A few weeks ago, the internet exploded with posts about the Black Lives Matter movement.
Many of these posts supported it, some condemned parts of it, and others, which seemed like relics from another era, dismissed it.
But the common belief seemed to be that silence meant compliance. For many, refusing to raise your voice about the topic is inherently supporting racism.
However, I hail from India (but was raised in the Middle East), and noticed that when many of my compatriots shared posts supporting the movement, there was then a backlash.
Bollywood celebrities who posted on social media about the topic were asked – why are you talking now? Why haven't you been more vocal about the issues around skin tone in India itself?
In the midst of all this, putting up a generic post supporting the movement felt superficial, like an act to remain in vogue. This movement, started by the public murder of a man in Minneapolis at the hands of police, has made me think about how social media posts can never be a substitute for standing up against discrimination in everyday life, particularly that close to home.
'Growing up as an Indian, I've been surrounded by the notion that fairer is better'
For me, as a non-resident Indian, it feels like a time to be introspective.
Let’s flashback. Growing up as an Indian, I’ve been surrounded by the notion that fairer is better. The colour of one’s skin is so loaded in my home country, and it's tied to class, caste and privilege. As Indian comedian Ashish Shakya once put it, “we’re the country that hates being brown so much, we invented a colour called ‘wheatish’”. To this day, the term wheatish is used to describe a medium brown skin tone in India.
Meanwhile, being “gori” or fair-skinned is synonymous with beauty, and is thrown around as a compliment.
As a child, I sung along to famous Bollywood songs without even stopping to think about the racist undertones.
Gore Gore Mukhde Pe Kala Kala Chashma in the 1994 movie Suhaag showers praise on dark sunglasses on a fair face, while the 1993 movie Baazigar's hit song Yeh Kaali Kaali Aankhen lists fair cheeks as a desirable feature.
Modern Bollywood is guilty of it too – the popular Chittiyaan Kalaiyaan song that glorified white wrists was released along with the 2015 movie Roy. The song's name literally translates to "fair/white wrists", and the singer rejoices over the fact she has them throughout the tune.
It’s not about just hearing it either. Most leading actors in movies I watched growing up were fair skinned: Katrina Kaif (who happens to be of mixed heritage), Kalki Koechlin (a French citizen), Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Aamir Khan and Hrithik Roshan. These were the 'ideal' I saw on my big screens.
They are all actors with different skill-sets, but they all have lighter skin tones; and background dancers in hit Bollywood songs are often white women, people flown in from Europe to represent Bollywood's narrow beauty ideal. In the music video for the song Desi Girl, starring Priyanka Chopra, the backing dancers are white women, despite the lyrics saying that desi girls are "the hottest girls in the world".
On the flip side, when the same celebrated light-skinned actors play roles of characters that are less affluent, they darken their skin. This is a term referred to as brownfacing in Bollywood. From Hrithik Roshan playing the role of Anand Kumar in Super 30 (2019 film), all the way back to Zeenat Aman darkening her skin to play the role of a domestic worker in the 1982 movie Pyaas, this is a frighteningly common practice.
It wasn't just the cinema, though: growing up, I felt it every time an ad came on promoting a product that lightens anything from faces to armpits so that we could look "lovely" (or in the case of the Shah Rukh Khan adverts, fair and handsome).
Over time this messaging became normal to me, to the point that I did not even question it.
Media messaging seeping into everyday life, often with devastating consequence
With the bombardment in the media consumed, it’s only natural that the reverence of fairness leaks into everyday life for many Indians. I heard it when a family friend or relative expressed a wistful desire for a fair-skinned son-in-law, daughter-in-law, child or grandchild.
I still remember being floored when my cousin told me, just last year, that a close relative asked her not to play in the sun lest she become dark. But looking back, this was all too common growing up.
As an Indian, there is nothing glamorous about being tanned.
As American comedian Hasan Minhaj recently put it in a segment on his Netflix show The Patriot Act, "You don't think this affects the way we [Indians and people of Indian origin] view black people? We love seeing how high a black person can ascend in America but we have done nothing to raise the floor."
Only a few days ago, cricketer Darren Sammy spoke out about being called a racial slur by some of his former Indian Premier League colleagues in Hyderabad a few years ago.
Meanwhile, African students studying in India regularly tell stories of fear and racism, and have been met with violence in the past. In 2017, for example, Nigerian students were attacked by angry mobs in New Delhi, because locals assumed they were associated with the death of a local teenager.
As Minhaj put it in the same show, “We think we’re not a part of the story… but we are at the scene of the crime.”
The basic definition of racism is discrimination on the basis of physical attributes, and it is abhorrent.
But as the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum, to simply condemn racism in America, without thinking about the reality in my home country, felt like absolving myself from real responsibility.
It's easy to post black boxes on Instagram and hashtags on Twitter, but it's harder to realise that some things you saw growing up were wrong.
The Black Lives Matter movement is a defining moment in American history, and its lessons should not be restricted to its citizens.
Let it be a catalyst for difficult discussions, and then change, in India.
For me, as an Indian, I'm going to take it as an opportunity to look at everyday practices with new eyes; to question products and processes that encourage racism; and to privately and publicly call out discriminatory actions – even, and especially, if they come from those around me.