Rudi Ann-Miller in her article ‘Fairness and self-honesty’ in The Yale Globalist wrote India is a vibrant, colorful nation, but when it comes to skin tone there is only one color everyone wants to be: fair. She was hailing Bollywood dusky beauty Nandita Das for her endorsement of the campaign Dark is Beautiful launched by the non-profit organization Women of Worth in 2009 and her berating of beauty companies for their endorsement of fairness creams.

I so wanted to tell Rudi that it wasn’t limited to India but this prejudice was prevalent in the whole subcontinent. Colorism was coined by the phenomenal writer Alice Walker in 1982. It is defined as skin color stratification and oppression in which those of lighter complexions are favoured over their darker counterparts. Colorism is not synonymous with race. Race depends on multiple factors (including ancestry); therefore racial categorization does not rely solely on skin colour. Skin color is only one mechanism used to assign individuals to a racial category, but race is a set of beliefs and assumptions assigned to that category. Racism is the dependence of social status on the social meaning attached to race; colorism is the dependence of social status on skin color alone. In order for a form of discrimination to be considered colorism, different treatment must not result from racial categorization, but from the social values associated with skin color.

Colorism can be found specifically in parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, East Asia, India, Latin America, and the United States. The abundance of colorism is a result of the global prevalence of “pigmentocracy”, a term recently adopted by social scientists to describe societies in which wealth and social status are determined by skin color. Throughout the numerous pigmentocracies across the world, the lightest skinned peoples have the highest social status, followed by the brown-skinned, and finally the black-skinned who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. This form of prejudice often results in reduced opportunities for those who are discriminated against on the basis of skin color.

There are scores of women across caste, creed and sect lines that experience this discrimination resulting in low self-esteem, low self-worth, and a distorted sense of their body image and their place in society. There are many who get rejected by suitors because they are not “fair enough”. One has to see the matrimonial ads in the Classifieds for Brides Wanted. Every single one of them starts with – Wanted, a fair, ... Even the languages across the subcontinent have curse words for dark, dusky women. Kaali kaloti, or my own native tongue’s “kale vaatij’ (black cleaning woman) is proof of the internalization of colorism.

It doesn’t help if every other song released by the music industry is about – “chittyan kalaayian”, or “chaudvi ka chaand ho”. Nor does the endorsement of fairness creams and skin whitening agents by celebrities bode well for those women and girls. Not that it stops them from becoming victims of violence, street harassment, etc. If anything, such discrimination only justifies that violence because somehow the “black” ugly women are just not worthy enough for respect and dignity. I should know, being at the receiving end most of my life.

Nandita in her interviews agrees that though there is a long history behind the obsession with skin color, owing to caste and culture, she believes the current causes should be targeted first – that of pressure from peer groups, magazines, billboards and TV adverts that perpetuate this idea that fair is ideal. Her views are further supported by Dr. Radhika Parameswaran, Professor in the School of Journalism and adjunct faculty in the Cultural Studies and India studies programs at Indiana University, Bloomington whose areas of research include feminist cultural studies, gender and media globalization, South Asia, qualitative methods, and postcolonial studies.

Dr. Radhika explains how “…using a term such as colorism or skin color discrimination takes it beyond the term prejudice, where prejudice sometimes tends to keep discrimination at the individual level and reduces its significance and importance.” She further asserts that “by calling it colorism what we are actually doing is saying that the ways in which dark-skinned people are treated as inferior is systematic, it’s widespread, it’s a part social, economic and cultural institutions and it needs to be tackled society-wide. We can’t do it by educating one person at a time. And perhaps we even have to think about legal solutions once you think about it hard enough-how do we tackle this problem?”

Dr. Radhika approves calling it colorism as “a term because many many years ago there was no term for this kind of discrimination. So by calling it colorism we are equating it to other forms of oppression like racism and sexism which have been studied for a long time. And, which affects many different sections of society. These oppressions are systematic and have to be tackled society-wide. She puts the blame fairly and squarely on Bollywood and popular culture. I would extend it to the Zindagi channel being telecast across the Indian subcontinent too, though once in a while one or two soap operas do tackle colorism in their themes.

Dr. Radhika’s studies support Nandita Das’s stand against this discrimination and give hope and courage to scores of women like me who are struggling and still endure jibes, taunts, and slurs based on the color of our skins. I can only say their stand is timely and welcome.