My grandma is an educated Bangladeshi woman, principal of her own children’s school in Narayanganj, Dhaka. She’s successful and headstrong, but like many other South Asian women, she’s uncomfortable with her genetically predisposed dark-skin—a telltale skin whitening cream sits upon her bedside table.
When I was twelve, and visiting Bangladesh for only the third time, nobody had to tell me what this cream was. From billboards starring famous Bollywood stars to controversially memorable television ads, Fair & Lovely’s range of fairness creams was, and still is, the most pervasive skincare product in Bangladesh. My grandmother uses it. My preteen relatives use it. Even beauty salons in Bangladesh offer it as part of a special facial package.
The profitability of such a product amongst a dominant dark-skinned population can only serve as a testament to a long history of colourism in South Asia. In colonial India, colourism was mostly inter-racial, with darker-skinned Indians receiving less privileges and rights than those with fair skin from white colonialists. Today, it has evolved to become intra-racial and institutionalised, permeating marriage, mass media, and industry: fair skinned South Asians are more desirable as spouses, more represented in television and film, and are applauded for upholding an unattainable beauty standard, which companies like Fair & Lovely then capitalise on.
During the younger years of my life, I naively thought that the colourism I witnessed in South Asia was just that, simply restricted to a region I didn’t live in. However as I grew older, it became obvious that it wasn’t isolated to just South Asia. When I was thirteen, a Sydney relative told me that I should really consider wearing sunscreen whenever I go out—the implication here subtle but nonetheless hurtful. It didn’t stop there either. Aged eighteen, and old enough to engage in gossipy discussions over the latest marriage news in my Bangladeshi community, I distinctly remember sitting awkwardly and uncomfortably as my friend—born and raised in Australia—claimed that a fair-skinned Bangladeshi bride was ‘settling’ because her fiancé was so dark and ugly.
There may be no Fair & Lovely merchandise here, but with the migration of our parents came a migration of mentalities that grew within South Asian Australian communities.
Because of the numerous other issues South Asian Australians must face and overcome as a community and as individuals—racism, complications of assimilation, under-representation, racial insecurity—intra-racial colourism tends to be left on the backburner, ignored and widely unrecognised for what it is. That is, a complex form of colourism that creates divisions and hierarchies within a racial group.
More often than not I’ve witnessed well-intentioned social media posts showing photos of South Asian women in order to decentre white beauty standards, only to commit the folly of not showing any dark-skinned South Asians. Not only is this an example of intra-racial colourism being widely unacknowledged, but it also fails to recognise that fair skin is a beauty standard that South Asian Australians, are equally, if not more so, affected by.
However the future for South Asians experiencing this, both in South Asia and outside the region, remains hopeful. The past ten years has seen the banning of some of Fair & Lovely’s television ads, the refusal of fair-skinned Bollywood stars to become its brand ambassadors, and the launch of the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign. With recognition comes progress and eventually, an end to decades of intra-racial colourism.