Monday, March 13, 2006

Indians and Fairness

There is an ad on TV from a skin product called ‘Fair & Lovely’. This ad starts with a dark brown colored lady who is depressed and diffident. She looks at an ad of ‘Fair & Lovely’, applies it, and then becomes ebullient and confident. She gets spotted by a famous director who offers her a position in his new movie. Wow! What a fairy tale.

For some reason, the people who were sitting next to me and watching this ad didn’t find it offensive. I thought it was downright discriminatory and insulting. No one else seemed to share the same thought.

What is with Indians and Fairness? 

Looks like we are obsessed with color WHITE! As such most of the Indians don a shade of brown (ask any non-Indian). But Indians themselves seem to conjure up with ‘white’ to ‘black’ within the color brown. Families wait upon the new born and decide whether he is ‘fair’ or ‘dark’ and the parents are congratulated if the kid is 'fair' while they will be comforted if the kid is 'dark' as if it is a physical handicap. In some languages of India, ‘fair’ is synonymous with ‘white’ (ex. gora in hindi) and ‘dark’ with ‘black’ (ex. kaala in hindi). It is already decided that dark people are inferior; fair people are superior. Sonia Gandhi, no wonder, is easily accepted- so were Annie Besant and Mother Theresa. Imagine a black woman from Africa to be wife of Rajiv Gandhi. I seriously doubt if Indians would have gleefully accepted such a wife as their ‘bahu’ (daughter-in-law).

This flagrant and ignominious discrimination affects Indian girls the most. While growing up, they imbibe this inferiority complex which remains with them forever. As young kids at school, the ‘white’ girls get better scores, are treated better, and win all laurels in school. As young kids at home, the ‘white’ girls get the affection, love, and better goods from their parents. The ‘black’ girls get taunted and insulted all their lives as ‘kaala’ (black). Getting a ‘kaala’ girl married off is tough for parents. They have to shower more dowries to get them wed. And for the bride groom marrying a ‘kaala’ girl is like settling for something less. A man who gets a ‘gora’ wife is considered a "lucky bastard"- he shows her off to his friends and family as prized possession. This induced feeling of inferiority doesn’t allow a ‘kaala’ girl to do well at school or at a profession. Though it is not the same for a guy, even he gets to go through similar discrimination in India.

To a White European, most of the Indians look the same color. He hardly distinguishes between a dark Indian and a fair Indian. And even when there is a difference, he finds us to be of same color but different shade. And sometimes, a dark-brown shade is considered a better tan.
Our obsession with our color is so much that a lot is written about it in all our mythologies where ‘white’ are gods and ‘black’ are demons. And to this day, it seems to possess us so much that an TV ad blatantly conveys the message of correct-the-flaws-and-improve-your-chances perpetuating these discriminatory and insulting feelings across the country using mass media.

Update [13 Feb 2008]:

Sriram has created scripts for many 'Fair and Lovely' Ads. Must read! Don't forget to watch the videos there. You will know what I am talking about.

Links: Unfair Obsession [Added in 2013] 


  1. there's a very annoying ad coming nowadays.. for fair and handsome.. for men!

    200 years of raj has instilled the gora mentality in us. will take some doing to reverse it.

    also check out this post

    he's a spanish in india. provides some nice perspectives.

  2. Hey- interesting post
    I'm actually doing this fair skin issue for my year 12 major work, and comparing it to the European obsession with tanned skin. Seeing as youre someone with personal experience of living in India, and you have seen much of the media there firsthand, it would be really great if you could perhaps leave a comment on my site ,
    where your opinions could go towards my research for this topic. Just talking about the ads on tv over there, or how your fellow indians feel about this perception of fair skin as an ideal of beauty would be really, really helpful. Thanks a lot!

  3. I personally belong to the so called "fair skinned Indian" category, but I think its a real pity that no matter how kaala (dark) a guy himself is, he will salvate for a perfect gori (white) bride.

  4. its funny divya had to say she belongs to the so-called "fair-skinned" category , while expressing her opinion

  5. Well, that was because it gives more weight if one criticizes a behavior which benefits oneself.

    Its too easy to criticize as a victim. Its more difficult to understand a problem which you do not suffer from.

    And Mr/Ms anonymous, while you are using Divya's name in your comment, wouldn't it be good if you leave your own name too, rather than speaking behind the veil of anonymity.

    I see the perspective changing a little in the metros. Hopefully the problem should be reduced in another 50 years.

  6. Sujai,

    Yes, thanks for bringing up this issue and I couldn't agree more with you. Regarding mythologies, you are right abour devas and rakshasas, and their color. Actually, Lord Krishna is dark in color and is depicted as such (though with a bluish hue - I have no idea why) - something that the gora-wannabe people forget or ignore, or are not aware of.


  7. Also, just remembered the famous song from the movie "Satyam Shivam Sundaram" the lyrics of which have a young Krishna asking Yashomati why is he black (kaala) and the gopis fair.


  8. Indians are racist, there is no doubt about that. Only it is not displayed so overtly as in the West. And Indian cinema does a fabulous job of perpetrating this by reinforcing every possible type of stereotype regarding colour. Bollywood has very few dusky heroines and the less said about regional cinema the better.
    Tamil cinema is even worse. It is racism combined with male chauvinism. While all the actors are invariably dark the actresses are all imported from Mumbai or Delhi and the fairer the better. Rajnikanth is no better, there are pretty racist comments in his movie Shivaji and the sad part was people were actually enjoying it and did not find it insulting or degrading considering that most of them were dark. I guess anything goes in our country.

  9. Hi Sujoy. Me and a few of my friends came up with a bunch of fair n lovely ads: hope you like it.

  10. Sriram:
    Thanks a lot for sharing your scripts for many 'Fair and Lovely' ads.

    I will include the link in the article.

  11. Is this prejudice the main driving force for all our American NRI idiots falling behind Hillary? After all her opponent Obama is black, and our indian psyche never accepts the colour black.

    P.S: Being fair is due to lack of Melanin. I would declare fairness as a symbol of a deficiency :). How about that?

  12. The closer you got to equator, darker is the skin colour of the indigenous people; skin tones lighten as you go towards the poles. Exposure to sun and UV rays--simple logic. No skin is 'superior' or 'inferior'.

    I also struggle to think of a reason for this obsession for fairness amongst Indians. It's as if it's biologically programmed in our DNA.."fair = clean, attractive; dark = dirty, repulsive"
    There are many dark-skinned Indians and Africans who are better looking compared to their fairer counterparts.
    Yes, I do admit I have a slight prejudice for well-toned, shapely, athletic people and curvy girls ;-).
    As a guy, I would prefer a dark, curvy, healthy girl over a super-skinny/fat fair girl, given their personalities, nature and intelligence are similar.
    And cleanliness or hygiene has nothing to do with darkness or fairness.

  13. I find dusky women sexier, but it is a personal preference. And also women with sharp features, especially the nose. Nandita Das is a good example.

    It is possible that there are other Indian men who prefer a very fair skinned woman with blunt features. As they say, to each his own.

  14. Is this prejudice the main driving force for all our American NRI idiots falling behind Hillary?

    Bhanu Prasad:

    Are there any statistics that provide the figures for percentage of NRIs supporting Hillary over Obama (if so, then please share), or are you simply speculating?

  15. Hi Chirkut,

    Just type "NRI Hillary Clinton" in google and you can see the result.

  16. I agree with Rajiv. Draupadi was said to be the most beautiful woman of her day and her skin was black in color and Krishna was similary black and very beautiful indeed. These were the archtypes of the Indian race. Today they are portrayed as light skinned people in sitcoms. When it comes to dark folks they put on lots of powder on TV but when it comes to portraying a dark skin personality they first say they couldn't get a dark person for the role and then won't put on some dark make up for the actors for authenticity. Color was not a bar to being attractive and definetly not an issue in other respects. Vyasa was also black skinned :). Layer upon layer of invasions by lighter skinned people be they Greeks or Persians or Arabs or Huns or Mongols or Kushans or what not has brought about this slave mentality. The story may have been quite different if we were conquered by black races many times over. With an excellent Constitution. education and rising awareness we can overcome this acquired prejudice slowly. We need proactive movements to encourage the shift. It will be hard but it can be acheived. We'll only be a great race of men when we stop abusing our own people and often family and friends because of the color of their skin and stand as one. Just look at the Chinese Han people, one for all and all for one. Just my two cents worth - A black skinned Telugu guy

  17. Hello to Sujaj and all the others,

    reading your comments was very revealing to me.

    I am currently writing my thesis in anthropology about the representation of feminity in Indian advertising. One of my case studies are the ads of fair & lovely.

    Could one of you provide me with some more information where exactly it is said that Krishnas complexion was dark? And in which mythologies is black associated with demons and white with gods?

  18. Hi, i totallly agree with you, Those ads should be banned as they cause a lot of emotional trauma especially for young school going girls. Enjoyed reading your blog.

    Write poetry

  19. Liked your post...I agree with you ..most Indians are blessed with a sexy skin tone color its much more attractive than faded white ...anyways i also agree that its a personal choice and the fact that we give so much importance to fairer skin than beautiful person is the reason has made the situation so grave...
    Nice post ... :)

  20. That's not completely true, I'm a dark-skinned South Indian (Bangalorean) and I have many fair friends (and half-German cousins) who practically swoon for my skin! I'm often told how lucky I am for my tan!
    Infact almost all of my 'fair' friends try to get a tan whenever they go abroad/ a beachy place for that 'glowy' skin =)
    But yea I have seen those ads and I do think its sad girls find the need to do all that =(
    I also agree about the Sonia Gandhi/ Anne Besant part =( I do think that my aunt would have had more problems being accepted by our society if she wasn't a blonde haired, blue-eyed German =(
    Again, I haven't faced any sort of discrimination in school =) In fact, I'm one of the more dark people in class, but my boyfriend is the fairest =P I've actually never even thought about this till I read your blog!
    Well my point is that though you post is true, I don't think its right to label ALL Indians like that =) Peace!

  21. every alternate advertisement ontv channels today are cosmetic products.

    we know why it is a thriving and profitable business.

    i love their labs they show..

    and i assume people will go more crazy..

    will def not see a dark (kala) lead female actress (heroine) in bollywood for sure. dont remember seeing in south movies either.

  22. this discrimination is not historic.many of our beloved gods,ram,krishna ...were of dark complexion.krishna's dark complexion was very much romaticised in literature.even in food items(fruits,vegetables ..)the one with a darker shade is considered better.this is a recent phenomenon,british rule and after.the ads in the media should be banned.more than 70% indians are daily victims of this.angrez chale gaye,angreziyat nahi gayi.

  23. hello,

    thats funny, in Europe and North America, women spend lot of $$$ on tanning lotion and make-up, and spend HOURS in the sun ( then they may get skin cancer) just to get that golden-brown tan.
    And in India where people have natural brown skin, they bleach it. Human beings are so weird ...


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