Colorism in the S. Asian Community
by Noorhan Amani
Growing up in a South Asian community, I frequently heard comments about "forsha", or "lighter" skin, and "kaalo" or "darker" colored skin. On trips back home to Bangladesh, relatives complimented my "forsha" complexion, making me squirm uncomfortably. I didn't think much of it until I grew older, though, when I realized that lighter complexions were constantly being looked to as ideal, while darker skin tones were being degraded.
Colorism, which is defined as prejudice against individuals with a dark skin tone, among people in the same ethnic or racial group, unfortunately, is very much prevalent in the South Asian community. The exact origins of colorism in the Indian subcontinent are unknown. However, it can be attributed to many different reasons. In the pre-colonial era, the wealthy did not have to toil outside like the peasants and workers, and therefore often had lighter complexions. This led lighter skin to be equated with higher social castes and classes. After Europeans started colonizing the Indian subcontinent, they started enforcing the idea of themselves being the master race. This further led many South Asians to consider lighter skin and European-like features more desirable.
Today, though most of the South Asian population is tan colored or darker, in Bollywood and other film and modeling industries a sea of fair-skinned models and actors/actresses is seen. They often play the main roles in a movie or television drama, while those of darker complexions are left with trivial roles or the role of the villain, perpetuating stereotypes and discrimination.
Furthermore, in all of the South Asian countries, India, Bangladesh, or Pakistan, advertisements for skin-lightening creams, such as Fair and Lovely, are rampant. These ads often depict women who are unable to get a job or date at first, but when they use "Fair and Lovely", they become the talk of the town. Although they may seem harmless, these ads instill the fact in women's minds that they need to be fair skinned in order to be considered beautiful and successful.
Though colorism is pervasive in all aspects of society, girls and women are especially targeted by this hurtful system of discrimination. From childhood, girls are told not to play long under the sun by their elders because of the "risk" of becoming darker. In their adolescent and teenage years, girls with darker skin may be shunned from social groups and circles because they are perceived to be of a lower social caste or status. In adulthood, women with darker complexions are often rejected for marriage right away as they are thought of as less beautiful.
Currently, small steps are being taken to break the system of colorism in the Indian subcontinent. Campaigns such as Dark is Beautiful have recently been started to celebrate all skin tones. However, colorism remains entrenched in many South Asian families. Recently, I was told disapprovingly by some relatives that my skin had become darker. It made me feel a little more self conscious of my appearance, but it also made me realize, that as young women ourselves, we should try to protect the children and adolescents (who are especially impressionable) around us from the negative, and often harmful effects of colorism. We should remind them that beauty isn't skin deep, that the color of their skin doesn't determine their self-worth, and that there is no ideal skin tone or set of features.
Noorhan is a high school sophomore. She is the founding president of her school's Girl Up chapter, and is a member of several other clubs as well. She is passionate about female empowerment/education and STEM/science research. When she's not busy with school, she enjoys writing, photography, outfit-planning, and traveling with her family.