The uncomfortable truth of colourism within South Asians

Fair and Lovely is a popular cosmetic brand in India.

Najm Al Din argues that the trauma relating to skin purity among BME communities is rooted in the politics of empire.

The recent controversy over blackface highlighted the white racial animus which is historically at the heart of such stereotyping. Having spawned an entertainment industry from its inception in New York during the 19th Century, the casual distortion of black appearance, character and deportment has become normalised through memes such as digital blackface, highlighting the pervasiveness of such a caricature.

The colour complex

As a Bangladeshi Muslim living in the UK, I feel the opprobrium over blackface often obscures the colour prejudices which abound in non-white communities. One example is the cultural stigma surrounding black skin among British Asians.

Many Asians are brought up in a culture where a colour complex is constantly reinforced from childhood to adolescence. For too long, we have allowed this painfully obvious discrimination to fester in our communities and factor in our social dynamics.

I’m sure some British Asians reading this can draw on real-life experiences and personal testimonies of friends and family being subjected to racial jibes for their dark complexion. Let’s not feign ignorance about this. A lot of us grew up in households where terms like “khala/kaala” (black) and “bandor/bandar” (monkey) were pejoratively deployed to express disdain for those of a darker hue.

It’s no secret that many first generation Asian parents have a shameful tendency to compare their childrens’ skin colour, and have failed to cut loose from the perception that fair-skin is more socially advantageous and synonymous with beauty.

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It’s a cycle of discrimination rooted in village customs, and imported by post-war migrants who perpetuate the same racial bias and messages of desirability that have been hardwired into our culture for generations.

The self loathing caused by these racial hang-ups are particularly acute for Asian women, many of whom see their marriage prospects hampered simply for being a shade darker than their fellow native.

Cosmetics industry

India offers a prime case study on the toxic effects of skin tone bias. In a country where a colour complex has spawned a multibillion dollar cosmetics industry, terms like “cleanliness” and “purity’ which are common marketing hooks of products like “Fair & Lovely” are far from innocuous, especially considering how unblemished light-skinned women are mainstays in these advertisements. There’s an implied racism in these skin-whitening commercials which prey on the insecurities of those with wheatish and dusky complexions.

Bollywood has also capitulated to this beauty myth by regularly casting fair-skinned heroines as the epitome of beauty. This probably accounts for the phenomenon of Snow White syndrome sweeping the subcontinent and the obsession with melanin reduction in a culture where whiteness is not only a coveted shade but also social capital with a huge bearing on employment, education and marriage.

Ancient India

Although the colour bias is often perceived as emanating from the caste system, the vast anthropological literature on India’s castes does not corroborate the conventional wisdom that it was a racially motivated social imposition. In fact, the veracity of caste as a colour-based system of socio-economic classification remains a moot point among historians and sociologists.

In Ancient India, and throughout the early medieval period, black did not connote blemish. In fact, much of the folklore and literary traditions define shyam varna (dark complexion) as an attribute of beauty and suggest that dark skinned Indians were represented among the educated stratum, dispelling the misconception that all dark-skinned people were ostracised Shudras.

Ancient Hindu and Sanskrit texts celebrate black deities like Krishna as the hero of the Yadava tribe, and poets often associated dark skin with nobility. The Sanskrit epic Mahabharat features the protagonist Draupadi who is described as a beautiful black woman, despite the fact that she is depicted as fair skinned in modern adaptations.

So how did this contempt for black skin find its roots in the Indian Subcontinent, leading millions of South Asians to internalise the aesthetic ideal that “white is right”?


It is impossible to trace this disposition without factoring the colonial legacy in South Asia as a major impetus for such discrimination.

Throughout medieval and modern history, India witnessed successive invasions on its territory from Portuguese, Dutch and French merchants to Mughals in the 16th century, and then the British from the 17th century until independence in 1947. Ruled by a succession of fair skinned overlords for centuries, this undoubtedly framed the discourse on race in the subcontinent.

However, it was not until the advent of British colonisation with its institutionalisation of a racial hierarchy that skin tone prejudice became engrained in the Indian psyche.

The imposition of cultural norms and the systemic presumption of white supremacy were central to the imperialist project. Proclaiming to be a civilising force with a humanising mission, British imperialists adapted the extant social hierarchies and manipulated Vedic racial distinctions to relegate darker skinned Indians to the lowest echelons of society and foment intra-caste tensions between the light skinned Aryan Indians and the darker Dravidians.

In the words of Sir Herbert Hope Risely, a British colonial bureaucrat, “The principle of Indian caste is to be sought in the antipathy of the higher race for the lower.”

According to philologists like Nicholas Dirks, the function of caste bears a significant imperialist legacy, as the British co-opted caste structures and grafted them onto modern state institutions as part of their census operations which aimed to reorganise India’s heterogonous social groups into discrete chunks to create a society easily governed by a common law.

Inspired by the colonial logic of preserving the white power structure, notions of racial purity became interwoven through the formation of rigid social identities, eventually consolidating the domination of light skinned Brahmins over darker Dalits. While classist notions predate colonization, the long term effects of this ethnographic mapping shaped the meta-narrative on race consciousness.

Such racist attitudes acquired legitimacy with the dawn of Orientalism, a dominant European intellectual tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries, which misconstrued the Orient as a bastion of moral depravity and arrested development. Premised on a binary typology of advanced and regressive races and building on the pseudo-scientific foundations of phrenology and eugenics, it birthed a hegemonic discourse on race which portrayed colonised subjects as a subordinate species, thus serving as the raison d’être for European colonialism.

The factors distinguishing the civilised white conquerors from the vanquished black barbarians was principally ethno-racial, underpinning the Social Darwinism of empire builders like Cecil Rhodes and Indologists like Max Muller who pioneered the cult of Aryanism.

The stigma of dark skin in South Asian cultures is thus symptomatic of the Enlightenment’s essentialist framing and endeavour to reconstruct colonised subjects in the image of Europeans, culminating in the romanticisation of the white race in the popular Indian imagination.

The generations of social conditioning contrived through Eurocentric racial paradigms exacerbated intra-racial hierarchies, and have shaped the perceptions of millions of Asians who identify black skin as undesirable and white skin as aspirational.

As much as we try to whitewash this legacy, the brutally honest truth is that the trauma relating to skin purity among BME communities is rooted in the politics of empire. In light of black history month, it is important that we reflect on the historical forces which have conditioned many to pathologically crave fairness and subconsciously adopt the language of colourism.

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