A new generation of British Asians are embracing their skin tones, but still battling against the ingrained preferences of light skin over dark skin
One of the most interesting culture clashes I have seen between first generation black and Asian immigrants and their children is that of how skin colour is viewed within their communities. South Asian communities in particular see most clashes centring on elders trying to preserve their ancestral culture and ideals, whilst younger generations seek to assimilate into British society. It therefore appears to be a role reversal of sorts when seeing younger Asians more comfortable with their natural skin colour, while parents are likely seeking ways to lighten theirs. However, recent controversy over Jamaican hip-hop artist Vybz Kartel’s rather dramatic switch from black skin to an alarmingly grey-tinged white, courtesy of a whitening product that he plans to market soon, has led me to question how far we have come in embracing the skin we were born with.
It is no secret that fairer skin is equated with beauty in most black and Asian communities, with skin lightening products raking in cash from India and Jamaica in particular. Personally, as a Bengali girl with the perplexing ability to tan deepest brown with only the slightest hint of sunshine, the few occasions I have ever felt uncomfortable about my skin colour has been as a result of people of my own race, rather than as a consequence of growing up in a predominantly white country, as would probably have been expected. I remember the event that caused this discomfort vividly, and it has shaped my perceptions of how skin colour is treated in my community.
I was 13 and an acquaintance of my family greeted me thus: “What have you been running around in the sun for? What have you done to yourself, you used to be so beautiful and fair!” Beautiful was a stretch; I was a strangely androgynous child. What she meant was that I had once possessed the ‘wheatish’ complexion so prized by South Asian communities, but since I’d gone and gotten tanned, I had no redeeming qualities left in her eyes, and if I’m honest, in the eyes of many within the community who appraise girls by their looks alone.
She then continued to rant about how difficult it would be to now find me a husband, bewildering to me because firstly, I was 13 and the prospect of having a husband was as surreal as growing a third leg, and secondly, I didn’t understand how not being fair could affect my marriage prospects. Surely I had other qualities that would make whoever married me a very lucky man indeed? Not to this lady, who has come to represent all that is wrong with the Asian community to me. What did it matter to her if I’d just received the highest class mark in my science test (for the sixth time in a row, thank you very much) or that I’d written a poem that had been chosen for an exhibition by talented young people? I was dark now, and no woman in her right mind would want me to marry her son, which ultimately, for this particular lady, meant there was no point in me.
Having dark skin is unfortunately seen as an affliction in certain communities, and as with most conditions, do not fear, there’s a remedy! Cue the ubiquitous pink-capped tubes of ‘Fair & Lovely’, with adverts that demonstrate that side effects of fairer skin include increased job prospects, the appearance of one’s true love, and of course, finally gaining the love of one’s own parents, something ‘Fair & Lovely’ would have you believe is difficult for darker offspring to gain. A particularly shocking Indian advert for a fairness cream has been circulating the internet. The entire clip succeeds in being infuriating and unintentionally hilarious in equal measure, but one section in particular is shocking in its racism. The newly fair-skinned woman swishes confidently into the airport and an employee, clearly floored by her beauty, assumes she’s foreign, to which she responds by giggling with pleasure and replying in the negative. I’m surprised the slogan isn’t “if you look Indian, you’re ugly!” By the end of the advert, the woman is blue-eyed, blonde-haired and creamy-complexioned, and everyone around her stops in their tracks to marvel at her beauty.
The fact that adverts such as these are aired throughout India, sometimes with big-name celebrity endorsement, and usually have the desired effect upon the target audience, is disgusting. Such an advert would not be allowed to run in Britain. That adverts like this can air in a country where people’s skin spans the full colour spectrum of what humans can have is devastating. Rather than embracing the diversity of our ethnicity, the very large proportion of South Asians that don’t have white skin are encouraged to believe that we are ugly, and must apply creams so that we all end up looking like one homogenous race.
Supporters of ‘Fair & Lovely’ and the like claim it is unfair to say that women of ‘colour’ who dye and straighten their hair and lighten their skin are traitors to their race, as many do, without addressing the fact that white women who tan and bronze their skin (often to beyond any colour seen in nature), curl their hair, inject their lips and buttocks with silicone are not addressed as such. Though they adopt the features of other races, they are perceived as merely enhancing their own looks rather than betraying their whiteness. It can be argued that the South-Asian hang up with fair skin stems from Britain’s colonisation of the area and the implementation of a caste system, where those in higher castes who could afford to not work in the sun remained fairer than the poorer people in lower castes. It could also be argued that white skin was, in those times, associated with power and wealth, and when people of colour seek to lighten their skin, they are seeking to emulate those in a position of privilege. Therefore, the desire to be tanned has none of the cultural implications that the desire to lighten skin has- when African, Caribbean and Asian women seek to lighten their skin, they seek to attain a level of beauty that a more privileged race has not only set, but has excluded them from by saying only white is right. Women who tan or bronze are not trying to look like another race.
If we look at the most celebrated black and Asian beauties in mainstream British culture, and the ones said to be preferred physically by men, such as Beyoncé, Rihanna, Aishwariya Rai and Freida Pinto, we see that they are all much lighter than the average black and Asian girl. And while these women are all indeed beautiful, if darker girls don’t see women that look like them being regarded as beautiful, or if they don’t receive any positive reinforcement elsewhere about their skin tone, or indeed of the diversity of shapes and sizes that women come in, this attitude will always remain present.
I’m tired of seeing girls being insulted, to put it bluntly, about things they have no control over. They are made to feel ashamed of, and burdened by, physical attributes that they should be proud of. Thankfully, I believe that younger generations of British Asians have come leaps and bounds in accepting their own skin colours and widening the definition of what ‘beautiful’ is. Plenty of Asian girls now go tanning, wear bronzer or use fake tan – although this is yet again symptomatic of someone who is not happy with their natural skin tone and is seeking to copy the current mainstream look – I feel that this rejection of the older generation emphasis on ‘white is right’ demonstrates significant progression.
However, there is still plenty of work to be done. I heard a young British Asian woman remark laughingly that she was relieved her daughter was fairer than her sister-in-law’s new baby. I still hear young men confess that they are only interested in marrying fair-skinned girls. This preference of light skin over dark skin has become as ingrained into non-white communities as the preference for thinness has been into almost all cultures. This deplorable self-racism is even ingrained into our language. I have had more than one heated argument with women in my community who use the word ‘dirty’ (‘moila’) to describe someone with dark skin. Many of them didn’t even realise they were doing something wrong. This meaningless standard of beauty we have inherited needs to be stamped out.
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