It happens in the Metro. In a religious site. In the middle of the street. Someone stops me, waving his/her mobile phone: “Can I get a picture of you?” It’s not like I haven’t been photographed before. But in India, rarely a week passes without being asked to pose for someone. Since my parents taught me always to be polite, I succumbed – and smiled.
But never did I understand where this Indian fascination with me comes from. Is it my clothing? Certainly not – this bride in her glittering sari who insisted to get my picture was far more beautiful than me. Or take that utterly oversize, washed-out gown I was given in Delhi’s Jama Masjid mosque to cover up what they considered as inappropriate: I looked ridiculous – and yet five young men kept clicking from all sides.
Was sexism the answer to my question? Not really. At a temple in Varanasi, this eight-year-old innocent girl marveled at me. “Madam, you are so pretty,” she said and lined up for a group selfie with me and her friends. At the Goa shore, a woman in a sari, staring at myself in bikini, finally pinpointed it: “You have so beautiful white skin.” I shot up in disbelief: “But you have beautiful skin, too.”
The answer to the photomania is racism – in an inverted way. You don’t get discriminated against because you are white; you get admired because you are white. And sometimes even molested.
Like that next day, end of November: A group of male photographers walked along Palolem Beach in Goa with huge telephoto lenses. They took close-ups of white women, including two of my German friends.
Whiteness is beauty – and a business model. The market for fairness products is a billion dollar one and according to the BBC, in 2010 even outstripped those of Coca-Cola and tea. In 2012, Bloomberg reported a sales figure of 258 tons of skin whitening creams. And even men apply those: Bollywood idol Shah Rukh Khan became a prominent marketer.
But this hits a sour note. The trend for skin-lighteners has a triple background – class, caste and colonialism.
Especially in rural India, people with a darker complexion are still discriminated against. A friend whose parents are doctors told me that even in an urban environment, people often assume that he is an assistant, labourer or cleaner. Or take the stereotypes all the “Dalits” still have to encounter: those who are fair are more likely upper caste, due to the Aryan-Dravidian divide. Lastly, a reporter on migrant issues told me that this frenzy for fairness could also be a “hiccup” of India’s past under white British rule.
Using skin whiteners is so customary that beauticians don’t even think twice when applying it. When my German colleague Karola entered a beauty salon in Madurai with three of her friends, she was shocked to see that they poured bleaching agent in her footbath: Her legs are already chalk white.
But “Caucasian” people are not only marveled at, they also get preferential treatment. When the four friends entered that Madurai salon, there was only place for three customers. The employees picked out the three “pure” white Germans. Our Indian-German friend Julia, whose skin is darker, unfortunately could not be served.
Sure, back then, I would have said: It’s because Julia is already the best looking in the group. She doesn’t need extra beauty treatment. I don’t say that anymore.
On November 26, I went to the “Imperfecto” bar in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village with my German colleague Karola and two Indian friends. Three of us already had ordered food on the roof-top terrace, whilst the fourth of us, Biren was running late and got stopped by the counter lady: “Stag entry is Rs 1000.” Karola went downstairs to ask why Biren had to pay when we hadn’t been charged.
The employee said: “I saw you two Americans walking in with an Indian guy’.” Karola clarified, “we are German not American”. The lady at the counter said, “Yeah, you are white so I didn’t charge you; but he is Indian. He will have to pay.”
That was something new: We white skinners get in for free, whilst Indians have to pay? What a strange country to discriminate against its own citizens!
That night, no manager was available, just the supervisor of the service team. He said to Biren: “This is a management policy and we cannot do anything”. When I later reached out to the General Manager Operations, Merwyn N., he told me this was a case of “miscommunication. The policy is actually to discourage single men to enter”. With huge crowds coming to Hauz Khas at night, the alcohol they consume, “I have to be careful”. He added that his staff might have tried “to get out of a sticky situation” and that he would take “appropriate measures”.
Upon my question whether he sees accountability on the side of the management if there is “miscommunication”, Merwyn N said: “The management is nowhere responsible for that.”
To be fair: Your skin is not only an issue when you’re a white woman in India. Upon our return to Germany, at the airport in Frankfurt, two women stared at my male colleague Fabian. “Wow”, they said, “You have such a beautiful tan.”