India’s malicious melanin factor

While Indians complain about racism abroad, it is alive and kicking here too. see the way we colored people treat those who are dark-skinned, whether they are our own or from other countries

By Bikram Vohra

 MARIA is a pretty girl, What you call a bit of awright, In the shadows, you ken see She’d almost pass for wite (sic)

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t was in Cape Town that I read this observation, scrawled on a wall near the Sunday jetty entrance. My friend and poet Ernst, known in those days as a Cape Colored, pointed it out to me. It doesn’t change, does it, he said, not even in the new South Africa.

We have the same problem in India, I said, we hurt ourselves with equal dexterity.He would not believe it, said I was making it up, just to keep the conversation going. I said, in India, we start young, we tell kids not to go in the sun, especially if they are girls, we tell them no one will marry you if you are dark. I paint him this verbal picture of millions of little girls running scared, rubbing their tender skins like an army of Lady Macbeths washing, washing, washing to rid themselves of the tan, otherwise, it is straight to a life on the marital shelf.

He laughs because he thinks I am being funny. I tell him it is more tragic than he thinks because, when it isn’t legalized, the texture of prejudice can be far more insidious. Siblings are compared, the fairer brother or sister is extended privilege, often unspoken but always there, the other one, she’s a nice girl. Just a bit on the dark side.

I paint this verbal picture of millions of little girls rubbing their tender skins like an army of Lady Macbeths washing, washing, washing to rid themselves of the tan.


A brown and black nation using nicknames based on color—Inky, Blackie, Hubshi, Kaloo—a generation of teenagers spending pocket money on whitening creams that promise you a lovelier tomorrow, don’t you want to be fair and sunny and good-looking, fathers with marriageable daughters tossing in bed with worry and paying `22 per column centimeter for the classifieds section where their daughter is sanitized in skin color, a sort of wheatish complexion, the deliberate double “ish” a ringing testimony to the depth of the pigment. Which genetic forefather infested our family tree? Pencil companies selling crayons in which the light pink color is called “flesh”. In today’s liberal India.

Fair babies are better looking than dark babies, knead them with dough and rub the flipping pigment out, apply bleach, but get the melanin before it gets them.I tell him that fair Indians are about as bad as the most racist Afrikaners were and if an Indian married a black American, the ave-rage middle class Indian family would curl up and die in a corner of their home.

I said it happened to a friend of mine and he did not tell them whom he had married, so at Mumbai airport, the family having resig-ned themselves to sonny boy having plighted the troth with an American rather than one of their own creed, sought sanctuary in the fact that there was some tangible social signi-ficance to being a westerner. They all dressed up and fetched up at flight time and suddenly, this gorgeous, bronzed black American girl flung herself full-length on the arrival floor, having been informed by her husband that Indian brides did this sort of thing when meeting their in-laws. The in-laws were horrified. They were deep into catatonic shock. How could their son do this to them?

I tell him the tragedy is the couple stayed five days of their one-month homecoming. The neighbors fell over with glee.


Africans being chased in Delhi metro

A racial attack on a group of Africans in a Delhi Metro station in September, 2014


I change tack and tell him how cruel it is, how lovely human beings, especially girls, are victimized in little ways and not so little ways and how, fairer progeny somehow get a better break on things. Even jobs. Fairer people just seem to be more visually acceptable. They sell the idea on TV. Famous film stars underscore your chances if you are fairer.

Aunts never tell them don’t wear green, you are too dark. Relatives don’t tease them and leave them introverted and bewildered and hurting. Friends don’t nickname them with spearing labels. Their self-esteem does not lie there mangled by insensitive and endless commentary.

Fair Indians are about as bad as the most racist Afrikaners were and if an Indian married a black American, the family would curl up and die in a corner of their home.

I tell him we spend a lot of time slagging off racism elsewhere. And even when we lea-rn of our history and the hurt we have cau-sed, we pretend not to hear it.I once had a good friend who was Ugan-dan. Whenever we went out together, shopkeepers, waiters, attendants, cab drivers would have that “you must be getting it” sne-er on their faces. She was a highly talented expert in nuclear medicine.

Nandita Das

Actor Nandita Das has taken to social media to popularize the “Dark Is Beautiful” campaign

Sure, we are afraid of what we don’t know and the prejudice is deep-rooted. Don’t go in the sun, no one will marry you. From childhood they warn us, they tell us that the fair shall inherit the earth, never mind the meek. Will no one rid me of this pigment, a million Lady Macbeths rubbing at the damn spot.


Part of it is subliminal. Language. Blackmail. Blackguard. Black-heart. Black deed. Brains whitewashed, the whole Pavlovian effect, see even the words reflect negatives. Yeah, but who made up the language? Black market. Black mark. Black is the poor, the servants, the servile, the bottom rung, hence the prejudice. The whole nine yards of inferiority.

We pontificate endlessly about being anti-discrimination and we discriminate the most. When the Commonwealth Youth team came to Delhi, all the whites were invited to Indian homes. The two blacks were invited to a coffee shop. Our most famous jail is called Kala Pani. In Gujarat, there is a village called Sirvan, where descendants of Africans have lived for centuries, but it rarely gets mention and its inhabitants live on the outside of Gujarati society. Most of India is unaware of this sociological anomaly. They are still referred to as Habshis (from the city of Habsha in Ethio-pia) and it is not a pleasant reference. Even Mahatma Gandhi had this problem with color. In a Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, a 2011 biography of the Indian leader by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joseph Lelyveld, the quotes are clear indictments.

Gandhi was a diehard supporter of India’s Hindu caste system, and allegedly, would never mix with a lowly group or caste, and Lelyveld lays out Gandhi’s unedited views: “We were then marched off to a prison inten-ded for Kaffirs [offensive term equivalent to the n-word],” Gandhi complained during one of his campaigns for the rights of Indians settled there. “We could understand not being classed with whites, but to be placed on the same level as the Natives seemed too much to put up with. Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized—the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live like animals.”

A contribution is made by racial profiling. It is a white man’s world. He wins the battles and the war is nowhere near over. The colonial rule perpetuated the chasm. Hollywood stereotyping has added to it. Pimps are black. Crooks are black. Drug peddlers are black. Black people are aggressive, they will hurt us so let’s hurt them first. They are criminals by perception. Even India’s cinema industry equates villainy with dark skins.


Much of it is ignorance and pre-conceived notions of who is what. So insidious sometimes that even colored people “suspect” oth-er colored people. Commercializing skin lightening products and using advertising to make them synonymous with success have an insidious impact on the mind. The colored are made to feel inferior.

Harvard professor Jennifer Hochschild says it brilliantly: “Skin color is associated with individuals’ preferences as well as their outcomes. With some exceptions, most Ame-ricans prefer lighter to darker skin aesthetically, normatively, and culturally. Film makers, novelists, advertisers, modeling agencies, matchmaking websites—all demonstrate the power of a fair complexion, along with strai-ght hair and Eurocentric facial features, to appeal to Americans. Complexion and app-earance are also related to how voters evaluate candidates and who wins elections.

“Given that skin color is connected with attitudes and life outcomes in myriad ways, one would expect it also to be associated with political beliefs and identities. To our know-ledge, almost no one has examined this expectation. We did so, and found a surprise: skin tone seems almost entirely unrelated to the political views of ordinary residents of the United States. We call this anomaly, the skin color paradox.”

Naomi Campbell

Western countries have learned to live with colored people and even accepted their special beauty, as exemplified by model Naomi Campbell


Then, we go back home, picking up another tube of complexion-lightening soap. Want to be fair and lovely? Yes.

Three Africans were attacked in New Delhi by a racist mob. At the metro. For no good reason. Dark skin be damned. We are bigots. Stop pretending we are not, you wheatish-complexioned brides, you hordes of idiot men buying skin fair cream. She is nice, but she is a little dark, mama, can we see the other girls.

That’s rich coming from a colored nation. It is this whole savage African continent thing, plus American slavery, plus hardcore advertising guilting a nation into bias. And our own deep desire to be white. Black people in Delhi pay a price. A fam-ous restaurant in Mumbai once put a ban on their entry. Too much stereotyping. Why are we so stupid?

Many of us, regardless of our skin color, have been victims of racism and inverse raci-sm where white people are targeted in an equally hostile and arbitrary manner. The sense of being humiliated and diminished is so strong, you almost feel violated. A restaurant tells you to go away because your dress code is inappropriate and you are stung by the fragile excuse. You are rejected from a job for which you are eminently qualified beca-use you don’t have the right geographical rooting. And people like us from colored countries make such a song and dance and demand correction. Then, someone from our tribe, from our ranks, goes and does something so socially obscene that all we can do at first is being offended.

Somewhere in the Asian psyche is a color consciousness that makes apartheid look like togetherness personified. The chairman of a newspaper once refused a job to a black Brit even though he was miles ahead of the rest of the candidates because who would “want to be interviewed by him?” When I protested as the editor, he said, “Noooooooooooo, he is not our type.” Two months later, I left the company after the bimbo we hired had arrived. Even HR companies keep this factor in mind under the unspoken conspiracy of “aesthetics.”


While we might express shock and dismay at this sort of gross prejudice, how much difference is there intrinsically when you compare it to the fact that IPL7 broadcast’s largest advertising contribution was from a monotonous and oft-repeated commercial on skin whitening cream with an emphasis on the dual power it had to lighten your skin tone and make you a happier person. Are these elements not all part of the same insidious links in the chain? Just because it isn’t so crass, it does not make the nexus any less insulting. If I was a dark-skinned player sitting in the dugout watching the telecast and having to suffer the insinuation that I am not as good as the fairer guy, would I not think, “Just a minute, why me?”

author Joseph Lelyveld

According to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joseph Lelyveld ,Mahatma Gandhi was a diehard supporter of India’s caste system and would not mix with a lowly caste. 

Indian law forbids discrimination on grounds of color. But the law offers little protection against barbed wire. And this is what it is. Racial slurring cannot be easily proven even though, paradoxically, casteist slurring can be. A PIL against a major company for promoting pink-colored lead pencils and skin-tone went nowhere very fast. A signature campaign against “fair is beautiful” advertising still languishes, even though 30,000 people demanded an end to such advertising. The biggest seller of fairness creams, Emami, is on record saying: “There is a market need for it, so we supply it.”

Officially, India has signed and ratified all the relevant conventions: the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimi-nation against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The jury is still out on how much protection they offer.

Can you go to court to fight against discrimination on color? Yes, you can. Will you win the case? Depends on what hue the judge is, but I have still to find a case study where somebody won a legal battle and damages for being color barred…or bruised. In Bangalore, an NGO started a Brown and Proud campaign. And that is just the point—the color of your skin is nothing to be proud about.

The writer is based in Dubai and has been the editor of various newspapers such as The Indian Express, Gulf News, Khaleej Times and Bahrain Tribune. He currently writes for numerous papers and websites.