Colorism in India 

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Some traditional Indian weddings enlist the help of a matchmaker in order to find two compatible people to be married. The show Indian Matchmaking looks into this process, showing at times the affect that skin tone has on this decision. Photo by Kunjan Detroja/Wikimedia Commons.

During the summer of 2020’s quarantine, many of us found ourselves bored and unsure of what to do with our time. For some of us, that meant binging Netflix shows that we may or may not have otherwise dedicated so much time to. 

In August 2020, I hopped on the bandwagon and started watching the popular Netflix show, “Indian Matchmaking,” partly because I was bored and partly because there were so many memes and jokes circulating about the show, so I wanted to see what the hype was about. The show follows matchmaker Sima Taparia as she tries helping her clients find love so they can get engaged and subsequently married. Using a “biodata,” which is essentially a list of characteristics of each client, as well as astrological characteristics, she worked to match her clients together. 

As entertaining as I found it, the show draws attention to glaring societal problems. One of the issues shown in “Indian Matchmaking,” that is prevalent around the world, especially in India, is the idea of colorism. 

Colorism is essentially the bias against people with darker skin tones and is typically perpetuated by people within the same racial group. In India, colorism is driven by the caste system, which  is still a pervasive social stratification despite being banned by law, as well as the lingering effects of colonialism. During the British rule of India, those with lighter skin were treated better and had more social mobility. 

In “Indian Matchmaking,” the idea of colorism is not extremely obvious, but it is nevertheless present. During the eight-episode season, the idea of “fair-skinned” candidates is mentioned several times, as having lighter skin made it easier for Taparia to match her clients. This was especially important for Taparia’s female clients, which introduces an element of sexism as well. 

A scene from the movie Dabangg 2, a production from Bollywood. Bollywood is one of the largest producers of movies in the world, and it is notorious for pushing classic fair-skinned beauty standards into its movies. Photo courtesy of ARBAAZ KHAN PRODUCTIONS.

It is difficult to blame one single individual for pushing forth these ideas because the root of the problem is much larger; rather, it is important to look at Indian society as a whole and focus on how colorism is perpetuated  and how people hold up these beliefs, because challenging the societal norms can sometimes be extremely difficult. 

One significant proponent of colorism is the nation’s largest film industry, Bollywood. Bollywood has been known to cast many actors with lighter skin, sometimes resorting to foreign-born actors with little experience in films and/or Hindi solely because of the light color of their skin.  

Last year, many Bollywood stars received backlash for their involvement in campaigns for  skin lightening creams such as “Fair and Lovely” and “Fair and Handsome.” Advertising these skin lightening creams is not only detrimental to the mental health of those who believe they need to use creams to attain ideal beauty standards, but the contents of the creams are also concerning. In 2014, a study found that the Fair and Lovely cream contained high levels of mercury, lead, nickel and chromium and that overuse of the cream could cause severe skin damage. And of course, the fact that people are told that they need this cream is yet another method that perpetuates colorism  as people are told that they need lighter skin to be beautiful and accepted in society. 

Many of the Bollywood stars who have promoted these skin lightening creams, including Priyanka Chopra, also received backlash. After Chopra vocalized support for the Black Lives Matter movement last year, she was criticized for being hypocritical, insincere and performative due to her involvement in perpetuating colorism through  skin lightening cream advertisements.  

Colorism everywhere, including India, spreads anti-Black racism, which was something that many have pointed out and have started fighting against. In an episode of “The Patriot Act,” released last summer, comedian Hasan Minaj tore into this issue, emphasizing the anti-Black racism and colorism prevalent in Indian society. 

A billboard in India that directly attacks the idea of connecting attractiveness to skin tone. Despite this progress, the need for billboards like this is an indication that the issue is still very much present. Photo courtesy of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley on Flickr.

There has been increasing awareness regarding colorism in India, especially in conjunction to the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. Unilever, a company involved in making skin-lightening products, changed their advertisements removing mentions of the words “fair,” “white” and “light” from their products and a major Indian marriage website called Shaadi.com changed its settings to ensure clients could not set a preference for skin color.  

Others, like Minaj, have tried to draw attention to this issue. An example of this is author Siddhartha Chattopadhyay, who recently released a book highlighting the harm caused by colorism in Indian society and its particular effects on women. Chattopadhyay’s hope is that readers empathize with the character negatively impacted by colorism and connect it to the greater society, realizing that these beauty ideals are wrong. 

Despite these changes and the increasing awareness about colorism and its effect in India and Indian societies as a whole, this problem is still significant and is an extremely harmful mindset to perpetuate. Regardless of what has been done, clearly not enough change has come about, given that this is still largely the attitude of Indian society. It is high time that people understand that colorism occurs, that it cannot just be accepted and the societal norms must change. 

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