Earlier this month, India’s attorney general Mukul Rohatgi had to respond to criticism at the United Nations Human Rights Council over recent episodes of anti-African violence in the country. He insisted that, as the land of Gandhi and the Buddha, India “could not have a racist mindset.” It was a wishfully optimistic statement and, of course, not remotely true.
Having grown up outside of India, I’ve always been struck on my trips home by the perverse obsession with colour. The glorification of fair skin is a recurring and inescapable feature of Indian life. Just last week, a fringe Hindu group won global attention for promising to “customise” fair offspring for dark-skinned parents.
I live in the United States, which of course has its own long and shameful history of racism. But in the 21st century, no single skin tone is venerated there. That’s in part because in American public culture, there is an increasingly broad representation of racial and cultural types. From comic books to advertisements to movies, it’s growing more common to see a diverse range of people, including “dark-skinned” Indians. A fine actor like Sendhil Ramamurthy would never pass through casting calls in Mumbai. Likewise, when the Indian American model Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America 2014, some Indians mused correctly that she would be too dark to ever win the equivalent prize in India.
Yes, there’s still much progress to be made in the West. Several years ago, black actors threatened to boycott the Oscars because the major nominations had all gone to white actors. Offensive stereotypes also remain pervasive in much of the TV and film industry. But at least there is the recognition that because Americans are multiple, so too must American visions of beauty be multiple.
In India, we worry about racism against Indians in places like Australia and the United States, but we don’t consider our daily biases towards our compatriots to be racist. We’re hesitant to apply the term “racism” or “race” at all. Aren’t we all Indians? Former BJP MP Tarun Vijay said in April that Indians weren’t racist because the nation included South Indians. But actually, there was an admirable honesty in Vijay’s earlier clumsiness. He had violated the piety that prevents us from accepting that India is not just a multicultural society, but a multiracial one. I don’t mean to use the word multiracial to denote specific, coherent “races.” Rather, I use it to recognise the great spectrum of complexion that exists in India. Indians do come in all manner of colours, a reflection of millennia of migrations and cultural mingling. We aren’t Indians in any simple, single way.
And yet we uphold only a single standard of beauty. The leading lights of Bollywood are so much fairer than the average Indian. Advertisements in magazines and roadside hoardings all promote a vision of excellence based on light skin. To the hundreds of millions of Indians who can never aspire to this ideal, their own skin is often a source of embarrassment or frustration, something to scrub away with chemicals or doggedly hide from the sun.
Several Bollywood actors have campaigned against fairness creams and the cosmetic industry that valorises light skin. But the pressure should be on directors, curators and advertising executives to bring Indians of all colours into the limelight. The only way to beat endemic racism and chip away at our prejudices is through representation, through elevating a wider spectrum of Indians in public culture.
Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories
The views expressed are personal