American Renaissance

Color Complex in The South Asian Diaspora

Francis C. Assisi,

Jennifer Hochschild, a Harvard professor of government and Afro-American studies believes that skin color, rather than race, may be a better indicator of status in the United States.

In a talk May 6th 2003 at Stanford University entitled “The Politics and Morality of a Skin Tone Ordering,” Hochschild’s “strong” hypothesis was, in her words, that across races “the darker a person’s skin color, the lower he or she is likely to be on any scale of whatever is broadly perceived to be desirable in the United States.”

In other words, in America, one is still better off as a dark-skinned Hispanic than as an African American. And within these minority groups the less dark-skinned you are, the better off you are socially.

Now, according to three different studies conducted by Indian Americans in the U.S., skin color appears to have similar impact.

The Three Studies

Roksana Badruddoja Rahman of Rutgers University has completed an unusually interesting research study: The role of skin color among Hindu Indian women in New Jersey and how it affects their marriage choice. Sarita Sahay has looked into self-esteem and ethnic identity including attitude towards color among South Asian Canadian female students. And Zareena Grewal at the University of Michigan has studied the impact of color in spouse selection among the South Asian American Muslim community.

Rahman has examined the role of skin color in the Indian women’s concept of beauty and what it signifies as a status marker in the marriage market. Her hypothesis: that a larger proportion of lighter skinned women than darker skinned women feel beautiful and attractive. The study is one of the first to attempt to focus explicitly on the relationships between skin color and feelings of attractiveness and skin color and marriage marketability in the immigrant American Hindu Indian context.

Rahman’s conclusion is that “feelings related to beauty and attractiveness and marriage marketability are partially determined by the lightness of their skin.” And though her subjects are “Hindu Indian women” one can imagine that her findings are applicable to all women of Indian or South Asian origin.

The study assumes, first, that beauty and attractiveness are defined by skin color and, second, there is a link between beauty and attractiveness, and thus skin color, to marriage marketability. Rahman observes the wide popularity of hair and complexion lighteners among South Asians (living in and outside of South Asia), predominantly among women, which she says is symbolic of the high value placed on light skin tone.

Rahman cites South Asian magazine advertisements for cosmetics and bleaching creams, such as Fair & Lovely Cream and Vicco Ayurvedic Cream, that are similar to advertisements targeted towards black American women.

The mother of all fairness creams on the subcontinent, Fair & Lovely, was developed and launched by consumer goods giant Hindustan Lever in 1976. Fair & Lovely’s reach has extended beyond India. Today it is marketed in over 38 countries and has become the largest-selling skin lightening cream in the world, but its biggest customer concentration remains in South Asia itself. Hindustan Lever, though one of the first to capitalize on the business opportunities inherent in Indians’ obsession with skin color, is no longer the only company successfully selling bleaching agents in South Asia. Its army of competitors has grown to include CavinKare’s Fairever, Godrej’s FairGlow, Enami’s Gold Turmeric and Naturally Fair, Revlon’s Fair & Glow, and many, many more. It is estimated that fairness products as accounting for up to 40 percent of profits earned by the entire cosmetic industry.

In her study, Rahman draws upon literature about the role of skin color in the lives of Hindu Indian women in India and black women in the United States to develop a framework for understanding skin color and its impact on U.S. first generation immigrant Indian American women in the marriage market. She then goes on to conduct extensive interviews with Indian American women in New Jersey — that area being chosen because it has one of the fastest growing South Asian populations.

Rahman argues that the politics and implications of skin color in Indian community and among black Americans are extraordinarily similar, and the strict juxtaposition of black and white works well in understanding the implications of skin color and the definition of beauty among black Americans, Indians in India, and Indians living in the U.S.

Rahman points out in her study: “I find three major commonalties between Indians and black Americans in general. First, both race and caste are systems of social closure. Second, black women in America and Indian women’s bodies are sexualized and racialized in a similar manner. And third, skin color and other facial features play a significant role.”

Thus the message relayed to the women of both cultures is that light skin is more attractive (especially to men) than dark skin, and both, internalizing the “ivory skin model”, go to great lengths to alter their phenotypic features.

Zareen Grewal’s study in Michigan shows that many South Asian Muslim immigrants covet whiteness. As informant Rashid says: “I have an aunt that’s darker than, you know, dark (loudly) and she [wants to] be white. I said, “Sarah Auntie, you must be out your mind.” But that’s [her] mentality. . . It’s [a kind of] racism but I can deal with it. It’s not Islam.”

Notice that Rashid disapproves of his aunt’s desire for the security and privilege associated with whiteness but frames his unsympathetic critique in religious terms. However, many Muslim immigrants believe that strategy is not an option for them due to the current racial climate in the U.S. and the prevalence of anti-Muslim sentiments. Therefore, they often identify themselves in other ways.

Nasir, a twenty-two year old from New York has this to say of his preference for fair skin: “Would I personally be attracted to lighter-skinned Desi girls? Of course. I mean, it’s natural to find those girls more beautiful, to tell you the truth.”

Sahar, a nineteen-year-old Desi from New Jersey, bemoans the plight of the single girl deemed unattractive: “If a girl has a major flaw, she’s just stuck. It’s sad but . . . in society, if a girl is extremely overweight or extremely underweight, if she’s very, very dark complected. These are all physical things, just physical abnormalities.”

Grewal has noted in her study that ‘particular physical qualities are always fetishized in constructions of beauty. However, in these communities, the stigma attached to dark color intersects with broader racial discourses in the U.S. That’s why a Desi mother of three daughters in their twenties, explicitly refers to dark coloring as a physical abnormality and deficiency.’

As another informant, Sultana, says: “Well, in [South] Asian communities, because there are so many shades, most everyone prefers light skin. And if they are dark, they have to at least be charming and pleasant looking. If they are not, then they are in big trouble. And it is much, much worse here than in India and Pakistan because over there if you are ugly . . . if you have any kind of deficiency than at least you can make it up with money. “O.K. my daughter’s not beautiful, but I can give you a house.” But here no one needs money. They all have money and so they can’t compensate deficiency with money. See, we parents are afraid [of our children marrying dark skinned mates] because, if not for this generation, then the next generation, our grandchildren. Because dark color is dominant over light color . . . and the children will carry the dark color [because it] is a dominating feature . . . and it stays over the generations.”

Twenty three year old Asma, expresses her frustration: “I know people see me as dark, and I know people don’t ask me [for marriage] because of that. And I want to marry a professional person, so it’s hard.”

Twenty-one-year-old Zainab feels discriminated against because she is Indian American: “Everyone thinks Pakistanis are light and Indians are dark. For instance, I had a [doctor-suitor] once and he actually said to me, “Pakistani women are more beautiful than Indian women.” I was like, “You jack-ass, I’m Indian.”… Some people only propose to me because I’m light. Once someone asked me if I bleached [my skin] because how could I be so light naturally, being Indian.”

Rasheed, who has this to say about Indian and Pakistani women, challenges the color code but turns when confronted on his own complexion: “You see Muslim women bleaching their skin, all this. It’s mental sickness. Personally, me, I don’t find that attractive. To me, be yourself … On weddings Indians, Pakistanis put [on] that white [make-up]… One sister even told me, “Rashid, you’re too dark for me.” And, I was like, “What? Well, O.K., sister, but I’m still lighter than you, sister.” … It’s not Islam.”

Like Rashid, Sahar is conflicted about color. She admits being tempted to alter her appearance but her religious convictions prevented her. “Aunties, in general, make you feel less pretty if you’re too dark. I mean, I guess I’m medium-dark. And, I know people bleach and get colored contacts and stuff and it looks good and you think about it. But it’s fake and I hate that fake stuff. This is what God gave you.”

Nineteen-year-old Yasmeen’s critical reflection invokes the culture/religion opposition. “Every culture is into … white skin … I don’t care what they think. Why should I change what Allah gave me? Just because of what some stupid society thinks? So, no, I’m not going to dye my hair or get contacts or any of that stupid stuff. That’s wrong. You should do what’s Islamic, not what’s cultural and its sad that people feel pressured into that. They should get stronger [faith].”

Regardless of whether color does or does not partly determine an individual’s ability to be considered for marriage, the anxiety about complexion expressed by some of the young women certainly is real.

In the final study by Sarita Sahay and Niva Piran, authors of Skin-color preferences and body satisfaction among the South Asian-Canadian and European-Canadian female university students, they find that second generation South Asian women (in Canada), like their counterparts in South Asia, equate light skin with beauty.

Skin color is a trait germane to the experience of racism by all minorities. However, in the case of South Asians in America, they are simultaneously victims and perpetrators. As perpetrators, their racism is contingent upon a light skin ideal.

True, light skin has implications for social status among both men and women, but nowhere is it of more consequence than in the commodification of female attractiveness. This celebration of fairness as a feminine virtue is not new in South Asia’s patriarchal history, but what is shocking is the extent to which it continues today even in the diaspora.

As many Desis leave their home countries for the US, their intra-racist ideologies emigrate with them and are reinforced and transformed by the racial climate in the U.S. Sultana, an immigrant from India, explains how ideologies of color are reformulated in a society with a white majority: “Most [Desis] are samla, neither dark nor fair. So what is fair over there might be samla over here. Like, in India, you would be very fair, but here you won’t because of the white Americans. So it depends on the comparison.”

Sultana explicitly refers to white Americans as the standard to be measured against. Interestingly, although most Muslim immigrants in these communities construct whites as racially different from them, for some, like Sultana, whites remain the point of reference. For others, the ability to “pass” as white informs their color preferences.

The stigma of dark skin and the preference for light coloring are coded racially as immigrants assess their status as minorities in the U.S. and the benefits of “passing” as whites. The fetishizing of light skin is related to the broader racial climate of the U.S., where minorities from South Asia regularly experience discrimination. In other words, color-coded intra-racism is simultaneously a self-destructive internalization of white supremacy and a strategy for surviving it.

As scholars such as Grewal, Rahman and Sahay do research on their own cultures, it is important not to overlook the role played by color in current power relationships. That’s one way to combat racism from without, and within.