On television, a fair woman walking down the street runs for cover as the sun hits her face. The voiceover says, “Protect your whiteness from the harmful rays of the sun.” In print ads for hair transplants and liposuction, the “before” picture is invariably of a dark-skinned Indian, but after the operation, the subject is thinner, with more hair, and decidedly whiter. In another ad, a Bollywood film star shows off her hair colour, an unnatural auburn blonde. As she runs her hands through her golden strands, she says, “Try L’Oreal for that natural you”.
Since when has fair skin and blonde hair been a “natural you” for India? Why indeed do the print media, television and film support such overt prejudice? Like the ban on liquor and cigarette ads, hate speech and child pornography, should there also be a complete ban on skin-whitening creams and other products that promote fairness, and hence prejudice?
The search for “fairness” in a country where people are many shades of dark — from milk chocolate to bitter chocolate — cuts across borders. Among the elite group of cricketers, Bombay film actors, TV personalities, club and bar-hopping glitterati in the metros, to rickshaw drivers, and Congo and Nigerian-beating shop owners in Delhi, the assertion of whiteness/fairness is a lifelong quest, and one that has become a badge of pride. Delhi and Mumbai’s escort services are run on Russian and Ukrainian women, who fetch a higher nightly rate than the Chinese, who are themselves paid more than dark-skinned Indian women.
How then does this inbuilt desire reflect in civic reality?
The recent cases of violence against Africans in Delhi are so barbaric that psychologists maintain they stem from a deep-seated hatred. Just outside the village of Kishangarh in south Delhi, three men forced an African male out of an autorickshaw and bludgeoned his skull with boulders. That, too, in full public view on a busy road.
A few days later in nearby Mehrauli, a Nigerian priest, returning home with his wife and four-month-old son, was dragged out of the car. After smashing the windshield, the attackers hit him with cricket bats, but he managed to escape. The violence is hardly the outcome of mere urban irritation. The
arguments over a restaurant bill or an autorickshaw fare are but triggers for something deeper.
Some years ago, when my sister was in India travelling with her white American husband, she was presumed a woman of loose morals trying to gain money and short-term respectability by attaching on to a white man. In most dealings with shop salesmen or hotel receptionists or restaurants, she was made to feel inferior in her own country. Short of the jeers and taunts that accost Africans in India, her brownness became a serious impediment.
In virtually every situation, racial stereotyping takes on new meaning. A successful African-American businessman was recently harassed while on an Incredible India tourist walk through Chandni Chowk with his wife. Presumed to be a Nigerian drug peddler, he was refused service in a jewellery store. Obviously, behind the idyllic Incredible India ad campaign, there lurks a more ominous message. Enjoy the snows of Himachal but if you are African, tread softly in the bylanes of Delhi and Bengaluru.
Social injustice in India is always clouded by personal prejudice. Moreover, such incidents speak of a public culture that is shaped by private inhibitions and lacks any civic rules of living collectively in a city. In my own neighbourhood, a Tamil student was denied rental accommodation, because the landlord felt the student was an African trying to pass off as an Indian. If the face-off weren’t true, it would be a sad and funny joke, the subject of black satire.
Do the Nigerians deserve better treatment? The answer will always remain in doubt when you have just picked out a fair-skinned daughter-in-law over a darker one. Would you allow your son to marry a Congolese woman of his choosing? Of course not. Not because of any racial prejudice, you say. Just because she won’t understand Indian family culture. The excuses are many, and they come in varying shades.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Unfair and Unlovely’.)