By Miriam Chacko
WOMEN HAVE progressed in leaps and bounds in the world of politics, business, education and media. But today I would like to comment on a stereotype, which in my world continues to hold women back.
As a dark skinned woman of the 21st century, I continue to face and witness hints of discrimination. “But she is a bit dark”, “He is very dark but nice” or “How is it that dark-skinned people can afford such fancy cars?” are just a few things I hear people say when referring to dark skin. Of course, men face this prejudice as well. But the hope is that telling my personal story would benefit some young girls facing similar problems, by sharing with them what I have learned.
My story begins in India and continues in Malaysia. Whichever country, you’re in, people unquestionably have varied features, distinct and different, whether it be the shape of the face, shape of the nose, shape of the lips or shade of skin.
Yet it would seem that there is a universal idea of attractiveness. The image of beauty that I gathered as a young girl from fashion magazines and from mainstream Hollywood and Bollywood movies was that being fair, long-legged and big eyed were ideals of beauty.
Such remote ideas of attractiveness did not affect me till I actually caught people around me saying casual pejoratives about dark skin. It shouldn’t have, but it made me feel short despite my height.
Colourism describes the system that privileges lighter-skinned over darker-skinned people within a community of color.
An old lady once told my mother, looking at me “mollinu, nirram illa” which translates to mean “your child does not have colour”. Confused, I asked my mother if the old lady could see well because I have colour and a good amount of it. Language colloquy reveals cultural stereotypes and it is clear that in my community to have coloured skin is to be without a desirable trait.
My skin does not change colour as per my mood nor does it reveal my personality nor is it a clear indicator of ethnicity, as I have been mistaken for being Mexican and Ethiopian. Yet, old ladies and young men have branded and stereotyped me before I even have the chance to say ‘Hi’.
In India, it has been speculated that the root of these ill-feelings towards darker skin tones can be traced to 1500 and 200 BC when the Aryans came from Central Asia, to the 15th century when the Mughals came from Persia, to the 16th century when the Dutch, Portuguese, French and Danish came from Europe, and to the 18th century when Britain colonised India. Fair skin became a symbol of power and wealth. Thus those equating beauty with fairness are emulating and craving their social status. The history, language, culture and beliefs of the white colonists were imposed on the colonised and considered superior to the local indigenous culture. These dogmas were internalised by the indigenous people, keeping them alive only to judge their own kind.
Adding fuel to the fire, advertisements for skin whitening products carelessly perpetuate these myths of white=success versus black=failure. Cosmetic companies have women believing that by applying a skin whitening product, they will have more opportunities and more successes in life. I have the benefit of being aware that my achievements in life thus far are not because of or despite the colour of my skin. But to know that fully, one has to acknowledge that these unfair comparisons are part of a vicious cycle.
Furthermore, the long-term use of such products can be harmful to the skin, which happens to be the largest organ of the human body. These products contain melanin blocking agents such as Hydroquinone that decrease pigmentation, thus lightening the skin. Melanin essentially protects the skin from harmful ultraviolet rays and so artificially bleaching or reducing pigmentation would put the skin at risk of other threats.
Image can be everything, yet at the same time superficial and misleading. Questioning a stereotype and understanding how a mindset came to be helps remove any unnecessary weight it holds. Clichés about ‘feeling beautiful inside’, ‘not caring about what other people think’ and ‘being yourself’, stand for good advice in the face of colourism.
So the next time a beautician recommends a facial with bleach, or the next time a negative reference is made to the colour of my skin, I will roll my eyes. And then proceed to educate the educated about manners. There is no room in this multi-racial world for ignorance, nor indifference.
Miriam Chacko is essentially an environmentalist. After completing her postgraduate degree in Environment and International Development from the University of East Anglia, she got involved in projects promoting environmental awareness. Drawing on her experience, she has written articles on climate change and conservation.
A keen traveller, she has visited many countries in and around Asia and her love of the outdoors and interest in different cultures comes through in her writing.
Miriam has been writing for The Borneo Post SEEDS since 2013.