To be Fair or Exotic?
Krishnokoli ami taarei boli
Kaalo tare bole gayer loch
Meghla deener dekhechhilam maathe
O kaalo meyer kaalo horeen chokh
Ghomtah mathay chhilona maathay taar motei
Kaalo? Taa shey jotoi kaalo hok
Dekhechhi taar kaalo horeen chokh…
I understood the difference between fair and dark ever since I can remember as a child. Such differentiations become crystal clear to even a small child of four, especially when she has a fair-as-milk mother and two fair-skinned brothers whereas she obviously took on her father's darker features. At home, distant yet meddling female relatives would constantly comment on what a pity it was that I did not take after my mother, almost as if it is a crime that I look like my father's side of the family. Abroad, I survived through high school racist pranks on the part of other Asians, leaving certain scars which took quite a while to heal. What bothered me then and continue to anger me still is that if I was fine with myself, why couldn't others? I have always been quite secure and confident in my dark olive skin. I truly loved myself for the way I was made. I can honestly claim that never in my life have I ever wanted to be fairer (ergo, prettier!), but rather felt content with whatever physical attributes I had inherited. I consider myself to be one of the few lucky women around me to have been raised with such self-appreciation by a strong paternal side of the family, and especially my father who always assured me that the beauty of a Bangali woman was in her shayma rong.
It is therefore no surprise that Tagore's famous song as quoted above became some sort of a personal anthem of self-love and reclamation. But recent re-reading of the lyrics parallel to further life experiences of my own as a dark girl and those around me, makes me revisit that blind love for both the song and its composer. Though a man far ahead of his time, Tagore was also a product of his time. Of the hundreds of love songs composed by him, this song is particularly distinct because it marks out the object of desire as a dark-skinned girl. The song therefore is not a ground breaking piece of literature, questioning the entire fair-dark dichotomy, but very much keeping the structures in place within which he introduces the following two ideas: (i) no matter how dark the girl, she can be attractive and/or (ii) she may be dark, but she has far more attractive features. Sardonically, in a lot of ways Tagore was a man before his time, for today, the politically correct, liberal minded people seem to think along these lines dark CAN be beautiful.
Last week's Star Magazine and its team of writers should truly be commended for bringing this much privately discussed yet publicly avoided issue of the fairness fetish that most of the world's "people of colour" harbour. A number of dark-skinned women of my acquaintance, including myself, have wanted to write about the tendency to make a quick buck in this market driven society, by exploiting the inherent racism in us. But it seemed like all we could offer for the longest time was sheer anger and pain of having gone through emotionally scarring experiences of being born in this hue. It is therefore encouraging to read an article which brings forth this complicated and quite shameful aspect of our society to the limelight, while making space for constructive criticism to take place. But while reading the article, it felt as if too much focus was placed on such corporations as Unilever for creating products like Fair and Lovely, playing on the existing societal colour prejudice. The historical context for which so many different regions, especially South Asia still practice these archaic colour preferences was covered in one sweep. The problem with blaming trans-national corporations such as Unilever in my view is that it serves nothing more blowing off steam. What should never be undermined let alone forgotten is that we, as a society, have made space for corporations to create such a profitable market based on our own complexes. If the writers view this skin preference as a societal problem leading further social degradation and thus the need for a way out of the vicious cycle, we then do need to revisit history. More so, we need to criticise our own position to that history and our own practices, which have perpetuated this internal racism. To be more precise, we need to ask our own mothers, sisters and friends why they have internalised such discriminatory ideologies and continue to impose them on other women around them.
In more than one occasion, I have either been the recipient of or the witness to hurtful comments made not by men, but by other women. This is not to say that men do not add to the discrimination or that men are not discriminated against because of their skin colour, but overall, the colour complex plays out more among women than between women and men. Too many mothers brainwash their sons into bringing home a fair-pretty bride; too many dark skinned women are made to feel that they should do something about their complexion by other female relations; too many times women make colour based comments on what is or not beauty. The complex history of race and colour fetish is either generally overlooked or refused to be taken seriously. What is also further detrimental is how this light skin obsession translates into severe racism on our part against those ethnic groups of darker complexions. I have lost track of the number of racist comments and subtle innuendos by even the educated people of our society against people of African origin and even dark -skinned South Indians.
On the flipside, there has been an emergence in global trends to "go ethnic" and "be natural". It is now "in" to be dark and ethnic because there is an element of the exotic to the whole Asian beauty package. Having attended a hippie American college, "exotic" was usually attached to a number of us South Asian girls on campus (somehow being South Asian meant that we inherently know tantric ways of life and can cook up a curry storm!). Many of them enjoyed the attention from the white men for whom this was the one chance for a little bit of masala/colour in their lives. My usual response was, what am I, a tropical fruit?
"Exotic" is a creation, a marking of the "other", something different with certain sexual connotations to it when referred to women. It is a cleverly packaged and marketed image sold to us via media and other consumer goods playing on our very colour complexes. One day the package is sold to us in the form of fairness creams and another day we buy the ethnic/natural/dark images. Whichever shape or form, these packages are rooted deep within our obsession with wanting, trying and failing to be light-skinned and enforcing this desire onto our daughters, sisters and friends.
Along with complexion obsession, with the exposure to especially Bollywood culture, young girls desperately not only try to be fairer like the Indian actresses, but dramatically change their entire appearance to achieve that made-up-glamour look. There is no problem in my view to be an effective consumer of skin lightening products and doing everything that is possible to look like one's favourite Hindi movie actress. What does become a problem is when others are coaxed and cajoled into being proponents of this racism. What is a problem is when certain people's preferences of beauty become the dominant standard of how women should be.
These packages of fairness in a tube or the exotic in a music video are condescending of darker-skinned women. They can be stopped only if we as women allow ourselves and each other to accept and love both our outward and inner beauties. We must break our prejudices to help us to love ourselves for being individuals who are both unique and beautiful. Tagore, despite a product of his time and society, still saw the beauty in a dark skinned, free spirited village girl, and composed a song. Has the time not come for us to take a step further in breaking these archaic practices once and for all?
(R) thedailystar.net 2006