Dissecting Colourism: An interview with Dr. Parameshwaran

Here’s an interview with Professor Radhika Parameswaran, professor in the School of Journalism at Indiana University, Bloomington. She has been researching colourism in media culture, and in media, like comic books and advertising.

After having met virtually, 18 months prior, we finally met in June 2012 to get us started in thinking critically about the issue. I instantly learnt this from our face-to-face meeting: she is incredibly gracious, a foodie and shares her commentary in a witty, poignant style. Dr. Parameswaran and I talked about films, classrooms, our personal journeys, and of course, Colourism.

Dr. Radhika Parameswaran, professor in the School of Journalism and adjunct faculty in the cultural studies and India studies programs at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her areas of research include feminist cultural studies, gender and media globalization, South Asia, qualitative methods, and postcolonial studies. Her recent publications have appeared in Journal of Children and Media, The Handbook of Critical Indigenous Methodologies, Communication, Culture, and Critique, Critical Studies in Media Communication, Popular Communication and Communication Review. She has also received three awards from the Journalism School.


The Colourism Interview Part I


Jyoti: Hello Radhika! What is Colourism and how does it manifest itself in the Indian milieu?


Radhika: Colourism has been defined as skin colour discrimination. And to talk about it more precisely, it’s discrimination that targets dark-skinned people. And it’s a form of discrimination in which dark-skinned people are seen as inferior, less beautiful, less competent, less intelligent, and less accomplished than light-skinned people.

Now to use a term such as colourism for skin colour discrimination takes it beyond the term prejudice, where prejudice sometimes tends to keep discrimination at the individual level and reduces it’s significance and importance. By calling it colourism what we are actually doing is saying that the ways in which dark-skinned people are treated as inferior is systematic, it’s widespread, it’s a part of social, economic and cultural institutions and it needs to be tackled society-wide. We can’t do it by educating one person at a time. And perhaps we even have to think about legal solutions once you think about it hard enough–how do we tackle this problem?

I like colourism as a term because many many years ago there was no term for this kind of discrimination. So by calling it colourism we are equating it to other forms of oppression like racism and sexism which have been studied for a long time. And, which affects many different sections of society.These oppressions are systematic and have to be tackled society-wide.

Some of the ways it manifests in the Indian milieu where there is a preference for lighter (fairer) skinned women is in institutions such as marriage. We can see it in Bollywood, and in other forms of popular culture. You can also see, take a look society wide that there tends to be to be a preference for lighter-skinned women in all kinds of powerful institutions.

One of the problems is India is we still haven’t studied colourism the way it has been studied in various parts of the world. My portion of this aspect of colourism has been in media culture, and I have looked into media like comic books and advertising. And in the kind of media I have studied, you can see that colourism manifests itself very clearly.




The Colourism Interview Part II


Jyoti: We know that women apply these products either daily or periodically in order to become fair, You mention on your monograph that the target group for these products is between 15-30 years. I was wondering if in your research with women you have got a sense of what kind of feelings women draw about themselves based on their dark or brown skin color?

Radhika: Yes! So in talking to women about this, first I discovered that it’s emotionally very hard for them to talk about it. You have to ask many different kinds of questions and as an interviewer you have to be prepared to deal with the level of emotions women express. So the kinds of things women talk about are they feel less than whole, they feel incomplete, they feel deficient, and they feel in some ways marginalized and cast out. For example a lot of them talk about being teased in school for being really dark-skinned. They would talk about how within the family they were seen as less than others. Many women would talk about being rejected in the arranged marriage system, being rejected 3-4 times. So those were the kind of issues women talked about.

Of course it’s very different if a women is a 30 year-old or 15 year-old. For a 30 year-old who has achieved some success in life, skin colour discrimination could be a much smaller portion of her identity. But you can see how for a really young girl who is going through transition to adulthood, and really developing a sense of who she is, being exposed to this sort of discrimination could have an enduring influence. Based on who they are, what class they belong to, what other avenues for success that they have, skin colour discrimination can have a differential impact.


Jyoti: What is the spectrum (in terms of self-esteem) from being the least damaging to the most damaging? (Forward to 02:26 for this answer)

Radhika: If you were to look at the spectrum, you know, the least damaging impact would perhaps be on a young woman who comes from a fairly progressive family where they’re able to discount the damage and they are able to teach her to resist the kind of messages she gets. And it could be someone who receives the education within the family, that what you do in terms of how you contribute to society, how you help others, and perhaps what kind of academic success you get, or career success, are more important than what you look like. If someone is able to come from such a background, then their self esteem may suffer some small damage but they can overcome it and go on to be quite successful.

But on the other hand it could be very destructive if someone doesn’t have those sort of resources at hand. If they endure discrimination within the family, right, where elders and others tell them that “You will never get married”, or “Who will marry you.” Or when they go to school and they never get picked for dances or other public events, yes? So by the time they get to the age they have to decide what they want to do in life, they might get so damaged that they might think, I will never have success in anything, neither in my personal life, nor in my professional life. And that could get to a point where their self esteem can be really damaged. Perhaps they can’t achieve any measure of happiness.


Jyoti: Of course once they feel that way, they feel its perfectly legitimate to go and get themselves some fairness products. We have seen that there has been a substantial increase in these products of the last decade or so. Could you please talk about how the industry has expanded, basically from when it first started.

Radhika: Sure, and it’s sort of an interesting personal journey for me as well. In the 70s when I was a young girl, there were probably two creams in the market – Vico Vajradanti and Fair and Lovely. But since India has opened up and liberalized its economy, skin lightening products are the largest sector of the cosmetic industry in India, probably 40-50%. So first is that they have expanded and become a huge portion of our cosmetics industry.

The second way in which it has expanded is that while there used to be two creams, now the product range has had a dizzying opening up. So not only creams, you have shampoos, body washes, face masks. You have body oils including body oils for babies that claims to lighten skin. So the product range has really expanded.

Third is that the number of companies who are involved in this business has also expanded. So you have multinationals like Avon, Clinique, Estee Lauder, and Revlon who have come into India to sell. But you also have local Indian companies getting into the business and it’s becoming a major portion of their commerce. These companies are Ayur, Dabur Vatika, Himalaya, Samara, etc. And they’re making fairness creams a priority. So the number of companies involved, both national and global have also increased.

And finally, Hindustan Lever, a company that’s been in India for a long time, has also gone global with their product. So now you have a company from India selling products that capitalize on skin colour discrimination in India, now being exported to other parts of the world, perhaps exacerbating their problem of colourism. So that’s something for us as Indians to think about as well.



The Colourism Interview Part III


Jyoti: You also talk about what influences from advertising that influence our desire. What are these messages? How do (fairness product marketeers / advertisers) convey these messages to us?


Radhika: In studying advertising and looking at print, online and television advertisements, what I tried to do was understand what are perhaps a few dominant messages that advertising is sending to women. How does it appeal to women? How does it draw on the discrimination of colourism to sell products to women?

One of the prominent messages I found was the idea of transformation. So that women have to be constantly monitoring their body actually to see how the product is changing them. They have to become obsessed with change. They can’t be happy with who they are. And this sort of transformation is not permanent, as we know, so you have to keep using the product, because if you don’t, you’ll become darker and lose out on all these opportunities. So the idea of transformation and change and telling women you can only be happy if you are constantly monitoring your body, which is perpetuating a form of everyday anxiety where you get up in the morning and asking, am I darker today than I was yesterday? Oops, I have to keep using this product… so perpetuating that anxiety..

The second way, which is a little more subtle that consumers may not understand, is the idea of medicalizing this problem and using scientific authority. A lot of the ads show internal diagrams of the epidermis and the dermis.. they talk about rooting out melanin, they use a lot of scientific jargon. They show doctors in coats telling women, this is what this product will do for you. So my concern about these kinds of appeals is that then dark-skin colour becomes a disease, so you see yourself as a diseased person and that canot be healthy. Besides there is no real scientific proof for how these products work, so it’s simply false. So by promoting the idea of disease the industry is trying to again exploit women’s anxieties.

The third way is telling women, that you will not be attractive to any man, and to a large degree, even to dark-skinned men, because this is your social capital. It’s a form of capital for you. You can never find true love, find true companionship, or capture a man’s appreciation. So that in a way targets younger women, because they are ready for romance and marriage. And this is the vulnerable stage in which they are exploiting young women.

The final note I want to make about this idea of appealing to the other sex, is that it stereotypes men! I don’t think it does justice to all the good men out there who are not shallow. Who value women for their personality, character, and personal success. This gives a unidimensional, narrow image of men, which is not good for society either.


Jyoti: When you were speaking about transformation, I recalled an interview, that I had conducted back in Delhi with Santosh Desai. He has been in advertising for a really long time, and is also a columnist for The Hindustan Times. And he has a completely different  take on the same thing. I guess when you pitch advertising against academic discourse, you find the two extremes of the spectrum, which is what makes this an interesting inquiry for me. To juxtapose differing opinions and let people decide where they want to situate themselves. He says that for time immemorial, advertising has done this. We create a need and then we fill it. That is success, and if you can do that as a student of advertising, you have got a ten-on-ten, an A+. But   when I talk to you, you bring a different perspective. You say it is feeding an everyday anxiety.


Radhika: It is not that people don’t have critical thinking skills. It is not that people think even that these products can really change their skin color. So, instead what you have to look at is, in a society already filled with the problem of colourism, how does advertising add or exacerbate an existing problem. We can’t assume that it is advertising that is creating the problem or it is the only institution contributing to this problem.

I would respond to people like Santosh Desai by saying, yes, advertising performs an economic function, people have wants and needs. People need cereal, rice, oil. Advertising sells those items to us. But this is a problem that is very deep-rooted in Indian society and has been there for a long time. So the scale of the problem is very different. It is wide and deep enough that we should ask how advertising is making things worse for perhaps a majority of India. Most of us, I would wager, are not Aishwarya Rai skin color. SO it’s the magnitude of the problem that it makes me say that it goes beyond just filling a need.  And the lack of literacy and critical awareness that this is an issue that affects people emotionally makes it worse to me.

In the US today you have a very strong discourse that there is discrimination against fat people. It’s talked about in universities, probably discussed in family situations, you might even have a PSA So you have a context where images of thin women who are beautiful are circulating in an atmosphere where there is some critical thinking about it.

In India we don’t have that. So if these fairness cosmetics were given to Indian women, but then they were also being given other critical messages, then I would’nt be as worried. It is the void that we have which is a problem. And then when we have a very significant , everyday discourse that tells them you are deficient this becomes a problem.


Jyoti: Would you like to make some closing remarks?

Radhika: The fairness industry is not only targeting women, but it is also targeting men now in a very big way. So you have ShahRukh Khan who is peddling skin lightening cosmetics. You have Fair and Handsome which is targeting men. In a general sense, while women are the primary market it’s also important to remember how it might affect men. And also, it’s a problem that is widespread beyond just women. It’s a problem that connects with ideas of class. We see poor people as darker-skinned. We see South Indians as darker-skinned and therefore less beautiful, etc. We see people of lower caste as more dark-skinned. It is important to keep in mind that colourism is widespread and that it connects with a host of social problems.


Jyoti: Thanks a lot, I’ve learnt a lot today and I hope to return after a few months and learn about some of the topics you mentioned, such as caste, and such. Thank you once again!

Please leave your comments below or tweet them at #thecolourismproject.

Jyoti Gupta has a bachelors in applied art from Delhi College of Art and a masters in media studies from New School University, New York City. Gupta is a design and social media specialist specializing in nonprofit branding and communication planning to help increase awareness and improve outcomes. The intersection of media, culture and colorism, or skin-color based discrimination, has been a area of inquiry for Gupta.

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