Cricketer Darren Sammy questioning the name he was called all these years by his Indian mates in the Sunrisers Hyderabad IPL team has led to a number of responses on social media. While several Indians apologised to the West Indies cricketer, many told him that he should not take offence because such remarks are “normal” in India, and that he was not being especially targeted.
It’s true that comments about a person’s skin colour are exceedingly common in Indian conversations. From casually remarking that someone has got an ‘ugly tan’ to suggesting how they can ‘improve’ their skin colour and even nicknaming them because of it, we are a culture that legitimises colourism. But that doesn’t mean that we should continue to let it slide.
Several reasons have been attributed to the Indian obsession with fair skin, but in general, beauty standards in most societies are aspirational. That is, everyone wants to look like those who are rich, successful and powerful. In India, our skin colour preference has as much to do with caste and class as it does with our long history of colonisation. And the conditioning for this begins from childhood.
It took me a while, as an adult, to see through this, so when I became a parent, I was keen to not pass on these prejudices to my child. When relatives, particularly elderly relatives, would start commenting on the baby’s skin colour and give me suggestions on how to ‘improve’ it, I would politely tell them that my daughter was perfect just the way she was. If they didn’t listen, I would be impolite.
As she grew up, I avoided associating ideas of beauty with skin colour. I thought I was doing all the teaching, but my daughter surprised me. Once, when she was around three, we were out somewhere and she pointed to a dark-skinned baby and asked me what colour the baby was. She was going through a phase when she was learning different colours and their various shades. I responded with “You tell me”. She studied the child for a minute and then said, “The baby is golden.”
It was not a response I expected at all because I had never thought of human skin colour in those terms. Even though I believed I had broken through my conditioning, I primarily classified people within the binary of fair and dark. It never occurred to me that we actually have a spectrum of skin colours, and that ‘fair’ and ‘dark’ are woefully inadequate to describe this. She also went through a phase when she described people in terms of fruit colours, and settled on ‘chikoo brown’ for herself. These conversations helped me open up my mind about how I thought of beauty, and indeed, how I sought to capture it in words.
Colour bias is so widely prevalent in our society that children think it is normal and inevitable. They imitate adult behaviour and imbibe the same prejudices. Even if you may not believe in it yourself, the world around your child will invariably condition them into accepting and practising it. Here’s what you can do to break the cycle:
Stand up to adults in the presence of your child: Our desire not to upset other adults often means that we ignore the feelings of our children. Whether the adult is making a disparaging comment about your child’s skin colour or complimenting them on it, make it clear that you don’t think the colour of their skin matters. A lot of adults mean well when they make such remarks, so you don’t have to be antagonistic in tone. Take the effort to explain to them why you disagree, and if your child is around, reinforce the idea that they are fine just as they are and that it’s neither an achievement nor a disaster to be of a certain skin shade.
Representation matters: Most of our popular culture celebrates fair skin as beautiful, be it fairy tales or cinema. Not only that, many films and TV serials characterise dark skin as ugly and dark-skinned people as evil or deserving of ridicule. It’s easy to believe that it’s only people who are of a certain colour who will be successful in life and assume leadership roles. Introduce your child to diverse literature and entertainment. There are many children’s books now which are inclusive and have heroes and heroines of every shade and skin tone. Many children’s films, too, are conscious about how they project these ideas. We may think that children don’t “think so much”, but they connect with characters and stories more when they’re about “people like them”. The possibilities of what they can do expand, too.
Unlearn your vocabulary: Language evolves to reflect our social mores and behaviours. So, you will find that the binaries of black and white, fair and dark, with all their connotations exist in our everyday speech. To say someone is black-hearted is to say that they’re evil. The word ‘fair’, on the other hand, can mean skin colour and ‘just’. Similarly, ‘dark’ is associated with deception while ‘fair’ and ‘white’ are associated with goodness and purity. Even the phrase ‘white lie’ means a ‘harmless’ lie. Be conscious of your words and their import. Avoid phrases that reiterate these binaries.
Talk about beauty: As children grow older, they form their own ideas about beauty. However, much of this is also influenced by what they see around them and what their peers approve of. Talk to them about beauty standards and how they keep changing with time and place — whether it’s skin colour, weight, height, hair or anything at all. They don’t have to accept your ideas but the conversation can keep happening anyway. I’m personally not a fan of telling people that every single person on the planet is beautiful (‘in their own way’ or otherwise). It’s a nice and somewhat patronising thing to say, but I don’t think anyone really, really believes it. I’d much rather tell my child that her self-esteem needn’t be tied up with what she looks like, especially when the idea of beauty itself keeps shifting.
Practise what you preach: Sometimes, parents say all the right things but do all the wrong things because they think their child will suffer in a society that doesn’t see it their way. So, even if you don’t believe that dark skin is less appealing, you may find yourself stopping your child from running around in the sun because someone else might comment on their tanned skin. Parents of girls, especially, have a tendency to stop their daughters from playing sports because they may become dark. Never do this. Think about what you’re actually telling your child through your actions — not only are you saying that their appearance is undesirable, you’re also giving more weightage to other people’s feelings than those of your child. If you truly believe that colour bias must end, you must stick to your stance.
Present diverse role models: While successful people in popular culture may look a certain way, there are plenty of people in real life who come in all shapes, sizes and skin tones. Introduce your child to sportspersons, scientists, political leaders, artists, thinkers and other inspiring figures who have left an impact on the world. Show your child their pictures and tell them their stories, so they know that looking a certain way is not necessary to transcend challenges.
Talk about bullying: Name-calling on the basis of colour is common in Indian schools. Your child may be a victim to this or might be bullying other children this way thinking that it is okay. If your child is being teased for their skin colour, teach them how to respond to such comments without violence. They can initiate the same conversation that you had with them about skin colour with their peers. Talk to the teacher about sensitising the class if necessary. If you hear your child using such discriminatory nicknames, do not be dismissive. Take it up with them and make them understand that it’s never okay to speak this way. Remember that they’ve most likely picked it up from older children or adults, so explain to make them understand rather than react with anger.