India grapples with colorism as the British move on

A decade ago, my former professor at the Walter Cronkite School, Dr. Sharon Bramlett-Solomon wrote an article in The Arizona Republic on prejudice against people of darker skin tone, and this took me back to my hometown, Trivandrum, in South India. Dr. Solomon’s article focused on colorism, which she defines as “color prejudice that values and privileges light skin over darker skin tone,” and this often happens when people of the same ethnic group discriminates against one another.

Who can deny that colorism is non-existent in Indian society? In fully literate Kerala, girls with a darker skin tone still wait for a longer period for an arranged marriage or their parents shell out a larger piece of the dowry. The darker you are, the more gold you need. And, the recent series of alleged suicides by young women in Kerala, due to dowry-related violence has rocked the social fabric of the state that has considered itself different from the rest of India in educational attainment, social mobility and healthcare.

Our prejudice against people of darker skin tone along the same ethnic lines is rampant and has been spread over generations. This is very much a part of the social realm of India where fair North Indians have for generations shown colorism against southern “Madrasis.” Films like “Black and White” were created with colorism as its focus and actors in Malayalam movies have depicted roles that display their weaknesses in dealing with color prejudice.

Colorism is ingrained in Indian society. Skin-lightening products are a billion dollar industry with local and global brands promoting their own versions of the “benefits” of a fairer skin. Bollywood, India’s thriving film industry that has remained close to dead amid the pandemic has always promoted light skinned actors.

Two centuries later, India still lives in the colonial legacy left by the British wo gave greater opportunities to light-skinned people. Ironically, the British have moved on in the United Kingdom where the Cabinet now has three high ranking secretaries of Indian origin- Priti Patel (Home Secretary), Rishi Sunak (Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Alok Sharma (Business Secretary).

“Poverty and colorism in India go hand-in-hand. Because the caste system still affects socioeconomic status, people with darker skin tend to be lower in socioeconomic status as well and colorism makes social mobility harder for Indians in general,” says Hannah Daniel in an article for the Borgen Project, a nonprofit working to fight global poverty and hunger.

With eight Indian states having a poverty rate equivalent to much of the African sub-continent, add colorism and India gets to go still backward. For colorism to end, we need to show mutual respect for one another.