Friday, July 16, 2010

Make yourself whiter on Facebook

Facebook now has an application for everything, no matter how messed up. Its latest comes courtesy of Vaseline, who release their latest weapon in their race to capitalise on the collective colourist insecurities of Indian people.

The application lightens half of your profile picture, to demonstrate how much fairer (and therefore "better") you could look if you used Vaseline's new whitening product.

If you aren't all that familiar with colour prejudice within India, this might seem odd, but it's all very run-of-the-mill. Check out these ads below for skin whitening cream, both of which present dark skin as repugnant and something to be ashamed of.

Funnily enough, if you consider the Indian population as a whole, neither of the characters being ridiculed for their swarthiness is actually all that dark.

Some might point to this as Indians desiring to be more like white people. While there might be an element of truth in that, the roots of subcontinental colour prejudice are actually far more ancient.

South Asia has seen countless populations moving in and out and blending for thousands of years, so I don't wish to oversimplify its complex racial and genetic makeup. But in general, North Indians tend to be lighter-skinned and South Indians tend to be darker. A similar light-to-dark gradation is observable in the caste system, with Brahmins and other castes tending to be fairer than people from lower castes.

Historians generally agree that the story goes something like this: the Aryans, who moved into India several thousand years ago, hailed from the steppes of Central Asia and spoke a language of the Indo-European family (which includes modern Hindi and Punjabi, as well as Persian, English and most other languages of Europe). They brought with them a belief system that would eventually become Hinduism, and they were light-skinned. In India they discovered a darker-skinned people who mostly spoke languages of the Dravidian family (including modern Tamil and Malayalam).

The social order put in place by the Aryan peoples was to enshrine their position in society as higher than those whose lands they had conquered. This would soon become the caste system; the Sanskrit word for caste, varna, can also be interpreted as "colour" (from which the Malay world for colour, warna, is derived).

So skin colour in India has deep-seated connotations of not just beauty, but of class and status. Read Indian personal/matchmaking columns and you'll sometimes see people referred to as "wheatish"; in other words, the ideal skin colour resembles the colour of wheat. In addition, prejudices may be reinforced by the association of dark skin with working out in the sun (and hence being lower class), as occurs in most of East Asia. Later, the Persians, Portuguese and English who all had turns ruling parts of the subcontinent, would also add to the perceived link between light skin and high status.

How prevalent is this prejudice? According to this article, "In 2009, a poll of nearly 12,000 people by online dating site, revealed that skin tone was considered the most important criteria when choosing a partner in three northern Indian states."

The film industry reflects this as well. Check out this article about the most popular actresses in Tamil Nadu. Then by contrast, have a look at the faces in this picture of a street scene in Chennai in Tamil Nadu.

So while so many Westerners are desperate to risk skin cancer in order to get a good tan, many people born with that colour seem desperate to get rid of it. And of course, amongst it all are big corporations making easy money of our insecurities.


  1. I saw a little article about this recently, I think it's very sad. I wish companies weren't willing to exploit this to make a buck.

  2. Isn't it horrible?....The Tamil movie industry has become rather notorious for casting North Indian actresses, mostly for their lighter skin tone. Even in Hindi films (and the Bollywood industry, in general), there are such asinine stereotypes associated with skin color (especially when it comes to women).

    You may have come accross this link already, but if not, check it out:

    Great blog btw!

  3. You mention the desire for people in countries such as ours to have tanned skin. Is this desire for tanned skin evidence of a hatred of very fair skin? Red-headed people, who tend to be very pale, tend to hate their skin color, particularly girls. So if the desire for lighter skin amongst Indians are signs of a pervasive inferiority complex, does that mean the general preference for tans amongst Nordic people evidence of a inferiority complex associated with pale skin? If the analysis is good for the goose (Indians), then is it equally good for the gander (Nordics)?

  4. @ Peter:

    Western preference for tanned skin has very different origins than the East Asian and South Asian preference for fair skin.

    This is a very recent phenomenon in the West. While a tan has been associated in popular culture with healthiness (as opposed to looking pale and pasty), I'm not sure if this was a prevalent idea say, a century ago.

    In East Asia the preference has clear class connotations. In South Asia it is related not only to class but indirectly to ethnic origin as well.

    On another level you could argue that it is related to a very common human trait to want something you haven't got.

  5. Sick and sad.

    I am so glad the majority of South Asians who are successful in the WESTERN media are darker (Parminder Nagra, that girl from the office, Aziz Ansari, etc).

  6. @ Mel:

    You got me thinking. I imagine that many of the South Asian actors that succeed in Western media would not have any chance in the Indian entertainment industry based on their skin colour.

    Eg. Mindy Kaling from "The Office", Sendhil Ramamurthy from "Heroes" and Naveen Andrews from "Lost".

    Some dark-complected African-Americans such as Eddie Murphy and Wesley Snipes have not found it an obstacle to success, interestingly.

  7. Yes - this certainly is an issue i've noticed in India when I go to visit. IMO its sort of akin to male penis enlargement - offer a cheap tablet or whatever to take without any side effects and I guarantee it will sell. It's not something you would necessarily be constantly worried about - but everyone would feel happier adding a couple of inches (or thinking they have - placebo effect anyone?).

    I also think its not just limited to South Asia. In uni, we have our fair share of international students (especially Chinese from Singapore) and in our introductions, many of them would comment about me being "fairer" than the "average Indian" as if it makes a difference.

    I grew up in a neighbourhood with a lot of Phillipinos around, and they too tend to have a difference regarding skin tone - do they face similar issues themselves?

    I also saw the abstract for a research paper done on skin tone on African Americans in the US - the paper concluded that African Americans with lighter skin tone are more likely to be successful (I think success was measured by education, income, etc). I'll try and hunt that article up.

    BTW Eurasian Sensation - if you don't mind... what ethnicity are you?

  8. Good answer, Eurasaion -- like almost always! LOL

    Speaking of Brazil (from which I returned in May), there is a similar association with skin color and class. So much so is this the case that skin color can often be used metaphorically to refer to class. Thus, "money whitens" is a common Brazilian saying. Somebody can be born "black" but later on in life become "white", that is, become wealthier. In this vein, soccer star Ronaldo described himself as "white" some time back, which caused some commotion because the American understanding of "race" as being immutable has evidently permeated Brazil enough that many in Brazil challenged Ronaldo on his matter-of-fact claim that he was "white" and he had to backtrack and identify himself as "black".

    I was sitting at a lunch with some people and the guy talking was mentioning some rich guy, and he said, "this guy's very rich, he's very white". This could have been taken literally, leaving one envisioning a loaded albino, or could be understood metaphorically, used to reinforce the preceding clause; and this is the interpretation I took.

  9. @ Nihar:

    I don't mind at all. I'm white Australian on my father's side and Indonesian (Javanese) on my mother's side. My partner, btw, is Tamil and certainly doesn't look like any of the actresses in the article I linked to.

  10. Ahh, the south-asian colour complex.....