A white-skinned woman's unfair experience of racism in India

A twisted version of racism makes India racist against its own people.

 |  7-minute read |   17-12-2016
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“Pigmentation: The colouring of the skin, hair, mucous membranes, and retina of the eye. Pigmentation is due to the deposition of the pigment melanin, which is produced by specialised cells called melanocytes.”

Webster's New World Medical Dictionary, 3rd Edition

The more the melanin the darker the skin. So much about the science behind skin colour. Sounds easy. The social aspect is, of course, much more complicated everywhere around the world. But for me, India beats all when it comes to skin colour.

It was in 2005 when I came to India for the first time. I came to work in an NGO on the outskirts of the IT metropolis, Bangalore. It must have been my first week, when I was happy to find a supermarket. I remember standing in an aisle near a row offering cosmetics, trying to find a day cream. But the unfamiliar brands confused me — all of them had “fair” written on them. Puzzled by the term, I figured it could only mean fair, as in the sense of treating somebody unfair or fair. What a weird concept for the Indian beauty industry, to sell "fair" creams - I wondered.

About three weeks later, I was invited to a party and met a girl who proudly told me that she worked as a model. Maybe it was the surprised look on my face that made her add: “Yeah, I am not that pretty, but I am really fair, that’s why I am a model.” That was the moment I found out, what "fair" really meant in the Indian context.

main-qimg-8d48cde036_121616055634.jpg No matter how many creams we use, how much we bleach, twist and turn, we can’t change who we are.

After 10 years of numerous encounters with the concept of fairness in India, my notions about the issue have travelled an impressive sloping curve - from finding it hilarious, to irritating, to - at times - making me utterly mad. Forget about all the times I was asked for a selfie by strangers, secretly clicked on a beach in Goa, or the stares I invite when walking the streets (even in my worst outfits, greasy hair, no make-up and pimples all over my face). I have never got this close to feeling like a celebrity.

What really upsets me are incidents such as the one I recently experienced at Delhi’s party neighbourhood, Hauz Khas village. My German friend, Petra, an Indian friend and I went out for dinner to a restaurant called Imperfecto. They had a nice rooftop, just what we were looking for. So the three of us entered and found the perfect table, waiting for another (Indian) friend of ours to arrive.

He was running late and then called to say that he got held up at the entrance by the staff who demanded that he pay Rs 1,000 as cover charge. I rushed downstairs to clarify that since the three of us - who had arrived only 10 minutes before him - hadn’t been asked to pay the entrance fee, there must be a misunderstanding. I imagined a little persuasion would do the trick. Clearly, I was far-off.

The young girl at the entrance had an I-care-a-damn attitude about her when she strictly told my friend and I, “He has to pay now. It’s already after 9.” No argument would convince her that we didn’t pay either, having arrived at 9:50 pm. After a while, she snapped: "You were two American girls with one Indian guy, that’s why you didn’t have to pay. He is Indian, he has to pay!”

Also read: A foreigner's tale in Delhi: Hunting for an ATM, struggling for cash

There it was. She didn’t have to say it. We understood: You are white, that’s why you didn’t have to pay. My friend, Biren, gasped for air, as I impulsively stated: “But we are from Germany, not from America."

In hindsight, it must have been my brain, now overloaded with the sudden experience of racism, which had made me fight for the correctness of my origin. It took some time to sink in, but then we exploded. Biren was furious and heartbroken; I was shocked. The four of us left the premises devastated and in disbelief, struck by what had just happened.

Like I said before, from my first encounter with the fairness cream at a supermarket to this day, I have had several confrontations with India’s love for fair-looking skin. But that night it dawned on me that India has turned my concept of racism upside down. Normally, racism works this way: You think your own race is superior to another. In India, however, when it comes to skin colour, it’s the other way around.

White: good, dark: bad. It’s a twisted version of racism that makes India racist against its own people.

To me, please excuse the cliched pun here, this seems immensely unfair. And like all racism, it goes beyond the idea of beauty. If you want to find a good job, get an education, or even find a husband in India, fair skin is crucial. It’s connected with success, power and beauty, while dark skin is the indicator of a less-privileged background.

And it has been so for ages. Now, you could blame this mindset on a colonial hangover or dig deeper into history and blame it on the Aryan (fair) versus Dravidian (dark) division. The fact remains that India is obsessed with pigmentation. It’s the most-racist country I have ever been to. The consequence of our own personal racism encounter in Hauz Khas is as sad as the incident itself. We contacted the management at Imperfecto and Merwyn N, its general manager, informed us that it was but a “case of miscommunication”.

He said the policy was to to discourage single men from entering the premises and that his staff might have wanted to get out of a sticky situation. He assured us he would take “appropriate measures”. Well, there was no miscommunication in “he is Indian, he has to pay”, and it was not about us being women and or friend being a single man.

The only appropriate measure would be a change of management or mindset, but maybe our expectations from a restaurant chain to stand up against racism in India were unreasonable.

I guess, we are the ones who should start taking responsibility for and re-evaluate our mindsets first. So, to all the Indian women (and gentlemen) reading this:

The cosmetics industry all around the world has a very strong interest in dictating to us what beauty is. They have done it for centuries and will come up with even more wicked and subtle approaches in the future. In their opinion, beauty is the one thing that is the hardest to achieve.

That’s exactly how they catch us in their web of lies, promising us that, with a little help from them, we could betray our "deposition of the pigment melanin" and finally be more successful, more beautiful, more popular and loved.

This is why I shout out to all of you — I would kill to have your beautiful skin, the darker the better. Because what nobody tells you about fair skin is that it comes with very obvious disadvantages: Every little skin irritation is so clearly visible. Yes, I am talking about the red spots, pimples, dark circles under my eyes, blue veins on my legs, cellulites, you just name it.

But I learnt to love who I am. Because the bottom line is: No matter how many creams we use, how much we bleach, twist and turn, we can’t change who we are.

The world should not be black or white, it should be black, white and a thousand shades in between.


Karola Körber Karola Körber @karokoerb

The writer is a science journalist, author and news producer for German public broadcasting company ZDF.

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