“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” (Snow White) - is as iconic as quotes generally get. Anyone who has watched, read or listened to the story of Snow White is aware of the Evil Queen’s aspirations: she wished to be the “fairest of them all”. 'Fair', as in not 'just' but 'pale' and ergo, beautiful. This declaration of the equivalence of a paler skin tone and beauty has been at the center of various cultures across the world, and has stood the test of time. Those with fairer skin tones are deemed more 'marriage worthy', less intimidating, more innocent, less violent and of course, more beautiful. This is colourism.
To put it more formally, colourism is the discrimination against individuals based on skin tone, often within a particular ethnic or racial group. This differs from racism in the sense that racism is discrimination based on race, while colourism may be prevalent within and among the members of a particular race. Colourism is ubiquitous and intractable - almost every ethnic group suffers from its pernicious effects and it has been this way for a very long time.
Think about the majority of Latin telenovelas, K dramas and Bollywood movies. A whole chunk of the demographic is missing from the portrayals: the darker skinned Latinas, Koreans and Indians. Those born with a darker skin are looked down upon, considered ugly and therefore, not deserving of a place in the entertainment industry. On the contrary, the fairer complexioned individuals are hailed as beautiful and looked at favourably in almost all avenues of human life.
In India, this obsession with fair skin has been aptly given the appellation 'The Snow White Syndrome'. In fact, the problem is so pervasive that Bollywood movies have been practicing something known as 'brownface' for quite a while now without any compunction. They darken the skin of fair skinned actors to have them portray characters from a background of disadvantage instead of actually hiring dark skinned actors, thereby perpetuating the age-old problem of colourism in India. A 2019 film named Bala was supposed to be a critical opprobrium of colourism prevalent in India. Ironically, the female protagonist, who faces discrimination on the basis of her dark complexion, was played by a fair skinned actress, Bhumi Pednekar, in a brownface. The poster for the movie showed her dawning a brownface, surrounded by skin lightening products. There are countless other examples of recent Bollywood movies doing the same: Gully Boy, Super 30 and so on and so forth.
Another very patent expression of colourism prevalent in India that exists in Bollywood movies are the background dancers in the so-called 'item songs'. These dance routines are aimed to cater to the male gaze and feature beautiful women dancing to catchy Hindi tunes. The background dancers are often white and have blonde hair because that is what is considered 'beautiful'. The love interests in movies are also, generally, fair complexioned. In 2020, a film called Khali Peeli came under attack for having a song titled Beyonce Sharma Jayegi (which roughly translates to 'Beyonce will become embarrassed'). The song praises the female protagonist of the film for her fair skin, which apparently even puts the gorgeous Beyonce to shame (“tujhe dekh ke goriya, Beyonce sharma jayegi”). Many famous Indian actors, including but not limited to Shah Rukh Khan, Priyanka Chopra and Yami Gautam, have also, only recently though, come under attack for starring in commercials for skin whitening products, in some cases, throughout their illustrious careers.
Skin whitening or bleaching is a practice that is widespread in almost all the continents. Various products, legal and illegal alike, are available to achieve the desirable fair skin: injections, creams, surgeries and so on and so forth. Many of these are potentially dangerous as they contain more than the legal and safe amount of mercury, which is very toxic. However, it continues to be rampant and the market is expected to reach an estimated $8.9 billion by 2024. Moreover, images of Kpop stars and Kdrama actors are often edited by agencies and fansites to make them look fair and desirable. This is after agencies meticulously chose their trainees based on various factors, including how they look. Many of the trainees who do not conform to the very strict beauty standards in Korea are expected to undergo surgeries to achieve the desirable look.
In fact, plastic surgeries are so common in South Korea, especially among the youth today, that it is deemed as the plastic surgery capital, and has the highest ratio of plastic surgery clinics in the world. There are a few tanned Kpop stars like Hwasa (Mamamoo), Kai (EXO) and Jessi (soloist). However, they are exceptions to the norm and treated as such by the industry and the audience: some with awe, some with admiration and some with rejection (they sometimes face a lot of backlash from the fans of Kpop because of their dark skin). In most cases, these idols are portrayed as the “sexy” members of their respective groups by their agencies: pale skin is marketed as pure and so, darker skin is marketed as fierce.
Another common practice that is born out of colourism is the casting of white passing characters in movies and TV series. Fate: The Winx Saga, which is a TV series based on the famous early 2000's cartoon Winx Club, casted a white passing actress named Elisha Applebaum for the role of Musa, an East Asian coded fairy. While there are claims that she is some part Asian, the problem is that since the character is supposed to be full East Asian and look that way, it would have been better to cast someone who looked the part. This is not an isolated instance. Some other examples are Taylor Lautner in the Twilight series (he portrayed Jacob Black, a Native American character), Scarlett Johansson in Ghost In The Shell (she was cast as Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese cyber-human), Tilda Swinton in the MCU (as the Ancient One, an Asian man) and Emma Stone in Aloha (she played Allison Ng, a Chinese-Hawaiian-Swedish character). Clearly, in some of these cases, they simply casted a white person, irrespective of whether they resemble the character they are meant to portray at all or not. Actors of various ethnic backgrounds, who have distinctive features (which are considered 'ugly' by Western beauty standards) are often not considered for roles that portray a person from the same background. This exclusion of non-white and non-white passing actors results in a lack of jobs for hopefuls from such backgrounds and often deters them from choosing a career in entertainment altogether.
In movies with Black cast members, it is often seen that the love interest or the 'attractive' character is light skinned, often casting mixed race actors for the role (fetishisation of mixed race people is another insidious issue). Some examples are the casting of Rege Jean-Page as the Duke in Bridgerton and Zendaya in almost everything. Of course these are great actors, and I am in no position to question their acting skills. The problem is with everyone typecasting Zendaya into every 'black girl' role just because she fits the description of being black while simultaneously conforming to Western beauty standards.
Research conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in collaboration with USC Viterbi School of Engineering concluded that about 80% of black female characters are played by light or medium skinned actors. We also often see that the protagonist is light skinned and the side characters are dark skinned (for instance, in Dear White People). Moreover, darker skinned actors are often cast for roles portraying unlikeable people like the Duke’s father in Bridgerton or for rude, loud, boorish and/or violent (which are personality trait stereotypes that are born out of racism against the Black community) characters like Will Mondrich from Bridgerton.
All of the above propagate a beauty standard that is highly detrimental to the self-image of thousands born to colourist cultures and societies. They face discrimination in all walks of life, have body image issues, face shaming and bullying, even by family members and are often pushed to extreme measures to modify their body to look beautiful and reap the benefits of the same.
Statistical data suggests that darker skinned people are more likely to be incarcerated or have longer sentences. In India, having dark skin is equated with being 'dirty' and people are encouraged to wear makeup that is several shades lighter to appear paler and thus, more desirable. Dark skinned people are tormented with taunts about how they will never get married because they are not desirable. In South Asia, marriages are sometimes arranged based on advertisements published in newspapers and 'fair' is a very common requirement in partners. A lot of the times when asked why a particular individual prefers a light skinned partner, the response comes, one way or another, in the form of a preference argument. But why is it that everyone 'prefers' lighter skin? It is directly or indirectly based on the idea that pale is beautiful and because of practices like Blanqueamiento (this will be discussed in detail in part II of this article).
The problem of colourism is all-pervasive and yet often neglected from the discourse. In fact, it is so prevalent and mundane that it is almost impossible to find foundations beyond a specific shade range, one that most agrees with the fair skinned. Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty was widely extolled for having a very large range of shades, extending the limits in both directions of the colour spectrum. Unfortunately, not all companies cater to the non-white audience.
Furthermore, in sets of crayons for children, the name 'skin/flesh colour' is given to a light peach shade, which thereby perpetuates light skin as the standard or 'normal' or acceptable skin colour.
In Hindu mythology there are a myriad of dark complexioned characters like the deity Kali and the avatar Krishna. However, in TV adaptations of the same, fair skinned individuals are painted in black or blue to achieve the look of the character instead of hiring a dark complexioned individual for the job.
Only recently have people been questioning the age-old practices and antiquated beliefs that lie at the core of colourism. More and more non-white and non-white passing individuals have been winning beauty pageants and appearing in movies and TV series. However, we are yet to see appreciable changes in statistics involving dark and light skinned individuals of a particular ethnic group and the rates of rejection from jobs because of this. It is important to keep up this streak of questioning colourist practices to reach the point where the society is ready to change and does eventually change.
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