightening creams.The commercial always begins showing a depressed, darker toned girl who only achieves her greatest desire, whether it be a dream job or a knight in shining armour, after lightening her skin tone. The film industries in South Asian countries are also complicit in the promotion of this distorted perception of beauty by predominantly featuring fair-toned heroines while the darker toned women play the comedy piece or the faithful sidekick. Priaynka Chopra, an actress celebrated for her representation of the Indian community in Hollywood, has also been the face of these same advertisements promoting white washing and antiblack ideals. 

So now tell me, how is it not understandable for any young teen growing up amongst this culture to fall prey to beauty standards diminishing the desirability of darker toned skin? Would it not be reasonable to assume these distorted beauty ideals can then fuel a similar distortion in the perception of darker toned individuals, including the Black Community? 

One way we can help be allies to the Black community is by abolishing the stronghold of colourism over the South Asian community. First and foremost, we must recognize that we are, knowingly or not, fueling the problem by promoting beauty standards that encourage “whiteness” over all else. Without the recognition, any attempt to correct our biases/actions will be flawed from the start. Secondly, it is important that we take on an active role in calling out our community for reinforcing such racial biases when they occur. This not only includes confronting our friends and family but also extends to demanding industries with large platforms, such as the film industry, to recognize their involvement and change. Forcing our community to recognize how their actions/words can fuel to problem of systemic discrimination will hopefully spur change and growth.  

It is suffice to say that the South Asian community, through promoting colourism ideals, is complicit in the discrimination against the Black community. Having faced discrimination ourselves, we should not use this as an excuse to play innocent rather, our experience of a similar anger and fear should fuel us to fight harder for our peers. Absolving colourism within our community is a difficult, yet much needed, step towards becoming more constructive allies to the Black community. 

Resources: 

Discrimination based on skin color. (2020, June 27). Retrieved June 29, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discrimination_based_on_skin_color

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