Fifty Shades of Racism
This week is “Unfair and Lovely” Week, a new and honorable movement aimed to empower dark skinned individuals across the world. The title is referencing Fair and Lovely, a popular skin-brightening cream sold in India that has come under scrutiny for its discriminatory message. This issue of shadeism really hits home for me. I grew up with a negative complex about my dark skin due to piercing words hurled at me by strangers/media and people close to me as well. I was often made to feel that I belonged in the shadow of my brighter, more "attractive" ethnic counterparts. Luckily, as I matured I realized how very strong, unique and unconditionally beautiful I am and now my wholesome opinion of myself is absolutely independent of others' influence. Still I'm so grateful that movements like Nandita Das' 'Dark is Beautiful' and Pax Jones' 'Unfair and Lovely' exist now so the next generation has a chance to build unbreakable self-esteem. That being said, I'd like to break down shadeism for those who are not familiar with it.
Two countries stand out when I think of shadeism; India and Africa. Without a doubt, western colonization in both countries played a major role in the growth of internalized racism. Mixed race individuals with white ancestors had/have higher social ranking and privileges since part of them was/is white, making them closer to the “ideal”. Shadeism comes in many forms- blocked opportunities, direct insults, backhanded compliments, negative and/or lack of attention, and worse. The tricky part is that shadeism is often considered a myth- many think that people within the same race wouldn’t condemn each other. Growth opportunities, overall judgement and quality of treatment are simply not equal across the intraracial spectrum. While I think shadeism can be omnisciently understood, it may take time for it to actually happen.
Western media also doesn’t like to acknowledge the dark side of diversity. It cherry-picks glitzy components from foreign cultures to fetishize for its own gain. Granted, a western representation of any ethnic culture usually involves significant misappropriation. I've got lots to say on that so I'll save it for another post. My next thought is that emerging actors of color in western media should do their best to be totally inclusive. Take Mindy Kaling- I love her as a talented comedienne, but I wish she would address her ethnicity more honestly. She is dark-skinned and of south Indian (Tamil) heritage, but her character "Kelly" on The Office was portrayed as north Indian and spoke Hindi. Now in The Mindy Project, Kaling had a fresh chance to own her darkness by acknowledging her south Indian heritage in the character storyline. Nope…again, her character "Mindy Lahiri" is north Indian with parents who are both inexplicably far more light-skinned than her. Of course the character background is her creative prerogative, but by rejecting part of her actual identity and adopting a narrative better suited for the traditional western gaze, I feel that she is perpetuating a culture of self-hate amongst dark-skinned Indian-Americans. Aziz Ansari broke the barrier for dark-skinned Indians in popular media with his role in the brilliant Master of None. His character is honest and realistic, and gives his heritage the respect it deserves. The narrative didn't suddenly become centered around Indian experiences, the audience continued to engage with the dynamic yet relatable storyline, and dark-skinned people across America suddenly saw a normal, non-stereotyped version of themselves on screen! Progress, finally.
In my experience as an American born Indian raised with cross-cultural values, all I ever wanted was to feel completely accepted. While I am grateful that at this point in human history, there are leaders like Pax, Nandita, and Aziz who normalize true diversity and pave the way for unconditional acceptance, I hope that one day racism won't be an unshakeable antagonist in every POC's life.
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