How South Asians perpetrate discrimination against dark skin
The coronavirus pandemic continues but the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a police officer brought the world’s attention to something perhaps even more damaging and catastrophic in the long term than covid-19– the racial inequality pandemic.
The policeman has been dismissed from service and charged with manslaughter. But the way he ended a life– the nonchalant way he kneeled, hands in his pockets, on the prone, handcuffed George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds– speaks to an attitude that seeing the Black man as not quite an equal human being.
This is not a new phenomenon. George Floyd’s death is one event in a process that dates back centuries. It is rooted in the times of white slave traders who captured and sold African Americans, seeing them as less than human.
You don’t have to be a fan of the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali to appreciate his old interview clip raising, with wit and intelligence, basic questions about race. Such as why do paintings always depict Jesus and the angels as White? Or why Tarzan, the king of the jungle is white and why is chocolate cake called “devil’s” cake!
The murder of George Floyd has catalyzed #blacklivesmatter processions around the world, making me think about how the issue applies to our society in South Asia. The Western world is taking up the cause of discrimination mainly against the African-American race and police brutality against members of this race and the potential legal reform to resolve the issue.
When people in the region empathize with movements such as #blacklivesmatter, it may be worthwhile to look inwards self-critically, and ask themselves honestly what skin colour means to them. The other thing to do and what will have more impact is to try to change these ways wherever we observe them, particularly within our own circumstances; our homes, offices, family and friends
However, in the desi context this is a social rather than a legal issue, and hence more widespread and damaging for society. Anyone born with a dark skin will most likely be poor and disenfranchised. Throughout their childhood, looked down upon and teased as Kalu or Kali (black, male or female). In other words, an equal citizen in name only. In reality, the Indian subcontinent is far worse in terms of discrimination against dark skin than the USA or other places in the world.
An excellent video by the Indian-American standup comedian Hassan Minhaj being circulated on social media and Whatsapp groups hits home as he underscores the sad reality in the Indian subcontinent. He says “it’s bad to be black in desi culture” and that “we call black people kala– not in a good way”!
On the face of it, the complexion issue seems to be one that affects women more particularly in South Asia where being gori (fair) enhances marriage prospects. The social structure around marriage peddles the dream of being ‘white’ for girls to attract a Prince Charming.
Skin whitening face creams form the largest category of complexion-enhancing beauty products in the region, marketed by multinational as well as local companies. Over the years, as sales have risen, the unique selling proposition of skin whitening products, disgustingly remains the premise, that fairness of skin is what makes a person attractive.
However, the complexion issue is no longer a women’s issue. In recent years, with the rise of the ‘metrosexual male’, skin-whitening creams for men have also unabashedly entered the market, endorsed by cricket heroes like Shahid Afridi.
The popularity of skin-whitening creams is just the tip of the iceberg in a much wider issue that permeates across society and is very much a part of our social fabric. Take a sample across any city or locality even just within this land of the pure and you will find people with dark skins doing the most menial jobs. There are hardly any dark-skinned business executives or government servants or army generals or even doctors and engineers, compared to the number of dark-skinned cleaners, laborers, and drivers.
There is a historical stigma from our colonial past when united India was ruled by the British for nearly two centuries, and before that by light-skinned invaders coming from Central Asia, Persia or Afghanistan.
It may also go deeper than that with the caste system historically defining roles according to skin color─ the higher the caste, the lighter skin you would be. In this largely agricultural society, menial laborers work outdoors under the blazing sun. Only those belonging to the upper classes can afford to stay indoors, protecting their skin from the harsh weather.
Being fair skinned therefore reflects an economic advantage, with society divided into white and black, that is, the haves and the have-nots.
Whatever the reason, the issue is so deep-rooted in our society that there is no real chance of the Subcontinent finding a way out. There are more chances of success of #blacklivesmatter demands in USA since they are asking for specific changes in the law. I am not sure how the malaise in South Asia can be addressed through legislation.
So when people in the region empathize with movements such as #blacklivesmatter, it may be worthwhile to look inwards self-critically, and ask themselves honestly what skin colour means to them. The other thing to do and what will have more impact is to try to change these ways wherever we observe them, particularly within our own circumstances; our homes, offices, family and friends. In these times of the pandemic, when we have time to reflect, perhaps this could be the time for some new thinking to bring about social change. This is how the transformation begins.