One Woman’s Tale of a Lifetime of Discouraging and Demeaning Encounters with the Complexities of Complexion
By Anu Kumar, Paris
I clearly remember my first college band camp. I felt so nervous and excited during freshman orientation. Rehearsals were held outside in the hot sun; daily we were told to drink water and use sunscreen. I felt exhilarated when I earned a spot in our pregame and first halftime show. Yet when I saw my parents a few weeks later, their only reaction to my transformative experience was that now I looked “too dark.”
This experience is widespread. Nina Davuluri, the 2014 Miss America and the first of Indian descent, wowed audiences worldwide and won the coveted title. The next morning, she saw articles with titles like “Is Miss America Too Dark to be Miss India?”
A recent article by Sameer Yasir and Jeffrey Gettleman in The New York Times reports that Christy Jennifer, a producer with a Chennai media house, was traumatized by color prejudice all during the years she was growing up in South India. Classmates teased her for her darker skin, friends and family told her never to wear black, and she was constantly advised to use skin lightening creams. “Colorism, the bias against people of darker skin tones, has vexed India for a long time. It is partly a product of colonial prejudices, and it has been exacerbated by caste, regional differences and Bollywood, the nation’s film industry, which has long promoted lighter-skinned heroes,” the article states.
Colorism—color prejudice—is not unique to India, of course; it is even more famously an issue in America. Directed there most viciously at African Americans, it also affects any ethnicity of color. Remy, a first-generation Asian-American, remembers that even as a young boy, family members would make complimentary remarks about Filipino actors and actresses who had light skin while speaking slightingly of their darker-skinned counterparts, who were used as comic relief pieces.
Dark-skinned individuals face a devastating spectrum of hardships and discrimination in the South Asian community: derogatory comments from friends, relatives, mentors and future employers; rejected marriage proposals; bullying; receiving “gifts” of skin-bleaching products—and on and on.
When we understand the survival value of dark skin to peoples from hot climates, the idea of bleaching our skin to be more accepted and valued becomes abhorrently dystopian and the opposite of wisdom.
Evolutionary Purpose of Skin Color
Skin color is an evolutionary adaptation that has allowed humanity to survive and thrive in widely varied areas of our planet. Dark skin functions as a natural sunscreen, helping to prevent the DNA damage that can be caused by exposure to excess sunlight and its destructive UV radiations.
Looking back to the origins of Homo sapiens, there are a few possible evolutionary models. In the “Out of Africa” model, we originated in equatorial Africa, an area of intensely strong sunlight. In such a climate, dark skin reduces mortality by protecting against severe sunburn, skin cancer and even genetic damage.
As time progressed, various groups migrated to different lands around the globe, where they faced different food, terrain and exposure to sunlight. Nearer to the planet’s poles, where sunlight is weaker, dark-skinned people did not receive enough vitamin D, which sunlight provides. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to mortality, partly because it increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes. In such areas, skin color gradually evolved to become lighter because, like any physical characteristic, it is based on one’s genes and genetic mutations.
Genetic mutations actually occur by random chance. Some are deleterious, others are neutral and a few prove to be highly beneficial. The beneficial ones reduce mortality, giving a better chance to survive and pass on one’s genes—in this case, depending on location, genes for darker skin to protect against damaging sunlight, or genes for lighter, more sun-sensitive skin that can produce sufficient vitamin D from weak sunlight. In this way, the percentage of genetically adapted individuals in a population increases over ensuing generations.
This line of thinking makes sense regardless of which migration and evolution model we follow. Someone born with light skin in a place of intense sunlight has a much higher risk of skin cancer, because they cannot handle the heavy UVA and UVB radiation. Likewise, someone born with darker skin in a weak-sunlight area cannot make enough vitamin D. Changes in skin color, therefore, are driven by population migration, due to natural selection. Such changes have evolved several times over the course of human history.
The genetic factors affecting skin pigmentation involve many different genes and molecules. For many European populations, differences in the MC1R and SLC24A5 genes lead to lighter skin. Humans have invented sunscreens to protect against heavy sunlight. But we’ve also invented skin bleaching creams to suppress the natural melanin pigment produced in the skin. These creams can target various enzymes and other molecules involved in pigment generation. In using these, people are suppressing a protective mechanism that evolved to make sure we survive and thrive in our environments.
The Increasing Wish for White Skin
As humans, we desire to belong to a group. From an evolutionary perspective, group membership increases our chance of survival. Our need to be part of a community influences our behaviors and choices, including the use of skin bleaching creams. These products exist only because of people who shame others for having dark skin and profit from their social ostracization and insecurity. This creates a never-ending loop of harmful implicit bias. Someone excluded from a social circle or rejected from a potential relationship because they are dark is incentivized to bleach their skin in the attempt to be accepted or find a match.
Most of our biases exist to protect our own in-group, a group we identify with in some way. Groups range from simple to complex, such as alumni of a particular university or a racial-cultural group. Our biases, both implicit (unconscious) and explicit (conscious), can reinforce each other, trapping awareness inside this negative feedback loop of thoughts.
Advertisers deliberately use, and even strive to create and magnify, our biases. For instance, they use celebrity endorsements to help sell products. Our positive associations with the celebrity are transferred to the product, and often even to the brand. If we already have an implicit bias, a celebrity endorsement can reinforce that bias and create new behaviors associated with it.
Here’s the scenario: a group of influential people, such as highly admired celebrities or community leaders, state (or just imply) that people can gain success and respect by lightening their skin. Messages of this nature from such high-ranking individuals can influence people to use skin-bleaching cream in hopes of gaining success and respect. Each person doing so begins to subtly disassociate from those who do not, thus solidifying the in-group vs. out-group mentality. “Wait, you’re not using a skin lightening cream? But you’re so dark, and all of these famous people say you’d be more attractive and successful if you used them!”
Those who use the skin bleaching cream are following the social protocol, and therefore deemed worthy of respect. Those who do not are seen as the out-group. We conform to increase our social survivability, not to meet any primary need like food, water, shelter or safety. We will go to great lengths to avoid being socially ostracized.
The Dark Side of Light
People of other cultures can have difficulty understanding the deep roots of this perspective in our culture. Thus, immigrants from India and Sri Lanka can be complimented on our skin tone by people who don’t realize we are reprimanded for the same thing in our own community.
Audrey Noble notes this in her article about colorism in Medium, quoting a podcast interview with Joanne L. Rondilla, assistant professor of Asian American studies at San Jose State University. Rondilla explains the gap in cultural understanding: “Skin isn’t just skin…Skin has social and racial, historical, political and sociological meaning. When someone says, ‘Oh, I love your tan, I wish I had tan skin like you,’ that person doesn’t understand the historical trauma that comes from the skin itself…”
Lindsey Lazarte, a first-generation Filipino American, notes a cognitive dissonance in Westerners who enjoy being tan, yet are uncomfortable with people of color. In her Medium article, she notes white Americans want to be tan, but wouldn’t want to be a minority. She says while her family in the Philippines wanted to be light-skinned, her friends aspired to bronze tones. “And what I wish my friends understood when they used to tell me, ‘I wish I could be as tan as you!’ is that for some people, it’s merely about skin color, but for others it’s about race.” She adds, “I wanted to tell them that I wasn’t trying to be tan—that’s just how I look.”
On the opposite end of skin bleaching, light-skinned Westerners have an obsession to be tan which parallels the obsession to be fair. In both cases, this can be related to social status. Instead of wanting light skin so they won’t look like outside laborers, Americans seek tan skin so it will appear they can afford to take a vacation and spend time out in the sun. But whether they lock themselves in a box and hit their skin with artificial UV lights, or put on a cream or oil that will slowly darken their skin color, I wonder whether this actually makes them feel good or whether they are simply bowing to societal pressures. While I acknowledge that everyone has the right to bodily autonomy, this parallel to Fair & Lovely does not sit well with me.
The traumatic and horrific incident of George Floyd’s death in the United States has served to amplify the conversation about colorism and racism, including skin-whitening products in the South Asian community. As the tone-deaf message of these products bounces in the echo-chamber that is a post-George Floyd world, activists are raising their voices and pointing to the elephant in the room inside so many South Asian households—how the skin-lightening industry fuels and propagates our community’s disdain for Black and African people globally. Skin color has been the cornerstone of racism and colorism for many, many years.
Many of our problems are human-made, especially things that stem from cognitive dissonance yet are accepted as “part of our culture.” Such judgments can be unintentional and unrecognized, an unconscious attitude or belief buried in the subconscious that affects how we behave towards ourselves and others. This is called an implicit bias, and it can occur in both positive and negative ways, including the obsession with fair skin. An explicit bias, on the other hand, is a known bias that people can actively pretend they don’t have.
The Blinkered Boundaries of Beauty
This photo says it all. The Times of India newspaper, part of the group that organizes the annual Femina Miss India contest, published this 2019 collage of 30 women, each representing an Indian state, and all uniformly fair-skinned. Anti-colorism activist Muna Beatty described Femina Miss India’s selection as a “copy-paste job,” with all contestants having the same long, dark hair and skin tone. She warned that such fair-skin bias could affect the mental health and self-esteem of darker-toned women in India, where the contentious issue of the treatment of women has become a nationwide debate. “You have youngsters, kids watching this and thinking to themselves, ‘If I don’t fit these criteria or this skin tone, then I’m not beautiful’ and… ‘I’m not good enough,’” she said. People on social media complained that the contestants did not represent the diversity and potential of Indian women.
Aurora Vision has teamed up with Nina Davuluri to create a compelling documentary about identity. It explores the complexities of skin color, diversity and human acceptance globally. You can watch Nina’s two-minute introduction to the project here: bit.ly/COMPLEXion
Giving your child a fairness cream because of their dark complexion displays an explicit bias. Unintentionally and unknowingly becoming more frustrated at a darker-skinned person who made the same mistake as a lighter-skinned person is considered implicit. But implicit biases do not manifest spontaneously; they must be introduced and nurtured. The implicit bias regarding skin color in South Asia was heavily influenced and reinforced by a long history of colonization and the colonizers’ public disdain for the Indian peoples. The seed for hatred of darker skin was planted and watered until its roots grew strong and seemingly unshakable, and to this day it is passed on from parents to their children. If a child is scolded for playing in the sun and observes his or her parents bleaching their skin and disrespecting darker-skinned people, that child will absorb the same attitude towards skin color.
Parallel Struggles: Black Hair
The tragic history of colonization traumatized generations of people to the point where we cannot appreciate the beauty of our natural skin tone. When African peoples were brought to the Western world through the transatlantic slave trade, they faced discrimination about their hair. Under the 1786 Tignon Laws in New Orleans, African women were legally forced to wear a headscarf or piece of fabric, known as a tignon, to cover their hair. Along with skin color, this identified them as part of the “slave class.” In the mid-1920s, Madam C. J. Walker, a Black woman, invented a hair-straightening comb which could remove the coils and kinks from their hair. This became understandably popular, since a straight, polished hair texture denoted middle-class status. To avoid at least some ostracism, African-American women rid themselves of a signature part of their race and culture. Hair discrimination persisted, however, as many employers demanded that their African-American/Black employees not wear their hair in traditional styles such as braids or cornrows. In the 1976 case of Jenkins v. Blue Cross Mutual Hospital Insurance, the Afro hairstyle was determined to be protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
The British held sway over India through trade and economic influence for 100 years, then militarily colonized the nation for another 100 years, finally leaving in 1947. But they left behind Western laws, educational systems and an anti-Hindu media, all of which still endure. Among their bequests are racist attitudes and a disdain for dark skin. For two centuries British administrators showed a clear contempt towards darker-skinned Indians, in government, education, business and public spaces like restaurants—barring them from entry. Conversely, the British Army, with their European skin tones, showed open favoritism towards light-skinned Indian soldiers, employing segregation tactics by treating them better. The subjugators’ unceasing public disdain for all Indian peoples eventually crushed the Indian psyche itself into adopting the British contempt for their natural colors, their religions and their culture.
Do Skin Lighteners Pose Health Problems?
A study by the world health organization found that 61% of women in India regularly use skin lightening creams. In a clinical setting, skin lightening agents are intended to treat dark spots, skin discoloration from hormonal changes or sunburn, etc. These products alter various aspects of melanin biosynthesis, or impact cells containing melanin, the natural skin pigment which absorbs 99.9 percent of UV radiation. Using these products is not without side effects. Overuse or misuse, such as attempting to lighten normal skin color, without medical supervision, can lead to unmanaged redness, rash, blistering, itching, scaling, peeling and discoloration. The side effects vary based on the product, frequency and duration of use, and of course the individual.
Some skin lighteners are sold over the counter and others only by prescription. Those based on compounds of natural origin like arbutin, glabridin, kojic acid, glycolic acid and ascorbic acid may present fewer reversible side effects. Other formulations contain potentially hazardous chemically designed ingredients such as hydroquinone, vitamin A derivatives and corticosteroids.
Women of child-bearing age, in particular, should never use skin lighteners without a doctor’s supervision. Clinical data show a link between some Vitamin A derivatives and fetal abnormalities. Anecdotal reports indicate the same danger from hydroquinone.
Be especially cautious about skin lighteners if you buy products manufactured in a country which lacks regulatory oversight, as many are formulated with toxic mercury containing compounds known for serious kidney and neurological toxicity. Many counterfeit formulations also exist containing heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury as contaminants with serious side effects.
Most counterfeit formulations also have undisclosed corticosteroids, which are associated with additional adverse effects such as acne, eczema, stretch marks, atrophy, excessive hair growth, impaired wound healing, as well as exacerbation of certain infections. Corticosteroids are absorbed into the bloodstream from our skin, and prolonged use might lead to hormonal changes, diabetes, hypertension, cataract and glaucoma sometimes even blindness.
Now comes the latest and fastest-growing fad—laser technology, with its attendant cost of $800 in India. It selectively eliminates melanin from the skin surface and has a litany of side effects. Even when successful, this treatment is temporary, since the melanocytes continue to produce dark pigment.
Now, in 2020, embracing your natural hair is fast becoming the gold standard. Social media has helped: natural hair products are advertised and popularized on Instagram, and users are sharing their personal acceptance journeys with their hair. Traumatic memories of social ostracization don’t vanish overnight, but this positive shift to self-love has been a breath of fresh air to many people. As Jemmar Samuels said to BBC Journalist Taylor-Dior Rumble, “I only started to like my hair when it was permed straight and I began to get compliments. I remember getting so upset every time I’d see new growth of my Afro hair coming through…That’s why discovering the online natural hair community was life-changing for me. I remember watching a hair tutorial and at the end of the video the woman said, ‘Love your hair.’ I used to think to myself, ‘Why would you say that?’ The whole concept was foreign to me, but I liked hearing it.”
Perhaps the South Asian community can take some pointers from the positive movement surrounding natural hair attitudes and style in the African community.
In the wake of police brutality against black people in the US, Uniliver’s staple product, Fair & Lovely, came under a torrential downpour of backlash from people around the world. Blamed for promoting anti-black sentiment, Unilever recently changed the product’s name to Glow & Lovely. A Unilever spokesperson claimed they are afraid to completely discontinue the product because people might use unsafe alternatives to bleach their skin, but I fear the name change is only skin deep.
I ask Remy, who like myself grew up with a multicultural identity, for his thoughts about moving forward. He emphasizes the cultivation of compassion and empathy when initiating conversations with close family members and friends. “Going into that type of conversation and changing that type of mentality does not come quickly, and it doesn’t come through force,” he says. “It comes with a lot of patience and empathy.” He explains much of the difficulty lies in the language barrier and the American cultural disconnect.
I asked Bettina Tauro, co-host of the NRI Woman Podcast, the same question. She pointed out that small changes can lead to significant shifts in thought. “We’ve heard many times over, ‘be the change you seek,’ and that’s probably the first step,” she says. “Be yourself, so the environment reflects you rather than you mimicking the environment. Find ways in your role as the teacher, director, leader, homemaker to encourage those whose lives you touch to take care of themselves physically, mentally, financially and emotionally.” The challenge is to redefine the world beyond any rigid concept of beauty.
Nina Davuluri, the first Indian-American Miss America, has been a driving force in understanding the “why” of colorism in Indian culture and in cultures around the world. Her current project, “COMPLEXion series,” focuses on individuals’ stories from around the globe about their experiences with colorism. Davuluri has also been speaking on Instagram and other platforms to educate and hold more conversations around this topic, using her visibility and reach to hold space for this conversation.
Tanning or lightening your skin should be a choice that you make because you want to, not because of pressure from family or community. This is easier said than done, because this mindset runs much deeper than the skin. It can span back generations of your parents being told to stay out of the sun, and their parents being told to drink milk and eat yogurt more often so that their skin will become lighter. But I believe we are experiencing the beginning of a mindset shift, of more questioning, of more solidarity and support amongst one another.
Our environment influences how we see the world, and we, in turn, impact our environment. There are many different cultures in India, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Everyone’s experience of discrimination based on skin color is unique. Many of us no longer live in our ancestral localities. Daily we encounter individuals of varied skin tones, from various cultures, with varied concepts of beauty. To understand the beauty of skin tone and the history behind its cultural implications, we must strip away our preconceived notions associating skin color with nobility or worth. People everywhere in the world are beautiful, in every shade they come in.
Anu Kumar is a recent college graduate and first generation American of Indian descent, born to Indian immigrants. Kumar graduated with a Bachelor’s in Neuroscience from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and is now working as a Lab Manager and Research Assistant at ICM, a brain and spinal cord research center in Paris, France. She also works as a freelance writer on a wide variety of topics, ranging from neurobiology to social justice issues. You may learn more about her writing projects on her website aneurokumar.tilda.ws or reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org for collaboration.