Racism and beauty standards: fair skin has nothing to do with being lovely

Racist undertones are still pervasive in popular conversations about beauty
TOPSHOT - Families participate in a children's march in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and national protests against police brutality on June 9, 2020 in the Brooklyn Borough of New York City.  George Floyd will be laid to rest Tuesday in his Houston hometown, the culmination of a long farewell to the 46-year-old African American whose death in custody ignited global protests against police brutality and racism.Thousands of well-wishers filed past Floyd's coffin in a public viewing a day earlier, as a court set bail at $1 million for the white officer charged with his murder last month in Minneapolis.
 / AFP / Angela Weiss

It is easy to claim “I’m not racist.” But the hard work of tackling racism begins by asking ourselves difficult questions about whether we ourselves hold racist views and interrogating our smallest actions to see if we perpetuate them.

It is at once horrifying and easy to see the blatant racism and dehumanisation inflicted on George Floyd, the 46-year-old, unarmed African-American whose death at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis caused international outrage. The case of George Floyd has once again reminded us how racism is pervasive and can be both insidious and fatal.

One of the first Arab leaders to speak out against racism this week, the UAE's Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, said: "Combating racism is a duty of the state and the family".

As the ripple effects from the murder of George Floyd in the US and the Black Lives Matter protests spread around the world, the minister made his statement in a tweet accompanying a video of Palestinian film director and actor Maryam Abu Khaled, a black woman. The video describing the casual racism that black people face, perpetuated in ways that people don’t even realise. Examples she used included parents telling their children not to play outdoors for too long or they will “get sunburnt and start looking like Maryam” or explaining black people’s skin colour as being “left in the oven.”

Such comments are not trivial. Nor should they be dismissed as jokes that can be passed off as a bit of fun. They are all too common and leave long-lasting damage on people. They affect people's self-esteem, their value in society and their sense of humanity. When it comes to colour and race, what we consider beautiful or not is a manifestation of our own ideas that are often informed by deep-rooted racism.

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The way we talk about people's colour is not a trivial matter. It is telling of who we are and shows us everything we need to know about who is considered human and valuable

Society can often equate being born white or fair with being better looking, which is then mistaken again to denote a better person, more valuable, more human.

Even today, in many societies to be darker or black is often equated with ugliness, lacking in worth, less human. This is the reality of people’s lived experiences. These ideas are pervasive and have caused much harm.

If we have even just listened and kept quiet while others have spread these ideas – let alone if we ourselves have spoken like this – then we are not blameless. We have sided with those who discriminate.

The world’s most famous skin-lightening cream is called “Fair & Lovely”. The global market for such products was estimated at over $4 billion in 2017 and is set to grow to nearly $9 billion by 2024.

The hypocrisy of claiming to be against racism while promoting these products was called out recently when Bollywood stars posting their support for Black Lives Matter were confronted with the fact that they also advertise skin-lightening products.

One cannot talk about beauty standards without considering how racism dehumanises people. We need to start talking about beauty in terms of a range that varies from the palest to the darkest.

If we don't, then saying we treat all people equally regardless of their racial backgrounds and their looks has no meaning.

White-skinned people must see themselves as just one inflection point on this range, as should dark-skinned people.

The way we talk about people’s colour is not a trivial matter. It is telling of who we are and shows us everything we need to know about who is considered human, who is valuable, and what we uphold as an ideal. Our notions of beauty must be inclusive and honour all colours of humanity. Otherwise we are racist, no matter how much we claim we are not.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World

Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed is a columnist for The National