Are Indians Racist4

October, 2004

Matrimonial ads and Indian'racism'

Recently, an Indian writer accused his fellow Indians of being racist in an article in one of the country's national newspapers. As proof, he pointed to the numerous matrimonial ads that are awash with references to fair and light skinned brides.

The writer is obviously not alone in making this charge. India's 'intelligentsia' - and sometimes foreign observers too - repeatedly claim that Indians are racist because of our supposed obsession with fair skin.

They are wrong. Utterly wrong. But it's easy to see why people fall into this trap - the logic seems clear: fairness equals talk of skin colour, which therefore equals racism. This apparently obvious reasoning reveals complete ignorance of what really constitutes racism.

First off, the very fact that references to fairness appear exclusively in matrimonial adverts - not say, job adverts - indicates one thing and one thing only: fairness is taken to be an indicator of physical beauty. Nothing else. Let's face it: physical appearance plays a major role in attractiveness and marriage for people worldwide. In this context a fair person, particularly a woman, is widely considered in India to be better looking than a person who is not fair or light-skinned.

And it's not just women who are judged on physical appearance. Men are too, only that in a man's case, it's usually the height - haven't you seen also references to 'tall' grooms in the adverts? When was the last time you saw a woman asking for a short man in a matrimonial advert? Truth be told, the overwhelming majority of Indian women want tall men or at least men who are taller than they are.

In the mating game, discrimination on the basis of looks happens all the time in cultures around the globe - rightly or wrongly. The only thing is that different cultures have different ideas as to what constitutes beauty or nubile looks.

To give you a contemporary example, in the UK there is a national obsession with women's breasts, similar to the Indians' obsession with fairness. For proof, you only have to look at the UK's largest selling and politically powerful newspaper, The Sun. On page 3 of the newspaper, there is a photo of a topless female model every single day. Women appear to be obsessed by the size of their busts and The Sun seems to be doing its best to encourage that obsession.

And before you ask, a large proportion of the Sun's readers are indeed women. Page 3 is such a phenomenon that attempts by a prominent British politician to ban the topless photos went nowhere. The newspaper, you may be shocked to know, is not considered an 'adult' newspaper. If you are visiting the UK and are not offended by what can seem to be adult content, you should buy a copy of the newspaper and see for yourself. Alternatively, you can visit the Sun website and their Page 3 section (again: please do not visit these websites if you are offended by what can seem to be adult content).

In the UK and most western countries, cosmetic surgery for bust enhancement is widely advertised, just as fairness creams are advertised in India. While all that Indian women have to do is apply the cream, western women are willing to subject themselves to surgery to have their busts augmented. It was even worse for women in ancient China, where their attractiveness was measured by foot size - the smaller the better. Women bound their feet tightly, enduring broken toes and infections in a bid to ensure their feet didn't grow.

So the pursuit of attractiveness - which happens to be fair skin in India's case - is very different from racism. Because in India, people who are fair are not considered inherently superior to people who aren't. You don't see job adverts that say, 'only fair people can apply'. You don't find restaurants that have signs outside stating, 'only fair people can enter'. When you apply for admission for your child to attend school, you are never told "your child is not fair enough." When you want to register your name in the electoral rolls to vote, the registering officer doesn't check out the fairness of your skin before accepting your application. The Indian cricket board doesn't have an unwritten rule that says, 'only fair cricketers can play for India' People on public transport aren't seated according to skin colour, and fair skinned people don't have priority over others.

Further, when you move into an expensive neighbourhood, tongues in the area don't go wagging, 'they're not fair enough to live here'. Groups of fair people don't go around attacking groups of dark-skinned people or vice-versa. No one spits on you or abuses you with foul language on the street just because you aren't fair. You certainly don't get thrown off a train (as Mahatma Gandhi did) for not being light-skinned. Moreover, when Abdul Kalam became President or Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister, no one bothered to see if their skin was fair enough for the job.

The point is that in India, the fairness of your skin has no bearing on whether or not you get a job, promotion, raise, admission to a club, restaurant, theatre, school, college, or become Prime Minister, President or whatever.

Yes, Indians can be caste-ist, religion-ist, class-ist or sexist. And of course, there are those who may be racist in the true sense of the word. But calling India a racist country purely on the basis of our matrimonial adverts is to succumb to high minded and fallacious thinking.

- Chetan Dhruve from Bangalore

The views of this column are the author's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of NRI Online.

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