RABBIL SIKDAR reports from an event aimed at tackling racist attitudes to skin tones within many Asian communities
THE issue of “shadism” within the Asian community needs to be discussed.
It’s funny how much people talk about racism yet really don’t understand so much of it; the different depths and dimensions of it. It’s an important subject that gets reduced to simplistic condemnations of bigoted rhetoric as if racism begins or ends there. It’s not. Nor is it even just a straightforward case of white versus black.
Because sometimes racism happens in places where you don’t expect it. Recently I went to an event at King’s College hosted by someone close to me on the issue of shadism. For those of Bangladeshi origins, the label might be unfamiliar but the topic is not.
Within Asian communities, there is a prevailing theme amongst the older generations that beauty is fair skin. Anything other than that is just not aesthetically pleasing. One topic that came up is the “ghost bride.” Attend any Bengali wedding and the bride almost has every type of skin-lightening foundation slapped onto their faces until they are as white as possible. See them the next day and you’ll be wondering if that was the girl who got married.
Children from a young age are exposed to this idea that they are only beautiful if they are fair-skinned. Imagine the psychology of dark-skinned Asian children taught to believe that they are not beautiful? It has often led to huge depression and lack of self-esteem. This typically affects girls more because like all patriarchal societies, their worth is defined by their beauty. And in Asian communities, beauty is light skin.
Across Asian communities and in the Indian subcontinent, skin-lightening products are used to try and make the skin “fairer”. Dark skin is often associated with the low-income women working in fields and villages, from the lower class that is often looked at disparagingly at by the Indian ruling class.
This owes itself partly to the old Hindu belief in the caste system that those who led sinful lives were born in unfavourable conditions in the next life and deserved no sympathy. For this, women who worked constantly in sun-baked fields to produce for the rest of the community were smeared as deserving of their plight. Dark skin henceforth was often seen as something to do with the working class.
Today within India, beauty products to make skin lighter are constantly on show. Bollywood is an industry that embodies this self-loathing complex within the Asian culture; the actresses who often make up Bollywood typically exhibit European features. Actress Aishwarya Rai has blue eyes. The dark-skinned beauty of India is almost always concealed within the industry. It is never shown. Indian models, like the actresses, tend to appear as if they belong in European photoshoots.
Again, the impact that this has on young Indian girls is profound; prompted by the media and culture to hate themselves, told by their parents that they are too dark to be beautiful.
Shadism may even affect the way that the Asian community approaches world politics. How much attention do Asian communities give to the Rohingya crisis? This was a story of brutal persecution and ethnic cleansing of local Muslims, the sort of story that is supposed to stir the blood of young Asian Muslims and make them lament how Islam is under attack.
So why was there none of that this time? Is it because the people in Rohingya are just not light-skinned enough?
Many have often tried to link this form of self-hatred to colonialism and there is an element of truth to that. Britain led the world into hating each other while imperialism tore through their land and plundered their resources. Within India and also Africa, the white skin of the British officers and the women was seen as some sort of God-gifted privilege. The Brits were here to civilise the dark-skinned people; angels with guns and genocidal minds.
Our media also plays a part. The film industry rarely shows people of colour and when they do they are relegated to token roles. Children’s toys are perhaps the biggest determining factor; at the King’s College event a woman explained a test in which a black child automatically chose a lighter doll over the darker one. How entertainment and media contribute to the marginalising of minority youths and low self-esteem has to be discussed.
Young children should not be raised hating themselves. They should not suffer from low self-esteem because of this harmful construct of beauty. So well done to the people of King’s College for holding this event — it was needed.