‘You have so beautiful white skin’: India and its problems with skin colour

You don’t get discriminated against because you are white; you get admired because you are white. And sometimes even molested.

Written by Petra Sorge | New Delhi | Published:December 9, 2016 10:28 am
racism, white skin, dark skin, racism in india, tourists in india, india racist, india racism, imperfecto, india skin racism, india skin colour (Representational image/Thinkstock)

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.

For Hard Look--- Foreign tourist at Janpath area in New Delhi. Special PCR Vans run by Delhi Police as Delhi Tourist Police to guide and help Foreign and Domestic tourist visits New Delhi. EXPRESS PHOTO BY PRAVEEN KHANNA 11 06 2016. *** Local Caption *** For Hard Look--- Foreign tourist at Janpath area in New Delhi. Special PCR Vans run by Delhi Police as Delhi Tourist Police to guide and help Foreign and Domestic tourist visits New Delhi. EXPRESS PHOTO BY PRAVEEN KHANNA 11 06 2016. Foreign tourists at Janpath area in New Delhi (Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

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.”

(The author is a German journalist who visited India. Views expressed by her are personal.)

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  1. D
    Dhruv Gupta
    Apr 17, 2017 at 2:11 pm
    While Indian Express is publishing articles like this, why is it doing half-page adverts about Fairness cream on the front page as in today's - Monday, April 17, 2017 - issue; U-B FAIR Cream is advertised, saying "An ideal remedy for men", "Ab star dikhega". "An ideal remedy for men" - clearly saying that there is something that darker skin men need remediation for? "Ab star dikhega" - darker skin men can't be stars? I highly respect your journalism of courage reporting. Hope you have the same values/standards when it comes to selecting advertisers.
    Reply
    1. B
      Beautiful Indian
      Feb 6, 2017 at 6:31 pm
      Our country is obsessed with fair skins and darker skin people are thus mistreated without understanding the fact that beauty is in personality and not looks or colors, In India most of the women are dark, but none of them are ugly............ :)
      Reply
      1. G
        Guess what
        Dec 11, 2016 at 4:19 pm
        So the author is trying to convey that racism exists everywhere and not just in the west. We already know that and it cannot be justified, only condemned.
        Reply
        1. E
          Earthkeeper
          Dec 10, 2016 at 10:53 am
          I have seen how these westerners are treated like zoo animals to take pictures with them lt;br/gt;How stupid is that
          Reply
          1. R
            Rex
            Dec 9, 2016 at 5:27 pm
            Symptom of a nation of losers that has been thrashed repeatedly for 1000 years .lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;A handful of white brits subjugated the entire sub-continent and Indians have been slavishly worshiping their white masters ever since. lt;br/gt;This depravity is not restricted to skin color , they also ridicule each other when they do not speak English incorrectly.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;The roots of their self-loathing is also deeply ingrained in the hindu caste system , as a result of which , Dalits (of a darker hue) were detested and oppressed for millennia.
            Reply
            1. A
              andy
              Dec 11, 2016 at 1:55 pm
              Kayani Shobi y ur family and ur forefather r ugly and very bad atude are born in India
              Reply
              1. A
                Achoot
                Dec 10, 2016 at 3:31 am
                This is why I'm not proud to be an Indian
                Reply
                1. B
                  Balagopal
                  Dec 9, 2016 at 4:09 pm
                  Vow! Ms Sorge needs to be admired for bringing this very sad and brutal reality in India. I hope Indians will encourage people like her to tell this through TV channels and other media outlets and prompt some introspection. The best way to fight these types of social issues is through frank and open discussion and not hide behind "political correctness".Modern discovery of the human genome revealed that race and ethnicity(along with skin color and other physical features) are a social myth and have no scientific standing as we humans share the same genetic features as a species. The United States (and a few Western European Nations that have dark skinned people) is still grappling with the issues of discrimination based on skin color of a section of its potion.
                  Reply
                  1. V
                    Venk
                    Dec 9, 2016 at 8:27 am
                    Indians are racist. You have to look at the matrimonial columns.
                    Reply
                    1. V
                      vidya
                      Dec 10, 2016 at 10:13 am
                      The variability of color in the Indian potion, from dark to wheat to fair makes it an un-self-conscious talking point and people in India talk of a skin color almost like they would talk of the weather in England . In general, in many matters,there is less sensitivity seen in interactions.The preferential treatment to whites comes from the colonial hangover and from the lure of dollars, also the cultural conditioning that the white potion has probably serves to ure discotheque owners that they would be unlikely to create trouble on coming in contact with dancing, drinking westernised females. The general Indian tendency to not have standard equitable rules and have too much of discretionary powers is the main cause of the unsavoury incident in the Imperfecto bar. I appreciate the blog writer for calling it out. All Indian establishments should be encouraged to create equitable rules by the snapdeal, ahimsa way.
                      Reply
                      1. K
                        Kayani Shobi
                        Dec 11, 2016 at 9:28 am
                        In reality Indians are deserving this, due to their bad atude and ugly body shape.
                        Reply
                        1. J
                          JT Jassa
                          Dec 9, 2016 at 6:14 am
                          Indians are ashamed of their dark skinned. In North India, men want a fair skinned wife. Dark skin is considered ugly and some with dark skin have to commit suicide. Lot of rich people use bleaching skin creams including men. It is just our nature that we like fair skin.
                          Reply
                          1. M
                            madonnasebestein
                            Dec 9, 2016 at 9:27 am
                            Suggest the some ideas about this writing research paper writing service. Furthermore remember, it be supposed to there the topic of the thesis and also make a statement about the point in relation to the topic. The thesis declaration must inform the person reads what the paper is about and also ist show the writing and maintain the argument listen carefully. This is a case of need to learn how to do something and learning under the job is a lot worse than study in the clroom, since once are on the job. visit here:
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                              madonnasebestein
                              Dec 9, 2016 at 9:29 am
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                              1. N
                                nirmala kashyap
                                Dec 9, 2016 at 7:00 pm
                                You are absolutely right. I too feel that India has to learn that skin doesn't matter. What you think n do perhaps matters. I have seen beautiful girls feeling they are ugly. It needs to change
                                Reply
                                1. N
                                  Nishant
                                  Dec 11, 2016 at 5:13 pm
                                  If someone likes someone, skin colour does not matter, as it is other 'person' who matters. Women whether brown or black skinned can be as attractive as fair skinned, and things are in one's mind. A fair skin has more contrast inbuilt into facial features, and photographs are therefore better. With the new generation of cameras even this does not hold true, as skin tone, texture, sheen are the ultimate test of skin's beauty and reflection of one's health. People should look at someone's skin without makeup, and the best time to see it is in early morning, the moment one wakes up. The older generation of elders were no fools, as they would make a surprise visit early in the morning to evaluate someone's true beauty. Fair skin is a misplaced definition of beauty in Indian society, more so in women folk themselves, and if they could change this, they will do a favour to themselves.
                                  Reply
                                  1. N
                                    Nishant
                                    Dec 9, 2016 at 5:49 am
                                    There is always a natural attraction for the opposite end of spectrum, as far as the skin colour goes. Over human face, there is less contrast between the skin, hairs and iris amongst dark skinned people, and it shows up clearly in photographs. Most of Indian God's are white and fair (the exceptions are jet black), and they appear pretty. Extremely fair, non tanning white skin could be a health hazard, and it develops freckles at an early age. Interestingly, dark skin saves destruction of folic acid in sun bathed tropics, but white skin allows more vitamin D production by allowing sunlight to penetrate deeper in sunlight deprived polar laudes. The marvel of nature lies in humans ability to tan, which allows seasonal adaptation of its colour and necessary role in health. Tanning allows darker people to live north, and white people to live south, seamlessly. In reality, beauty is only skin deep, and this becomes obvious the instant when one interacts with another human !
                                    Reply
                                    1. K
                                      Kannan
                                      Dec 9, 2016 at 7:57 am
                                      Indians have no shame in loving white skin and have no remorse in holding black money.
                                      Reply
                                      1. D
                                        David
                                        Dec 10, 2016 at 2:34 am
                                        Indians are mis-educated. Their schools, their media, their movies.lt;br/gt;The majority of Indians are brown to dark skinned. Something to be celebrated.lt;br/gt;It's better that such low life culture and civilization either changes or gets destro.lt;br/gt;Imagine people hating their own skin. lt;br/gt;But to be fair. The reverse is true too with a difference. In the US white people spend billions to darken/tan their skin with lotions, taming booth and sunbathing. The difference is they don't discriminate their fellow whites. Whiteness is power and privilege.lt;br/gt;Indians are simple, naive and m0rons. Look at a Hi-ndu, all he cares is his immediate family. No sense of brotherhood. lt;br/gt;I am a different Hindu that considers features as opposed to color what makes a individual attractive. lt;br/gt;I have seen beautiful black people in Africa and ugly. lt;br/gt;Likewise beautiful and ugly whites in US and Europe. lt;br/gt;Same goes with india.
                                        Reply
                                        1. R
                                          rahul
                                          Dec 10, 2016 at 4:02 pm
                                          I really agree with the kind of discrimination exist in this country. even I am one of the victims of this. its true that most of us are misguided by media.skin has become more important than soul and thats the tragedy. You can say it might be because of british influence on us or it could be anything but one thing is for sure that it never existed earlier. we are the worshiper of Krishna whose name means dark skeaned. but we would not understand that. instead of knowledge in jaya(Mahabharata) we would like to trust the knowledge of Shah rukh khan posing for skin tonner cream ..
                                          Reply
                                          1. R
                                            rahul
                                            Dec 10, 2016 at 3:54 pm
                                            krishna was dark skinned
                                            Reply
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