Friday, February 09, 2007

Is it cause I is wheatish?

Spotted on DesiPundit: Saket Vaidya a.k.a. Vulturo (a DP contributor) thinks that "Madrasi chicks" are ugly. He clarifies in the comments, there and here, that he's talking about averages, not individuals. But it's more than an opinion: he calls it an "objective factual statement".

While Saket's post is full of stereotypes, the one I'll focus on here is this: he -- like most Indians -- seems to think fair skin ("complexion") is the primary measure of beauty.

We like to shout racism when it is convenient to us, most recently during the Shilpa Shetty flap. But some days ago, this post (also via DP) described, better than I could, what racist attitudes are like in India. (In short: we are the perpetrators, not the victims.)

I've seen the same, though less starkly. Some quotes from people I know and don't know:

  • About someone who married an American: "Thank god she didn't marry a black."
  • About roads in Delhi: "When they can rename roads with British names, like Cornwallis Road, why didn't they rename Muslim roads like Shahjahan Road?"
  • About me, after I've spent some days outdoors: "How frightfully dark you've become." (Actually, the word was "bhayankara" which means the same in Tamil as in Hindi.)
  • A relative's well-meaning domestic help, about our newborn kid: "Is he fair?" Me: "No, he's pretty much our complexion." She: "Bathe him in milk and apply cream, he'll become nice and fair..." She seemed mystified that I didn't want him to be fair.

Of course, such things are intimately linked with casteist attitudes. More comments:

  • To a woman I know: "Don't wear that jewellery, you'll look like a Sudra kid."
  • To another woman I know: "Don't make dosa that way, that's how sudras do it."
  • (About some noise from the street) "Oh, that must be some Sudra wedding..."
  • (Comment to a post on Abi's blog, about the absence of Bharat Ratnas in recent years): "they should catch a random Dalit and give him the Bharat Ratna." (The particular creature who wrote this basks in anonymity.)

We all know such attitudes, experience them, perhaps indulge in them. How do we change them?

Caste, if one dresses "neutrally", is not externally visible, so skin colour serves as a proxy. If we remove the idea that dark is ugly, we will have made some progress. I think the media should take the lead (and, in fact, bears huge responsibility for the state of affairs). We rarely see dark-skinned people in the media or advertising. Really, how many truly dark (not "wheatish") celebrities can you think of in India? After racking my brains for a bit, the only male I could think of is Vijay Amritraj, and I can't think of any darker-skinned woman than Nandita Das (who is not darker than average, at best, in India).

Take something as innocuous as news-reading. Back in the days when TV meant Doordarshan, and the only TV reviewer worth reading was Amita Malik in the Indian Express, I remember her talking about DD's treatment of one of their better newsreaders (I forget his name now): they stopped his services because (they openly said) his skin colour was too dark to look good on TV. Though people may not say such things openly any more, it's obvious that the attitude persists, in the private channels as much as on DD.

As for advertising, the only dark-skinned people I can think of (other than in "Fair and Lovely" cream ads) were in the fairly obnoxious "United Colors of Benetton" ads, where they seemed to be placed there just for the sake of "diversity". Other advertisers rarely even make that token gesture.

Our friend Saket would no doubt argue that all this is simply because dark-skinned people are, "objectively", butt-ugly. I say it's cultural conditioning.

In my time in Paris, I was struck by the number of advertisements for up-market, designer clothing, perfumes, cosmetics, that featured dark-skinned (African-origin) women (and sometimes men) -- not for the sake of diversity, but because they looked good. And it was not just the advertising: Paris's streets and metro trains are filled with people of all races, and an astonishing number of very elegant black women. Some of them wear European clothes with characteristic French flair, others wear traditional African costumes. My own perception of beauty has never had much correlation with skin colour, but having lived all my life in India up to that point, this was one of the more eye-opening things I found there.

Blacks have penetrated popular culture deeply in France -- in fact, in the pre-civil-rights days of the US, jazz legends like Bud Powell, Dexter Gordon, Kenny Clarke and many others took refuge in Paris from the racism back home. This cultural colour-blindness seems to predate the twentieth century: I was taken aback when I discovered that Alexandre Dumas was partly black. (For some reason, non-whites haven't penetrated more "serious" establishments like government and the TV news. Post civil rights, blacks in the US have had more success in such fields, and also in the private sector.)

I was also struck by the number of mixed-race couples on the streets -- far more than in New York, which is itself the most cosmopolitan city in the US, and (I'd guess) far, far more than the number of mixed-caste couples in India -- certainly more than the number of "colour-mismatched" couples, so to speak.

I'm not saying dark is beautiful: I'm saying dark is irrelevant. But dark is often beautiful, and we used to know that. In our own mythology, Draupadi was supposed to be dark, as was Krishna (whose very name means dark). Looking around me today, I see no shortage of extremely good looking, dark-skinned people in India. When do we start seeing them in the media?

And when do we stop seeing this absurd word "wheatish" in matrimonial ads?


Tabula Rasa said...

ok, i think you need to have this recommended to DP.

Space Bar said...

cosmetics, that featured dark-skinned (African-origin) women (and sometimes men) -- not for the sake of diversity, but because they looked good. And it was not just the advertising: Paris's streets and metro trains are filled with people of all races

Rahul: While agree with the general trend of your post, I'd say the reason people feature more cloured peopel in their ads is more commercially motivated; they are targeting these people, they'd like them to buy beauty care products.

Read Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth - have you read it? Just becaue some kind of people start to appear in ads, it is not an indication that they're more acceptable to society at large or that they escape prejudice. It only means they now have a purchasing power they didn't, and the advertisers want a chunk of that money.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

tr - well, at least one DP contributor reads this blog.

sb - I haven't read that book but I've read articles by her, I know the general trend of her stuff.

My impression about Benetton ads (and most "diverse" ads in the US) was just as you say: the dark-skinned ones were there for the sake of diversity or marketing to non-whites. With the ads in Paris (for very expensive products from YSL, Cartier, etc), it seemed like they were there because they fitted in.

But that impression could just be me. It could also be that, having decided to go black for marketing reasons, the French advertisers were much better at coming up with a setting that emphasised the black model's good looks. I suspect it's a bit of both -- they're better at providing visual identities for non-whites, but they're also more accepting of other races (as long as they speak French!).

Anant said...

Permit me to quote from my own post on some media matters :
``...what about the biases, innate colour consciousness, status consciousness, class consciousness of our media. What is the last time we heard about l'il Shilpa and the ogre Jade from a Karupaiian, or a Manonmani or a Tamil-Arasi? Why is it that the anchors are aways the Nehas and the Nidhis, etc.? Why only wheatish TV anchors?...''

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Anant - true. But I suspect that anchors born with such names would change them anyway... In fact, most celebrities we know, the world over, don't use the names they were born with.

Tabula Rasa said...

ps. wondering -- would a good madrasi like you prefer 'rice-ish' instead? :-D

Anant said...

Rahul: have you ever known someone born Neha but taking on the nom de guerre of Tamil-Selvi ;-) (still can't see to get my smiley right?!)!

Rahul Siddharthan said...

tr - I prefer brown rice.

anant - pseudonyms tend to go in one direction -- fewer syllables (1 or 2), pronounceable by as many people as possible. Nobody born Dylan or Denver would rename themselves Zimmerman or Deutschendorf either. (And the first "l" in "Tamilselvi" is not really an "l", which means only two linguistic communities in the world can pronounce it.)

Szerelem said...

It's interesting you mentioned black models in France. I think the French houses use black models the most, followed by England and the US. You hardly see any in Italy. So I guess it's also just the societal structure and history. Italy has very few immigrants. On the other hand France has very stong ties with Africa because of its colonial past.

Btw, the Beauty Myth is a prtty good read. And brown rice is way better :D

Rahul Siddharthan said...

szerelem -- well, I don't really follow the catwalks, I was talking more of ads in the metro stations. (Not all of them were for haute couture or expensive perfume either.)

You may be right about the immigrants/colonial ties thing. But I think Italy does have a lot of immigrants -- they keep arriving by the boatload from Africa -- and does have a colonial past, in Ethiopia, Somalia, etc. So it may be more complicated than that.

Tabula Rasa said...

i knew it! you're such a fraud madrasi -- would you like to be reminded of your 10th std hindi score? :-D

Anonymous said...

You're right about the metro and tv ads. They seem far more natural.

Ashes are gone, they blogged here said...

Nice post.
For me, it is the exact opposite. People tell me all the time that I am too fair and that I could easily pass as a foreigner, and I wish I was a bit darker.

Anonymous said...

Dark Indians can be extremely beautiful. In fact, two of the most beautiful women I've ever seen were from Sri Lanka (OK, not India, but you get my drift).

Thanks for the compliment you paid Amita Malik of the Indian Express. She is one of the great old dames of Indian journalism; they don't make them like her anymore. I'm biased, of course, as she happens to be my aunt. I'm her Pakistani nephew in New York. (It's a helluva family history.)

Nice blog.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

anonymous - thanks for the comment, always nice to get a comment after several months. You seem to have an interesting family history.