I waz whitemailed
By a white witch,
Wid white magic
An white lies,
Branded by a white sheep
I slaved as a whitesmith
Near a white spot
Where I suffered whitewater fever.
Whitelisted as a whiteleg
I waz in de white book
As a master of white art,
It waz like white death.
People called me white jack
Some hailed me as a white wog,
So I joined de white watch
Trained as a white guard
Lived off the white economy.
Caught and beaten by de whiteshirts
I waz condemned to a white mass,
I shall be writing to de Black House.
- White Comedy by Benjamin Zephaniah
This poem by the British poet Benjamin Zephaniah “flips the script” on the words white and black, making the reader think about how those terms are used in the English language. In some cases white is used to denote good and black bad: white magic vs. black magic; blackleg is a derogatory term for a strike-breaker; blackguard is a criminal or someone of low status; black mass is a sacrilegious mass; black death apparently referred to the terror of the plague and not its symptoms. Others do not denote good or bad and are simply descriptive: blackwater fever is a malarial fever which turns a patient’s urine black, and the black watch is a Scottish military regiment which wears dark uniforms. I love that jarring last line, because it never occurred to me to wonder if any country would have a black house as their leader’s home.
The association of whiteness with goodness and blackness with badness is a known socio-cognitive bias. The skin tone implicit association test for example “often reveals an automatic preference for light-skin relative to dark-skin”. There is plenty of explicit bias too – you only need to watch Indian advertising or read the matrimonial columns for a few days to understand the high value that is placed on light skin. This advertisement for “Garnier White Complete Fairness Cream” for example, is par for the course. There’s a good discussion in the nirmukta.net forum on the origins of skin colour bias, for those who want to know more.
I was reminded of these matters because a few days ago, a law student filed a complaint in India’s consumer court against a crayon manufacturer, for having a pink/peach crayon called “skin”. From Student Sues Company Over ‘Racist’ Crayon, The Hindu (June 8th):
In his complaint to the (Bangalore Urban) Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum on Tuesday, Mr. Jain said, “On opening the box, I discovered that the ‘special skin crayon’ was of a shade that did not match my own skin colour. This can only be explained by the fact that the ‘special skin crayon’ which is part of the product is either defective or labelled misleadingly or both.” He terms as “extremely insensitive and inconsiderate,” the act of the company to label one particular shade as ‘skin colour’ in a market, where a majority of the consumers have skin tones that are either dark or at least different from the shade described as ‘skin’ by the company.
I don’t know how justified one is in claiming monetary compensation for this, but a few good things can happen out of it: a consumer court case can put some pressure on advertisers and it can raise public consciousness with the headlines it generates. Some small steps in the right direction.
I was also glad to see the reporter of the piece used the word colourism to describe what’s happening. The word racist used in the title isn’t quite accurate; giving this phenomenon a name like colourism (or shadeism, a term also increasingly being used) allows us to talk about it as a social system which has characteristics of its own and intersects with racism, casteism, classism and patriarchy (there is pressure on men to be light-skinned, but it’s far higher on women). As Radhika Parameswaran, a professor of journalism who has been studying colourism in the media, explains in this interview (the entire interview is worth watching – it’s around 18 minutes long and the transcript is included):
Now to use a term such as colourism for skin colour discrimination takes it beyond the term prejudice, where prejudice sometimes tends to keep discrimination at the individual level and reduces its significance and importance. By calling it colourism 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 of 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?
I like colourism as a term because many many years ago there was no term for this kind of discrimination. So by calling it colourism 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.
And that really is the point of this post. That we’re dealing with a social system and we have to treat it as such. I’ve always thought that if we were to draw a diversity wheel for Indian society, we’d need to add two segments to the inner wheel: caste and skin colour. Note that they’d belong in the inner wheel – because for all practical purposes, they are permanent. This isn’t just an Indian thing either – as this well-made Canadian documentary titled “Shadeism” shows, it exists in African and Caribbean society too. (Watch for the scene where the filmmaker interviews her young relative, a little girl – and you’ll realise how insidious colourism is.)
Finally, on a personal note: I happen to be light-skinned. It isn’t that easy for me to say what privileges I’ve personally detected because of this, because the default privileged state is one of obliviousness. But I suspect I’ve always been accorded a certain “automatic” respect and warmth from strangers, an assumption of niceness – when I walk into a store for example, or when I’m house-hunting. There’s also been a continuous “aspirational value” attached to the colour of my skin – from my dad (who is quite dark) being asked “Why are you so dark and your son is so fair?”, to a colleague telling me “We were discussing fairness the other day, and you were the standard by which others were judged” (meant as a compliment). I have to work hard on the privilege checks – sometimes when I see someone buying a “fairness cream” in a shop, a part of my mind thinks what the hell is wrong with you? – and immediately I regret it, realising that no matter how intellectually aware I might be of the issue, I cannot know what it’s like: my locations on that diversity wheel rule out the possibility.