50 shades of brown: The continuing stigma surrounding skin colour in British Asian communities
The saying “Beauty is only skin deep” has yet to register with many British South Asians. The view that fairness is synonymous with beauty is often peddled in the UK’s Asian community and in most cases, it’s the girls who bear the brunt of such racial snobbery.
A typical case is that of 25-year-old Sukwindher Kaur. A primary school teacher from East London, her struggle to find a husband boils down to a simple, inescapable fact: that she is darker than most Punjabi people. She wasn’t the first person I spoke to, who revealed that colour has a strong bearing on Indian marriages and opened up about her insecure and self-loathing relationship with dark skin.
“I can’t recall the number of times I’ve applied different whitening creams to improve my marital prospects. The feedback I’ve received from the families of potential suitors is hurtful. Apparently, I’m not light enough.”
Her story is bound to strike a chord with South Asian women whose hopes for marriage have been dashed, simply for projecting a look that’s ‘blacker than your average’.
As much as I hate to admit it, colour prejudices are abound in Asian families and it’s not only when marriage comes knocking at the doorstep. I remember on a shopping trip as a child, a relative said to me, “You can marry anyone, so long as she’s not Jamaican-ish like that girl at the till”. Jamaicanish? Though I was 10, the very thought that a family member could spew such racist drivel left me writhing in fury.
For Sukwindher however, this kind of colour bias was a regular fixture from childhood to adolescence. No amount of moisturiser could ever hide the scars which the anxieties about her self-image created. Accustomed to the family disdain and school yard banter directed against her skin from as little as six, it was distressing to learn that she still harboured a shallow sense of worth for being, as she put it, “on the duskier side of brown.”
The perception that fair-skin is more socially advantageous is unfortunately an ingrained cultural norm which many South Asian households have failed to cut loose from. The stigma which persons of a ‘wheatish complexion’ carry often lead to them feeling ostracised from members of their own community. It has certainly left a huge dent on Sukwindher’s self esteem and she is now seeking dark-skinned males for the “perfect match”.
“If you’re always reminded how much darker you are compared to fairer friends and relatives, you eventually think nothing but a dark husband would do”.
Her account is no exaggeration. Asian Brits know all too well the extent to which the politics of colour factor in their family dynamics. It’s a cycle of discrimination rooted in village customs and imported by first generation migrants who perpetuate the same bias.
Seeing how deep-seated this discrimination is, it was with some relief that I learned a college in Southall was granting Asian students a platform to raise awareness about the devastating social implications of this kind of discrimination. Building on the momentum of India’s ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign, I spoke to sixth form student Manvir who told me that unless Asian girls take a firm stance against the “fair and lovely” craze, championing new notions of beauty would-be a pipe dream: “Many girls in my family, including me, have been taught to hate ourselves because we’re too dark to be attractive. Psychologically, it has been very damaging. It’s time we restore a more positive self-image among our peers so everyone’s skin tone can be celebrated”.
Having endured years of taunts from peers, Manvir has started a leafleting campaign on campus called ‘50 shades of Brown’, inviting fellow students to share similar experiences and challenge the “Bollywood narrative” according to which only fair-skinned heroines were the epitome of beauty. The inspiration behind her project was Indian actress Nandita Das, who recently criticised Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan for his role in an advertisement campaign for a skin-lightening cream. Manvir praised Nandita for not capitulating to the “beauty myths sold in the Asian film industy” before reminding me of the cultural double standard that caused her unbearable trauma.
Her confidence took a battering when her uncle advised Manvir’s father to consider a range of skin lightening options for the 18-year-old. As reluctant as her mother was at first, she eventually came round to the idea that the pain, cost and potential side-effects was worth the gamble, otherwise Manvir would struggle to attract a husband.
“I would hear my parents rowing over which dermatologists and cosmetic surgeons would offer the cheapest service while all I could do was look in the mirror and sulk”.
It’s unfair for any girl to be told she isn’t marriage material on the basis of looks alone and that the only choice available to her was melanin reduction or chemical peels. But Manvir’s newly found zeal has helped her to stop fussing over her looks and instead confront the double standards which have conditioned many girls from the subcontinent to apologise for their dark appearance. She’s also been spurred by the sheer number of Afro-Caribbean students on campus who have lent support to her project, having also been victims to similar racial hang-ups and messages of desirability that have persisted in their culture for decades.
“I can’t express how grateful I am to have the full backing of African students. We can all speak of similar pressures and it’s great to see them volunteering with designing leaflets and posters for the project”. She added: “It’s with this kind of collective spirit and effort that the long history behind people’s infatuation with the whiter shade can be challenged.”
While Sukwindher and Manvir’s stories are a depressing reminder of the long and cherished obsession with fairness among South Asians, it is encouraging to note how young girls who have lived through a colour complex are going against the grain by kick-starting their very own self-affirming movement.Tagged in: 50 shades of brown, Bollywood, dark is beautiful, fair and lovely, racism, Shah Rukh Khan, skin lightening
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