“Shadeism”: Lighter isn’t better

Cross-posted on my blog

South Asian culture reveres light skin. Television, radio, and newspapers are flooded with advertisements for skin whiteners and many salons specialized inskin bleaching (yuck). For many South Asian women, the quest for a lightcomplexion is crucial, taxing, expensive, and futile.

(Watch Fair and Lovely commercial)

As a South Asian woman, the lighter your skin the more beautiful you’re considered and the better marriage proposals you’ll get. A man has more chances of overcoming his dark skin if he is successful and wealthy but even then, his family will have high hopes of finding him a light-skinned bride.

I have the darkest skin in my immediate family. While my younger sister has very fair skin, my older sister and parents hardly look the stereotypical brown. I, however, am often mistaken for Mexican or immediately identified as Indian or Pakistan. My color ranges from a soft milk chocolate to a sun-kissed golden dark chocolate. I love my complexion and I love it even more over the summer when it inevitably gets darker. Like others, I tan on the beach and revel in newly my darker skin, courtesy of the sun.

I’m not some strange Pakistani anomaly, I was very lucky to have been raised in a family that didn’t care about my complexion and never once put me in a situation where I felt undermined, subhuman, or inferior simply because my skin is darker than theirs. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t see this strange form of shadeism from people outside my family.

I recall once a lady asked me if my sister and I had different fathers. She asked because ‘how come she has such light skin and you’re so dark?’

I’ve often been told by extended relatives to stay out of the sun lest my complexion got any darker (oh, the horror!).

I can’t reiterate how important it is that my family put no baring on the color of my skin; without their support and lack of interest in this matter, I don’t know if I would have grown up as confident as I am because I’ve seen what shadeism within families can do to a person’s psyche.

For example, a distant relative that shall remain unnamed also had the darkest skin in his family but unlike me, he was endlessly teased about it. I learned that as a child and a teenager, he would wash his face nearly 5-7 times a day and take scalding showers in the useless hope that, perhaps, it would lighten his complexion. He grew into an insecure and uncertain man with few successes and many problems. It would be presumptuous of me to conclude that these insecurities stem entirely from the endless teasing he faced in his youth, but I can’t help but wonder how things may have been different for him if his skin was lighter.

Similarly, I saw many jealousies surface among siblings where one had lighter skin and the other had darker skin. Sometimes, the lighter-skinned child received preferential treatment from the parents whereas the darker-skinned child was largely ignored. In one case, a girl that I know with an absolutely beautiful light coffee complexion spent much of her youth brooding over her much lighter-skinned older sister. In their case, over the years this jealousy seems to have subsided but much too often it takes on an uglier form when one sibling starts receiving marriage proposals and the other is left in the wind.

The topic of discrimination based on one’s complexion is hardly new and eye opening. The ancient Hindu caste system essentially divided Indians into prestigious and lowly categories based on their complexion, with the fair-skinned Brahmans at the top of the totem pole and the dark-skinned untouchables at the very bottom. This sense of discrimination was further solidified with the onset of European colonialism where, as always, whites dominated simply because they were white.

Even though my childhood is not plagued by memories of teasing and discrimination based on my skin color, it is hardly an issue I can ignore. In fact, nowadays, I find myself thinking about this more and more. You see, in all likelihood my children will be biracial (Caucasian and Brown) and therefore it is almost inevitable that my children will have greatly differing complexions. At times, I worry about any potential child that may have darker skin than the rest. Even though my significant other and I will go above and beyond to provide a safe and comforting home for our children, the world is cruel and some people in it are even worse. The idea of someone asking my future child questions like the ones I was asked makes my blood boil. But, alas, that is an issue I’ll deal with if it arises.

Though this issue is hardly addressed in the blogosphere or even in the media, a young woman in Canada has started a discussion on shadeism through a short documentary film appropriately titled, Shadeism.

The films description is as follows:

This documentary short is an introduction to the issue of shadeism, the discrimination that exists between the lighter-skinned and darker-skinned members of the same community. This documentary short looks specifically at how it affects young women within the African, Caribbean, and South Asian diasporas. Through the eyes and words of 5 young women and 1 little girl – all females of colour – the film takes us into the thoughts and experiences of each. Overall, ‘Shadeism’ explores where shadeism comes from, how it directly affects us as woman of colour, and ultimately, begins to explore how we can move forward through dialogue and discussion.

Watch the film here.

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