Colourism in South Asia: a neo-colonial quest for profit?
Image: Rachael Banks

When talking about internalised racism, how often does colourism come to your mind? Colourism can be described as a form of discrimination within a racial or ethnic group against people of dark-skin complexion, which is centred around favouring lighter skin. This form of prejudice massively impacts the youth of South Asia, in countries such as Bangladesh and India. While their economies certainly benefit from commercialising and idealising ‘light skin’, powerful Western countries play an equally insidious role for their own benefit. 

However, in order to understand the effects of colourism, we need to understand its causes: where does India and Bangladesh’s obsession with fair skin derive from? The answer is in part, unsurprisingly, colonialism. The romanticisation of light skin, which flourished at the height of British Imperial rule, has also permeated into Bollywood’s own modus operandi.

How does the colonial history of India and Bangladesh act as a foundation for facilitating colourism over the years?

Let us take a step back in history and consider how the colonial history of the country acted as a foundation for perpetuating colourism in the market. After having ruled over India for 200 years, the British Empire left the country in 1947 – only 73 years ago. The harmful dictatorship of the British Empire has scarred the South Asia countries of India and modern-day Bangladesh. The idea that the light skinned men are superior remained.

There are indications that the Aryan race (from Euro-Asian regions) that invaded India derogated the native Indians (Dravidian race) as “Dyasus” for being dark-skinned. The dark-skinned people were the indigenous Dravidian race. Following British colonial rule, the nuances of colourism were translated into the appropriated model of the caste system in India. The lowest caste, the Dalits, were labelled as “untouchables”, and were often associated with characteristics such as having dark skin, which was considered unfavourable. This was perpetuated over the centuries with various conquerors, such as the ‘Mughals’, and finally the British (Nitti, 2019).

As the British ruled India, they treated Indians accordingly to their skin colour. The lighter complexion of an Indian would determine if they received any benefits, such as education and employment. Dark-skinned Indians were typically seen as being of a  lower caste, and were discriminated against both socially and economically. Typically, dark-skinned people were given jobs involving manual labour which meant that they were predominantly outdoors, and the Indian sun tanned them more. This discriminatory legacy that began many 200 years ago is embedded in an institutionalised economic structure.

Colourism has allowed hatred towards dark skin complexions since the ruling of the British Empire, which is usually expressed in verbal assaults, bullying and sometimes physical harm that can impact a person’s self-esteem. As a result, both young men and women consult skin lightening products and laser treatments to suppress the production of melanin and, in a less extreme scenario, they refuse to be under direct sunlight to preserve their fair skin complexion or to avoid getting tanned.  

Despite the end of British rule in India in 1947, colourism has left an enduring mark on South Asian society. The stigma attached to dark skin operates on many stereotypes, such as: dark-skinned people being poor, uneducated, unintelligent, and generally seen as antithetical to conventional beauty standards. 

The dangers of skin bleaching

Since 2001, the ingredient hydroquinone has been the most frequently used in skin lightening products.  Hydroquinone hinders the production of the colour pigment melanin and so skin colour reduces. Melanin is vital for us as it can help protect oneself against the UV radiation.  Hydroquinone is not the only illegal substance in Europe and the UK, as other substances  include mercury and some steroids. London Trading Standard  (LTS) has investigated what ingredients are illegal (2014- 2018). In a table involving the data collected, LTS reveals the brands, the product names, a photo of the product, the ingredient making the changes and lastly the LTS reference/source/date. However, the table does not have all of the illegal ingredients.

The UK, along with Italy, are the biggest exporters of these products. It is illegal to sell them or import these products in the UK. Shop owners can be fined or prosecuted for selling these harmful products. 

However, it is questionable why  there is no law against the manufacturer and export of these substances in the UK. Since 2002 the council of Southwark managed to get 50 companies and 25 individuals that were based around East London to the court. In 2018 the total fine was £442,000.

The skin lightening business is estimated to be around 10 billion dollars globally. (Bathia, 2017). Primarily, Western countries benefit from promoting ‘fairness and beauty’ to South Asian countries such as Bangladesh and India. For example, Unilever, a British-Dutch consumer goods enterprise whose net worth is estimated at $91.53B (as of 12th June 2020), is the producer of one of the most infamous and notorious products called ‘Fair and Lovely’, which is estimated at  270 billion rupees ($4 billion) in India alone (Reuters, 2017). 

‘Fair and Lovely’ has recently been rebranded to ‘Glow and Lovely’ due to pressure resulting from the recent Black Lives Matter protests, which led to activists calling out brands for allowing colourism to be perpetuated, ‘Fair and Lovely’ being one of them. However, renaming the brand could be seen as performative activism as changing the name does not change the principle behind it. It still remains a skin bleaching brand.

Given the fact that Unilever owns around 400 businesses, such as Magnum, Dove and Tipton to name a few, is it appalling that 4.37% of their revenue derives from the skin lightening business of ‘Fair and Lovely’. This demonstrates how big and prevalent colourism is still in South Asia, as their first product was put in the market in 1975 and is still being purchased by a large Bangladeshi and Indian demographic.

The table below, which we personally compiled with data gathered from various sources, shows how affordable the products are even for those who are in a lower socio-economic group.

S. NoProduct NameProduct Weight (in grams)Product Cost in INRProduct Cost in UK Pound Sterling (Exchange rate as on 16.6.2020)
1.Fair & Lovely Advanced Multi Vitamin Face Cream110 gm174.001.81
1.Fair & Lovely Advanced Multi Vitamin Face Cream80 gm148.001.54
1.Fair & Lovely Advanced Multi Vitamin Face Cream50 gm95.000.99
1.Fair & Lovely Advanced Multi Vitamin Face Cream25 Gm53.000.55
1.Fair & Lovely Ayurvedic Care80 Gm185.001.92
1.Fair & Lovely Ayurvedic Care50 gm124.001.29
1.Fair & Lovely Sun Protect SPF 30 Face Cream50 Gm120.001.25
1.Fair & Lovely Multi Vitamin Cream Pump Tube SPF 1550 Gm155.001.61
1.Fair & Lovely Winter Fairness Cream80 Gm165.001.72
1.Fair & Lovely BB Cream40 Gm178.001.85
1.Fair & Lovely Anti Marks Treatment Face cream25 Gm120.001.25
1.Fair & Lovely Advanced Fairness Facewash 100 Gm108.001.12
1.Fair & Lovely Advanced Fairness Facewash25 Gm71.000.74
1.Fair & Lovely Ayurvedic Care Facewash100 Gm130.001.35
1.Fair & Lovely Ayurvedic Care Facewash50 Gm70.000.73
1.Fair & Lovely Max Fairness Facewash80 Gm100.001.04
1.Fair & Lovely Men Anti Marks Fairness Cream25 Gm69.000.72
1.Fair & Lovely Men Oil Control Facewash100 Gm127.001.32
1.Fair & Lovely Instant Fairness Rapid Action Facewash50 gm85.000.88
1.Fair & Lovely Advanced Multi Vitamin Soap125 gm150.001.56
1.Fair & Lovely Instant Glow Home Facial Kit5-piece set134.001.39
1.Fair & Lovely Moisturising Face Lotion50ml 99.001.03
 (Data taken from Amazon.com, Nikaa.com and flipkart.com)

In India, although body positivity and self-acceptance have become more common with movements such as Women of Worth (founded by Kavitha Emmanuel) that fight against India’s bias towards fair skin, sales of skin lightening products are on the rise as ‘the “fairness market” generates sales of around $432 million and it is growing annually by 17 percent.’ (Bathia, 2017). Considering the statistics, in a fight against colourism, the oppressors are winning – the oppressors being large enterprises taking advantage of the issue of shadeism in South Asia for profit. Unfortunately, as skin lightening products are of large demand, ‘global spending on skin lightening is projected to triple to $31.2bn (£24bn) by 2024’ (Abraham, 2017).

What role does Bollywood play?

In order to aid their sales in skin lightening products, Garnier, L’Oréal, and Ponds have previously recruited two of the highest paid Bollywood actresses to promote their skin lightening products: Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra.  Deepika Padukone earns around $202,041 per film, whereas Priyanka Chopra earns around $173,178 (in Bollywood) (Santoreneos, 2019). Both Bollywood stars are considered to be fair skinned, and given their large following and influence, it is concerning that this is a precedent set for many young Indian and Bangladeshi youth. 

Not only do these celebrities have a presence in India, but they are well-known  amongst the South Asian community worldwide. Given the lack of South Asian representation in Hollywood, these celebrities often function as the poster representation for South Asians world-wide.  This is particularly problematic, because not only does it erase the visibility of dark-skinned South Asians, it also (wrongly) establishes light skin as a criterion for beauty and success. 

In recent years, Priyanka Chopra has entered the world of Hollywood, which reinforced the idea that any South Asian girl can be successful in the Western world if they work hard –  and, preferably, if they have fair skin. Therefore, it is evident that over her career Priyanka Chopra has benefited from light-skin privilege. 

In a Youtube documentary named ‘Why India’s Fair Skin Business is Booming’, VICE News (a current affairs channel focusing on exploring “under-reported stories”) interviews two models working for a clothing brand selling Indian clothes. However, both (unnamed) models are Ukrainian. They claim the Indian media does not like to portray Indian women because their skin is too dark for their preferences. 

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Image: pixabay.com

Consequently, Bollywood casting directors, such as Sohail Siddiqui, are instructed to cast light skin actors and actresses as the heroes in their movies, whereas dark skinned actors often portray the antagonist of such heroes. These ‘antagonists’ are often of big stature, tanned and what casting directors would describe as ‘plus size’. Inevitably, this reinforces the idea that dark equals to evil, and fair equals to purity and heroism.

Taking in consideration the Bollywood hit movie Chennai Express, we can observe a case of harmful shadeism. The main characters, played by Deepika Padukone and Shah Rukh Khan – both promoted skin lightening products in the past – are quite fair. However, what seems to be disturbing is that Nikitin Dheer, who was cast as the antagonist in the movie, is also fair skinned, but darker makeup was applied to his whole body to make him appear of a darker complexion – in other words, evil and impure. Also, in castings for movies such as Dushman (1998), and in Mersal (2017), the protagonist was played by a light-skinned actor and the villain was of much darker completion.

The consistent framing of antagonists as being dark-skinned only reinforces the fabricated association between dark skin and impurity. Often, a detrimental effect of this is the internalised hatred that many South Asians harbour toward dark skin. 

Another example of shadeism would be considering the actress Amy Jackson, who is a white British actress, to act in several movies playing as an Indian woman. The platform given to a white, British actress, when so many dark-skinned South Indian actors exist, further cements the idea that dark skin is seen as acceptable only when it can be manipulated as an aesthetic. Amy Jackson has the privilege of reverting back to her fair skin once she has appropriated this physical form – a choice that many South Asian women do not have.

The idea of being fair is celebrated to this day; it offers a greater prospect of success, and even respect. The model propagated by British colonisers is still benefiting them to this day, through their nefarious stake in the beauty market. It is evident that the Indian and Bangladeshi population have internalised the  role of the ‘white liberator’ , which allows colourism to be perpetuated across various sectors of South Asian media, businesses, and quotidian life.

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Bibliography:

  1. Bathia, Sunil (2017), ‘Rub Out The Bias Behind Skin-Lightening Products’, US News & World Report
  2. Reuters (2017), ‘India’s multibillion-dollar skin lightening industry under fire as Indians seek whiter shade of pale’, Fashion Network
  3. Abraham, Mary-Rose (2017), ‘Dark is beautiful: the battle to end the world’s obsession with lighter skin’, The Guardian
  4. Santoreneos, Anastasia (2019), ‘Bollywood, Hollywood or Chinese Cinema: Which film industry makes the most?’, Yahoo! Finance
  5. Lohia, Arushi (2017), ‘11 Hindi Songs That Are Proof Of Bollywood’s Obsession With Fair Skin, scoopwoop.com
  6. Verma, Anurag (2017), Why Are So Many Hindi Songs Written On Fair-Skinned Women And So Few On Darker Skin?, huffingtonpost.in
  7. Nitti, Gabriela (2019), ‘What are the historical origins of the modern Indian obsession with fair skin?, Quora.com