Fair is beautiful: Truth or Bias?
Four people sat in a small south Indian coffee house. A French male ballet artist, a contemporary dance teacher, a theatre artist and a young IT professional. A lot was discussed over breakfast, most of it is now a blur. Only one phrase from that talk stayed with me over the years:”dark bias”. Well, I forgot to mention that I was that young IT professional. Moving on. While I was busy gobbling up yummy karabath and tea, I remember thinking “What is that? What are they talking about?”. I had never really ever given it any thought before. People are dark and people are fair. Some are brown, black, white. Some are beautiful and some are not. So what were these people discussing anyways? I did not really contribute anything to that discussion and quietly continued to stuff myself with more food. Being fresh out of college, with my head usually in the clouds, life was full of dreams and hopes, dance and laughter. I knew I was beautiful, dark or not. I usually just ignored the people who thought otherwise. Only artists pondered on such serious topics. We all know the general mindset that being fair is beautiful. Why were these people wasting their time talking about it?
But on that crisp Sunday morning, a tiny seed was planted it my brain. A thought at the back of my mind, a question. “Dark and Beautiful” instead of “Dark but beautiful”. Could billions of Indians over many generations have got it wrong? Is FAIR=beautiful not a fact? Mind you, I wasn’t naive. But the connection between fair and beautiful is so drummed into our Indian psyche, that I had to hear it out in the open to even give it a second thought.
The poor, uneducated and bad are dark
I was working onsite in the US for a couple of months. Since it was yet another weeknight, and I had nowhere to go, I settled down with my plate full of curd rice, eggs and stir-fried veggies(Yes, I did eat curd rice even when I was in the US. And yes, I do remember clearly what I ate when all these life altering moments happen to me) in front of the TV to watch yet another handsome agent trying to solve a yet another gruesome murder. At that point in time, I had this strong principle of not watching any ads on TV. So between breaks, I usually surf channels. That’s when I chanced upon this video which I assumed was something along the lines of “Kids Say The Darndest Things”. The host showed kids who were around 4 or 5 years, two drawings, one of a white child and a black child. They asked each child questions like “Which one is the good kid? Which one is bad? Which one is the naughty one?”. The answer was the same from most of the kids. Only a few were unsure. Irrespective of whether they were white or black, they answered that the good kid was the white one and the bad kid was the black one! Suprised? I was at that time. How deep was the bias in the world that it existed in this tiny 4-year-old kid? How did it form? Is it inbuilt or cultivated by our surroundings? Did they realise that both the pictures were the same: one coloured with white and one with black?
I am sure if a similar study is conducted here in India, the results would not be any different. We associate dark people with being poor and uneducated. We associate fairness to be in some way superior. Like, the other day I overheard my neighbours talking,”I couldn’t believe she is a housemaid, she is so fair”
Recently there has even been a couple of cases where a “Good samaritan” posted a picture of a fair child with a darker woman or darker man on Facebook claiming that the kid might have been kidnapped! Really??
Who is going to marry me?
Sometime in the 90’s, School:
It was the final match of that year’s inter-school basketball tournament. As it was a home game, and our school team were the favourites, the whole school was allowed to watch. How we cheered!! How we roared!! With each basket our team made, the entire school was on its feet! And we won! A glorious afternoon well-spent, best of all we got to miss classes for the entire afternoon. One of my classmates, sitting right in front of me was red in the face and so frustrated the entire time. She looked so uncomfortable. She tried to make her way to the back of the crowd. But it was quite impossible to move, let alone go out from the thickly-packed group of noisy, jostling, over-excited girls. When we went back to class after the game she loudly proclaimed looking quite miserable, “How black I have become! Who is going to marry me?” She wasn’t even happy that the school had won. She hadn’t had even a bit of fun.
Well, with everyone looking for only Fair brides and even Fair grooms, she had pretty good reason to be worried.
I was lucky that way. My best memories of summer are 2 months filled with swimming in the 2 o’clock sun followed by ice cream. I played tennis 3 times a week all year long and I am thankful I had parents who never said “See how dark you have become. Who is going to marry you?”
Redefining Beauty: The process
Over the years, I have become aware that I really DID have a strong bias. Inbuilt or cultivated over a lifetime of growing and meeting with a majority of people who have never had the privilege of being presented with a different perspective.
I have caught myself thinking many times looking at the mirror, “Oh I have tanned so much”.
I have had to make a conscious choice to not pick up creams that make us shades fairer to help us get those interviews and attract those men.
I have had to make an effort to stop myself from using “fair” and “beautiful” interchangeably.
I have had to reflect whether my choice of best friend(the most wonderful supportive empathizing human I know, skin colour=milky white) and husband (fellow book lover, the one who I felt in my heart I wanted to spend my entire life with, most loving father, skin colour=fair) were based on their skin colour!
I have cringed and kept quiet when one of the first questions that I was asked when my son was born by relatives near and far, Is he fair? And I ignored discussions about the colour of the ear lobe which supposedly indicates his true colour. I might have just bit their ear off if I had opened my mouth(Mama bear effect).
I have supported movements like Dark Is Beautiful from the sidelines, by reading and sharing their posts on social media.
I have tried to start discussions with people around me who are in the dark about the impact of this bias towards dark skin colour. All in the hope, that I would sow that first seed of doubt in their mind, to start them off on that journey to recognise the beauty in different skin colours.
I have evolved slowly to look through a different lens.
We have miles to go before we reach a place where we can say “Dark and beautiful” or the Classifieds will say Wanted:a Dark Bride or even parents will let their kids enjoy the sun without a care in the world. The perspectives, the awareness, the thoughts, words written and spoken are all part of the process. It starts with me and you.
Write down your views below. How has being dark or fair affected your life? Have you faced critisism for wearing bright colours? Have you been compared to your fairer sisters or been rejected cause of the colour of your skin?