We, as people of the subcontinent, have recently started campaigning against the racial discrimination meted out to us in new pastures – particularly North America and Europe, and especially post-9/11. While the world still grapples with the fine line between civil liberties and security, and Latinos occasionally find themselves being victimised because the colour of their skin approximates that of South Asians, it may be a good idea to turn the microscope our way and see if we are capable of the racial tolerance that we are now demanding of others.
As an exercise to start with, let us proceed to the more influential artifacts of our society – our beloved Bollywood and Pakistani hit numbers. Who can forget chart toppers such as ‘Gorai gorai mukhde pe kala kala chashma,’ Aaj Ka Arjun’s ‘Gori hain kalaiyan,’ Vital Signs’ ‘Gorai rang ka zamana kabhi ho ga na purana,’ Tarazu’s ‘Haseena gori gori’ and Stereo Nation’s ‘Gallan gorian te gorian,’ among others.
There are countless examples in our popular music and traditional poetry that exalt a fair complexion over other skin colours. In fact, it has often been noted that movies cast a disproportionate amount of dark-skinned villains. Few people with dark skin are catapulted into the media limelight. Even in the realm of politics, there are few dark-skinned people to write home about. This may not be racism as it boils to the surface in America or South Africa, rather, this is a deep-seated racism that has methodically divided the haves from the have nots on the basis of skin color. The danger lies in the fact that most of us don’t even register this as a form of prejudice or discrimination. It’s as if that’s the way it was meant to be. People don’t think twice before terming a dark skinned person choora or maila.
The prejudice is ingrained in such a way that companies profit from it. Skin whitening products (most famously, Fair and Lovely) are the rage of the town, and not just for women. While the popular media has equated fair skin to beauty, it has also caused a surge in metrosexuality amongst men who cling to the trusted pink tubes for a Michael Jackson-like effect minus the plastic surgery. Bleach manufacturers also sell their products to not only lighten unsightly hair, but also to lighten their clients’ complexion – few can forget the slogan ‘bas pundra minute main ho gai mai gori gori.’ Long-held traditions such as the application of uptan on brides is also largely associated with ‘sanwarna’ of complexion.
Now I have nothing against fair skin, but this whole trend worries me. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop at merely wanting to be fair and promoting its appeal, which in itself necessarily means darker skin is less valued. This obsession with fairness extends to the ridicule of the darker-skinned. Punjabi stage dramas are a good barometer to ascertain the mood and thinking of the ordinary man. As a general rule, the improvised banter on these shows is abusive, but special treatment is reserved for the likes of Amanat Chan who has to rely on genius to counter what has now become routine abuse.
Subcontinental racism is often written off as a colonial remnant. But could it be a relic of even earlier times? What I do find intriguing is the fact that fair-skinned invaders have overrun this region for centuries. Think about it, it’s not just the British that were fair-skinned. The Mongols and Mughals (although ‘mughal’ is a mispronunciation of ‘mongol,’ the latter were actually ethnic Turks) were too. So were myriad Central Asian conquerors that saw India as a neat place to loot and plunder. Persians can hardly be classified as dark in comparison to subcontinental people either. So the theory goes, having seen all these light-skinned individuals rule the land and swap leadership between themselves for centuries, the superiority of the fairer complexion seems to have grown as a malignant tumor in our evolutionary makeup.
As much as we may try to deny it, if you spend more time than normal in the sun, your grandmother is likely to exclaim ‘Haye, yeh tumharai rang ko kia hua?’ (what has happened to your complexion?) As if being dark necessarily meant being dirty. The prejudice may run deeper in older generations, but we are still prone to using words with racial undertones in our daily lives without even realising it. Even in the diaspora, it is harder for liberal parents to accept their offspring dating black individuals, whereas whites are more generally accepted and desis naturally preferred.
What riles me is, and this may be my personal bias, is that the general skin tone of the subcontinent (at least Pakistan) is what we term ‘sanwala’ and it’s as beautiful a skin tone as any other, if not more. It’s unacceptable for us to crush the egos of so many around us just on the basis of their skin tone. My question is simple, how is all this not discriminatory? How is this not racist?
Would we even be bothered to learn we were in fact racist? Only last week I was having a conversation with a friend who was telling me about the latest collection of men that were hitting on her. One amongst them stood out for being more than just a wannabe vagabond and I asked her what was wrong with him. ‘Yaar, woh kala tha’ (he was black or dark-skinned). I just stood there shocked. This from someone with a foreign-qualified MBA, working in a reputable bank in Lahore. I proceeded to tell her how racist her comment was, to which she replied ‘So I’m racist, so what? Makes no difference to me’. It was at that moment I wanted it to make a difference to her, to all of us. We sit around praising the West with hollow words such as freedom and civil liberties. Isn’t it about time we discovered what some of them mean? And what responsibilities they entail?
As such, I am an active supporter of initiatives that tell ordinary people how beautiful they are. After all, those judges who awarded Sushmita Sen the Miss India crown over Aishwariya Rai the year both went on to win the big global pageants were spot on. Beauty may lie in the eyes of the beholder, it’s just time to kick racial prejudice out of the beholder’s eyes.