Former BJP MLA Tarun Vijay's poorly framed statement defending Indians as people who are not typically racist has landed him in a soup.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Tarun Vijay said, "If we were racist, why would we have the entire South, you know Tamil, Kannada, you know Karnataka and Andhra...why do we live with them? We have blacks, black people around us."
The uproar that his statement has caused is understandable even though Tarun Vijay later apologised for his comments and clarified that all he meant was that India was a multicultural society. Did he mean to 'other' the South by using 'we' or do we put it down to an ill-conceived argument?
To begin with, racism and colourism are not one and the same - the first comes out of a sense of superiority that a race has towards another, propelling xenophobia and theories of eugenics; the second happens within one's own community and is more closely tied in to caste and class factors. So Tarun Vijay's defence was not exactly on sound grounds and he made it worse by muddling it up with a stereotype that South Indians hate - the kala Madrasi.
However, it's a good time for all of us to wonder why exactly we get so outraged when someone stereotypes the South as dark, other than the obvious reason that stereotyping must always be questioned. Why is our immediate response, "Not all of us are dark"?
For instance, if Tarun Vijay had said South Indians are all intelligent, would we be so offended? Or if he'd said we're all fair skinned for that matter? It is because we all - across India - equate dark skin with ugliness that we're quick to rise up in rage. And this betrays our own internalised prejudice that we're less willing to address.
Some years ago, a video of AAP's Kumar Vishwas joking about how he had no problems addressing dark-skinned Malayali nurses as "sister" because he'd never be attracted to them, elicited similar outrage. However, Vishwas was reflecting a commonly held idea across the country (not that this justifies him saying it).
Tamil Nadu is a state where a white British woman, Amy Jackson, is cast to play a Tamil woman only because of her skin colour. That's where we are. And this preference for fair skin cuts across film industries, social classes, and state territories.
We like our heroines white-skinned; when our heroes are dark, they have to justify why the heroine was attracted to them despite their skin colour (hello, that's every Rajini movie); we have comedy sequences in films and comedy shows on TV where we make fun of dark people. Tannishtha Chatterjee walked out of Comedy Nights when the roast became only about her skin colour.
And obviously, the entertainment we consume is this way because that's who we are as a society.
We buy Fair & Lovely tubes along with our grocery every month for the entire family to use; we gift a pregnant woman saffron and tell her to eat it so the baby is born "white"; we console a dark-skinned person by telling them that their personality can compensate for their looks; we'd rather stop swimming than suffer with the tan; our matrimonial columns want only fair brides and grooms. All of this is true whichever part of the country we hail from.
Tarun Vijay's statement rakes up decades of insecurity actively fed into us by our family, society, and the media. We're constantly fed with narratives that tell us that dark skinned people are inferior, that they cannot find happiness, a career, or a partner, unless the colour of their skin changes. The hatred that dark skin inspires within us feeds this insecurity day after day.
It's doubly irksome when a reminder comes from a North Indian (never mind his love for Thiruvalluvar), given that the five Southern states have had enough of the North's cultural imposition in the South. But while we take him to task, it's worth asking when we will begin to examine our own colour prejudice.
Discussing skin colour discrimination is meaningless if we do it only when we find a target like Tarun Vijay. Unless we begin to dismantle it from our everyday life, starting with language (why say black-hearted person, black tongue etc to signify evil?) and moving on to interrogating how we feel about our own beauty and that of others, we will continue to correlate skin colour with character, self esteem and a host of other things.
And perhaps sometime in future, we will only need to outrage when someone insults the lungi - now that would be totally legitimate.
A popular comedy sequence from the Rajini film Sivaji.