I was taking a break at my cousin’s place at Mumbai before starting for the onward journey to home. My niece was about 10 years old then. It was evening and we were talking of studies, sports, music and every other activity she was involved in. At one point, she made a comment – “Chachu, aap chaai bahut peete ho kya? Chai peene se hi aapka rang aisa ho gaya hai.” (Uncle, do you take tea often? Your color has turned into this because of this.). Her mom who was sitting in a corner, feeling embarrassed cut her short and told me – “We have told her that she would become dark if she drank tea, just to keep her away from it. Please don’t mind.” I couldn’t say much. Here was a kid who had been taught that dark people didn’t exist in the world. People became dark only because they overdrank tea.
One of my close friends happened to visit Kenya for some official work. When our gang of boys on Whatsapp was apprised of this, the first question he was asked was – “Did you enjoy any black beauty there?”
At college, I was planning to make a short movie. All my friends were interested to be part of it. While I was discussing the plot of the story, we moved to the actors who would play the parts. One of them proposed my name for one of the lead roles. Another friend shot back – “No, he can’t play the lead. He is black.”
We were on our way to the ferry ghat on Hooghly to go to Dakshineshwar (Kolkata) a few years back. The group was abuzz with chit chats of random things. Somebody made an effort to get my ears’ attention. I heard a supposed-to-be joke directed at me. I was working in Chennai then. My aunt had thrown a jibe – “So I’m sure people in Chennai would understand you to be one of their own.” At this, a family friend who had come along with us wanted to add some spice and asked me – “Is that true Abhishek?”
I was sitting in a cafe in Bangalore about 2 years back. I had to meet a couple of friends, have a conversation on coffee, visit a bookstore and come back. One of them had been introduced to me not so long ago. While we spoke at the cafe, she made a remark – “At first, I thought you were from South.”
I am not trying to play a victim here. I pray well for all of them and I am sure they all love me and wish equally well for me. I have narrated the incidents to tell you something more serious than gain some sympathy for myself. This is something that screams for your attention – “Indians have the power to discriminate on the basis of colour, well within their families, their best friends, their social circle, their own classroom, their own state, and their own country!” They have the power to insult you on your colour and disguise it as a light banter that must be taken in jest and should be laughed at. If you get offended by any of such remarks, you are a dry wit and you lack any sense of humour.
Irony has slapped us Indians on both cheeks. While we were condemning racial attacks on Indians in America and demanding justice for the victims, something happened in our own backyard. To be honest, something has always been happening in our backyard. The attack on Nigerian students in Greater Noida has brought forth the despicable racial discrimination that we practise ourselves. This isn’t the first time, this won’t be the last time.
My skin tone lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. In India, one can find people who are a few shades darker as well as who are a few shades lighter than me. The African skin tone is darker than the average skin tone of Indians. One shouldn’t have any difficulty to comprehend the kinds of thoughts one would bear for these people. Even if we take the Nigerian students out of this equation, the discrimination that darker Indians themselves face in our fair & lovely obsessed society is something to be ashamed of. If you do not know what I am talking about, that’s the first part of the problem.
All India Bakchod, more fondly known as AIB had organized a much-talked Roast in 2014. Steering clear of all the controversy around it, I would speak about one Mr. Ashish Shakya. All the jokes thrown at him were on his skin tone. There was not one creative joke on his body of work. Every one had it easy. You come, you crack a joke at his skin tone, audience erupts in laughter – that’s the drill. Congratulations, you are a successful comic now. The group has done some great work no doubt but everyone mentioned so far in the article have done some good work in their lives.
Can illiteracy be blamed? Can education solve this problem? In my opinion, education can give you the means to understand that factors like color shouldn’t matter to you but what you practise depends on what your intent is. As long as one believes that having a fair skin is a boon, a compulsory factor in determining attractiveness; the struggle of dark skinned will continue.
What happened to the students from Nigeria is just the tip of the iceberg. What they go through everyday is much worse. It’s a demonic form of racism practised by us who shout out loud perched on top of TV towers and comforted inside living rooms to complain when similar incidents occur with one of us in Australia, England, USA, or elsewhere. A facebook meme is going viral these days wherein a tribal woman with dark skin tone is pictured and it tells you to tag a friend who should be married to her. This lady is supposed to represent the word ugly. The tagged person is supposed to cringe. We are supposed to laugh at the joke. This is happening right in front of us. We are complicit in this crime.
There is a story in India’s tradition, that of Ashtavakra, a great scholar but crippled from eight places in his body. He entered the court of Raja Janak who used to hold discussions among the scholars of the country. On seeing Ashtavakra, the courtiers burst out in laughter. Ashtavakra said – “I thought I was in the company of scholars and wise men but now I realize that I only have the company of cobblers because you identify me with my crippled body and not my real self. A cobbler evaluates on the basis of skin. It didn’t occur to me that it would be difficult for wise men like you to understand that although the river may be crooked, its water never is. ”
Source – Rest of the story.
With due respect to the occupation of shoe-mending, that’s what we have become. We have become a society of cobblers. Finding a bride, look for fair skin; looking for a bridegroom, look for fair skin; auditioning for a movie, hunt fair skin; want a News Presenter – scout for fair skin! Dark skinned people are used to showcase poverty, empowerment campaigns, illiteracy, undernourishment, polio campaigns, art-cinema and for exhibiting anything outside conventional. If one judges India by just watching its representative movies, one would think India is inhabited by only fair skinned people. (More reading.)
What is the way out? Where do we go from here? The first step would be to admit that there is a problem. We can’t sing the songs of nationalism on this one. Every society has the problem of discrimination and we must accept it in order to find a solution. The second step would be to accept that we as individuals are racists and cobblers and that we have a positive bias towards the fair skinned. To admit that, would be the second step. Our mind has been acclimatized to the idea of ‘fair-is-better’. Once we realize that, an automatic process of reformation should start in our hearts and mind. The fact that the skin tone doesn’t matter is not a very difficult idea to penetrate, however one needs to be ready to receive it, open to admit the mistakes of our forefathers and of ourselves. The Government has its own role to play. Any cosmetic company that’s selling ‘go-fairer-in-2-weeks’ ideas to Indians must be taken to task and they should explain in the court their conclusion of ‘fair is lovely’. Brands like Fair & Lovely are earning money from the insecurities of Indian men and women. That the dark color is not a handicap, must be driven into the society by regulating such brands to change their marketing approach. It is sad that we (Indians) who have been known to possess the most generous heart, the most open mind when it comes to welcoming people who seek our support, are perpetrating such violence on our own people and on the people from outside. In a way, Indians have become India’s worst ambassadors.
My grandfather had a fair skin, my grandma was a shade darker. When I was born, my uncle quipped at grand-mom in jest – “So you have splashed your colour on him too!” He too has got her colour apparently. Was that a racist remark? Maybe no, but such a reaction underlines our attention to skin colour. In its harmless form, it is subtle; in its most perilous form, it becomes obscenely discriminatory. We are fair skin obsessed. We love the fair. Even the dark loves the fair and discriminates against the darker. The darker finds the darkest and discriminates against him. There is no running away from this. This obsession is pushing millions of people into depression, millions of people to the stigmatized corners of human development, millions of people into self-deprecation and self-pity.
We are committing a national crime every day. The attack on the African students is just a by-product of our long bred disgust with the dark. Dark to us is mysterious, dark is creepy, dark is cringe-worthy, dark is repulsive, dark is substance abuse, dark is drug addict, dark is ‘vehshi’, dark is cannibal. It’s a pity that after so many centuries of human progress and civilization, we haven’t understood a fellow countryman, a fellow woman, a fellow human being beyond their skin color and the size of their eyes.