On racism and skin color

A SYTYCB entry

A school in Prescott, Arizona has a mural on one of its outside walls and the principal asked the artists of the mural to lighten the skin color of the children depicted.

Sadly, this did not surprise me. Racism may not be like it was 40 years ago, but racist values are so tightly woven into society that we don’t even recognize them most of the time. But you have to go beneath the surface and keep digging to see that we still hold racist values; skin color is one example.

I think that of the two genders, women are the underdogs in most cultures. But feminism cannot be examined without the issue of race. As such some of the biggest and recent scholars in the psychology literature actually stress the importance of examining the intersectionality of race and gender, not gender alone. Women certainly are expected to maintain a certain physical look, bodily ideal, in all cultures much more than men. In addition, women in non-Western cultures have to deal with being expected to have light-colored skin. When I was doing volunteer work in Ghana, we noticed that the people on the billboards had lighter skin, and someone had told us that darker-skinned Ghanians didn’t make it in their mainstream media. Many Asian Indians avoid fun activities like hiking because they don’t want to tan their skin. I’m not kidding.

Racism is embedded so deeply that we consciously think we’re not racist when on some level, we all are. Even someone like me, an ethnic minority in the U.S. Let me explain. Back in college a friend of mine recommended that I buy a shade of foundation that to me, appeared to be too dark and not match my skin tone (and another friend agreed with me about that later). I was offended. Lately I’ve been asking myself why. I think there are many layers as to why. One, I felt misunderstood and not acknowledged by someone who was supposedly a friend; she assumed I had dark skin just because I’m from India without really noticing that my skin is not as dark and that I just tan easily in the summer. Another layer beneath that is that I was hurt that she didn’t trust that I knew my own skin tone. And perhaps the deepest layer, if I’m being totally honest with myself, is that I secretly liked being “the fair skinned one” in my family and didn’t like being considered as having dark skin. And being from a traditional Hindu family where dating is taboo and marriages are arranged in-part by looks, you can see how I’d been conditioned to value my lighter skin.

Yes it is too bad, but there it is. And it would certainly be hypocritical if Americans said that that aspect of the Indian culture is messed up, because look at what happened in Prescott. Or having mostly skinny, light-skinned, women doing make-up commericals. Or having make-up commercials period. Or almost all popular sitcoms having mostly all White folks. And all of them look similar with similar clothes and similar haircuts. And we celebrate diversity how?

I think if we really face how we are not immune to influence of the racism woven into our society, then it won’t be such a monster for us and can help us to have a deeper level of self awareness. This in turn can cultivate deeper relationships with others. Being honest with myself on my view of my own skin color was hard, but I’m proud of the courage it took.

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