indian womenBY BIKRAM VOHRA

MARIA is a pretty girl,

What you call a bit of awright,

In the shadows, you ken see

She’d almost pass for wite (sic)

It was in Cape Town I read this observation, scrawled on a wall near the Sunday jetty entrance. My friend and poet, Ernst, known in those days as a Cape Coloured, pointed it out to me. It doesn’t change, does it, he said, not even in the new South Africa.

We have the same problem in India, I said, we hurt ourselves with equal dexterity.

He would not believe it, said I was making it up, just to keep the conversation going.

I said it was a bit much thinking he had the lien on prejudice, it’s a six way street, even whites can be the target, it works every which way. I said, in India we start young, we tell kids not to go in the sun, especially if they are girls, we tell them no one will marry you if you are dark.

I paint him this verbal picture of millions of little girls running scared, rubbing at their tender skins like an army of Lady Macbeths washing, washing, washing to rid themselves of the tan, otherwise it is straight to a life on the marital shelf.

He laughs because he thinks I am being funny. I tell him it is more tragic than he thinks because when it isn’t legalised it the texture of prejudice can be far more insidious.

Siblings are compared, the fairer brother or sister is extended privilege, often unspoken but always there, the other one, she’s a nice girl. Just a bit on the dark side.

A brown and black nation using nicknames based on colour, Inky, Blackie, Hubshi, Kaloo, a generation of teenagers spending pocket money on skin-fair creams that promise you a lovelier tomorrow, don’t you want to be fair and sunny and good-looking, fathers with marriageable daughters tossing in bed with worry and paying Rs 22 per column centimetre for the classifieds section where their daughter is sanitised in skin colour, a sort of whitish complexion the deliberate double ‘ish’ a ringing testimony to the depth of the pigment. Which genetic forefather infested our family tree?

Pencil companies selling crayons in which the light pink colour is called ‘flesh.’ In today’s liberal India. Fair babies are better looking than dark babies, knead them with dough and rub the flipping pigment out, apply bleach but get the melanin before it gets them.

I tell him that fair Indians are about as bad as the most racist Afrikaaners were and if an Indian married a black American the average middle class Indian family would curl up and die in a corner of their home.

I said it happened to a friend of mine and he did not tell them whom he had married so at Mumbai airport the family, having resigned themselves to sonny boy having plighted the troth with an American rather than one of their own creed, sought sanctuary in the fact that there was some tangible social significance to being a westerner. They all dressed up and fetched up at flight time and suddenly this gorgeous, bronzed black American girl flung herself full length on the arrivals floor, having been informed by her husband that Indian brides did this sort of thing when meeting their in-laws.

The in-laws were horrified.

The in-laws were deep into catatonic shock. How could their son do this to them?

I tell him the tragedy is the couple stayed five days of their one-month homecoming. The neighbours fell over with glee.

I change tack and tell him how cruel it is, how lovely human beings, especially girls, are victimised in little ways and not so little ways and how fairer progeny somehow get a better break on things. Even jobs. Fairer people just seem to be more visually acceptable.

They sell the idea on TV. Famous film stars underscore your chances if you are fairer-er.

Aunts never tell them don’t wear green you are too dark.

Relatives don’t tease them and leave them introverted and bewildered and hurting.

Friends don’t nickname them with spearing labels. Their self-esteem does not lie there mangled by insensitive and endless commentary.

I tell him we spend a lot of time slagging off racism elsewhere. And even when we learn of our history and the hurt we have caused we pretend not to hear it.

I once had a good friend who was Ugandan. Whenever we went out together, shopkeepers, waiters, attendants, cab drivers would have that ‘you must be getting it’ sneer on their faces. She was a highly talented expert in nuclear medicine.

Sure, we are afraid of what we don’t know and the prejudice is deep rooted. Don’t go in the sun, no one will marry you. From childhood they warn us, they tell us that the fair shall inherit the earth, never mind the meek. Will no one rid me of this pigment, a million Lady Macbeths rubbing at the damn spot.

Part of it is subliminal.

Language. Blackmail. Blackguard. Black-heart. Black deed. Brains whitewashed, the whole Pavlovian effect, see even the words reflect negatives. Yeah, but who made up the language.

Black market. Black mark. Black is the poor, the servants, the servile, the bottom rung, hence the prejudice. The whole nine yards of inferiority.

We pontificate endlessly about being anti-discrimination and we discriminate the most. When the Commonwealth Youth team came to Delhi all the whites were invited to Indian homes. The two blacks were invited to a coffee shop.

Our most famous jail is called Kala Pani. In Gujarat there is a village called Sirvan where descendants of Africans have lived for centuries but it rarely gets mention and its inhabitants live on the outside of Gujarati society. Most of India is unaware of this sociological anomaly.

They are still referred to as Habshis (from the city of Habsha in Ethiopia) and it is not a pleasant reference.

Even Mahatma Gandhi had this problem with colour.

In a Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India a 2011 biography of the Indian leader written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joseph Lelyveld the quotes are clear indictments. Gandhi was an unabashedly diehard supporter of India’s Hindu caste system, and allegedly would never mix with a lowly group or caste, and Lelyveld lays out Gandhi’s unedited views:

“We were then marched off to a prison intended for Kaffirs [offensive term equivalent to the n-word],” Gandhi complained during one of his campaigns for the rights of Indians settled there. “We could understand not being classed with whites, but to be placed on the same level as the Natives seemed too much to put up with. Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized — the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live like animals.”

A contribution is made by racial profiling. It is a white man’s world. He wins the battles and the war is nowhere near over. The colonial rule perpetuated the chasm. Hollywood stereotyping has added to it. Pimps are black. Crooks are black. Drug peddlers are black. Even India’s cinema industry equates villainy with dark skins.

Much of it is ignorance and pre-conceived notions of who is what. So insidious sometimes that even coloured people ‘suspect’ other coloured people.

Commercialising skin lightening products and using advertising to make them synonymous with success have an insidious impact on the mind. The coloured are made to feel inferior.

Harvard professor Hochschild says it brilliantly: Skin color is associated with individuals’ preferences as well as their outcomes. With some exceptions, most Americans prefer lighter to darker skin aesthetically, normatively, and culturally. Film-makers, novelists, advertisers, modelling agencies, matchmaking websites – all demonstrate the power of a fair complexion, along with straight hair and Eurocentric facial features, to appeal to Americans. Complexion and appearance are also related to how voters evaluate candidates and who wins elections. Given that skin color is connected with attitudes and life outcomes in myriad ways, one would expect it also to be associated with political beliefs and identities. To our knowledge almost no one has examined this expectation. We did so, and found a surprise: skin tone seems almost entirely unrelated to the political views of ordinary residents of the United States. We call this anomaly the skin color paradox.”

Then we go back home, picking up another tube of complexion lightening soap.

Want to be fair and lovely? Yes.

Three Africans were attacked in New Delhi by a racist mob. At the metro. For no good reason. Dark skin be damned. We are bigots. Stop pretending we are not, you wheatish complexioned brides, you hordes of idiot men buying skin-fair cream. She is nice but she is a little dark, mama, can we see the other girls.

Rich coming from a coloured nation. It is this whole savage African continent thing plus American slavery plus hardcore advertising guilting a nation into bias. And our own deep desire to be white.

Black people in Delhi pay a price. A famous restaurant in Mumbai once put a ban on their entry. Too much stereotyping. We think all black people are aggressive, they will hurt us so let’s hurt them first, they have to deal in drugs they are black, it is natural, they are criminals by perception. And why are we so stupid?

Many of us, regardless of our skin colour have been victims of racism and inverse racism where white people are targeted in an equally hostile and arbitrary manner. The sense of being humiliated and diminished is so strong you almost feel violated. A restaurant tells you to go away because your dress code is inappropriate and you are stung by the fragile excuse. You are rejected from a job for which you are eminently qualified because you don’t have the right geographical rooting.

And people like us from coloured countries make such a song and dance and demand correction. Then someone from our tribe from our ranks goes and does something so socially obscene that all we can do at first is being offended.

Somewhere in the Asian psyche is a colour consciousness that makes apartheid look like togetherness personified. The Chairman of a newspaper once refused a job to a black Brit even though he was miles ahead of the rest of the candidates because who would ‘want to be interviewed by him?’

When I protested as the Editor he said, ‘Noooooooooooo, he is not our type.’ Two months later I left the company after the bimbo we hired had arrived.

Even HR companies keep this factor in mind under the unspoken conspiracy of ‘aesthetics.’

While we might express shock and dismay at this sort of gross prejudice how much difference is there intrinsically when you compare it to the fact that the IPL7 broadcast’s largest advertising contribution was from a monotonous and oft repeated commercial on skin whitening cream with an emphasis on the dual power it had to lighten your skin tone and make you a happier person and make your life that much better.

Are these elements not all part of the same insidious links in the chain? Just because it isn’t so crass it does not make the nexus any less insulting. If I was a dark skinned player sitting in the dugout watching the telecast and having to suffer the insinuation that I am not as good as the fairer guy would I not think, “Just a minute, why me?”

Indian law forbids discrimination on grounds of colour. But the law offers little protection against barbed wire. And this is what it is. Racial slurring cannot be easily proven even though, paradoxically, casteist slurring can be. A PIL against a major company for promoting pink coloured lead pencils and skin-tone went nowhere very fast. A signature campaign against ‘fair is beautiful’ advertising still languishes even though 30,000 people demanded an end to such advertising. The biggest seller Emami is on record as saying: There is a market need for it so we supply it.

Officially, it has been placed on record that India has signed and ratified all the relevant conventions: the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The jury is still out on how much protection they offer.

Can you go to court to fight against discrimination on colour? Yes, you can. Will you win the case? Probably depends on what hue the judge is but I have still to find a case study where somebody won a legal battle and damages for being colour barred… or bruised.

India’s legal fiats are not fully legislated for colour as a factor. S.15: No discrimination ‘on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them’ Missing: Disability, sexual orientation, age and colour.

In Bangalore an NGO has started a Brown and Proud campaign. And that is just the point. Colour of your skin is nothing to be proud about.

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