Monday, March 29, 2010

Caste vs colorism

Today, we have a particularly juicy guest post by Hue reader Sonu. After my post on skin color and society, she responded with this impassioned comment:

“I get a bit annoyed when Americans look at the issue of color and caste in India from a US perspective. It's a 5000 year old culture, one with very different reasons for why things are the way they are. Colorism isn't the way it is there for the same reason race relations are in this country. Caste isn't the same as color. Caste isn't the same as class. They can overlap, but they don't always. It's headache-inducing complicated.”
I was intrigued by her unique perspective, as I fall under the category of having a very limited American perspective and invited her to expand upon her comment with an article on caste and colorism.

First, a little about our guest blogger, in her own words:

Sonu, better known as slowburn online, is a South Asian emigre who has lived in the US for twenty years. Married to a decidedly American man with blue collar roots, mother of two, writer for hire, rapidly approaching 40. In India she'd be a radical lefty. Here, living near the nation's capital, she's a socially-progressive and fiscally conservative cynical codger.

Thank you for sharing your insight, Sonu!

Caste Versus Colorism
By Sonu

“So caste is like race?” I can't tell you how many times I've gotten this question. Short answer no, caste and race are not the same. So here's a thumbnail stab at it, from my point of view.

Race is a fairly recent social construct that has reduced and sometimes oppressed entire groups of people based on how they looked, regardless of their internal differences. Caste is age old, based on occupation, and has been enforced by endogamy, if not flat out discrimination or tyranny.

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On the upside, everyone has a place in a caste-based society- a community, a guild, a way of life, a network of employment.

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The downside is grimly clear. Traditionally, you did what you were born into, whether you liked it or not. And the grossly unfair cosmic joke is on you if you are born to a losing lottery. Because you may well be at the bottom of the social barrel - poor, dispossessed, demeaned, and limited to society's crumbs – for generations.

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This is what violent revolutions are made of. But unlike race, you can't necessarily tell someone's caste by how they look.

And then comes colorism, the preference for fair skin. It can be hard to see difference between colorism and race. But although colorism is a heavy thread in the Indian social fabric, it didn't negate or automatically disenfranchise those who are dark. Nor does it automatically correlate to caste.

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Here's the thing about colorism: dark doesn't automatically mean ugly in India – Krishna, the beloved playboy of the Hindu pantheon, whose name in fact translates to “dark,” is dark as thunderclouds, dark as midnight. He's the original tall, dark, and handsome. In fact, he's so dark he's blue.

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Case in point, my father, a Brahmin. (This pic is not actually my father, he's U.R. Ananthamurthy – a famous writer. Basically, Brahmins don't “look” like anything special.)

Dad is at the tippy top of India's caste system but he's dark enough that my American-born son (who doesn't get to see my folks all that often) once saw an older African American gentleman at the supermarket and asked what grandpa was doing back in the states. But in nearly 70 years, my father has never once had employment, residence, raises, or club memberships withheld because of how he looks. That said, he's male - men generally get to care less about how they look. Not so true for women.

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In the here and now, we Indians want largely to be fair. Matrimonial ads will specify that the groom or bride seeking a match is “wheatish.” Which basically means, “s/he isn't fair but not dark either.” And dark is definitely a drawback for a girl's matrimonial prospects. Blondes have more fun, thinner is better, lighter skin is prettier. But Indians don't want to be white; we have enormous pride in our culture.

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But it's a plus to be lighter skinned in the absence of gorgeousness, a la Padma Lakshmi.

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Or Aishwarya Rai, the most beautiful woman in the world, who is stunning, in no small part because she's fair skinned and light eyed.

It makes her exotic to Indians and I've often wondered if the country would have gone so totally nuts for her if she looked more like me, several shades darker and with everyday brown eyes. It's a question for the ages, like Cleopatra's nose.

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And if you're not thoroughly confused yet, enter class. Which is a whole other thing. The Ambanis of Reliance Industries and Lakshmi Mittal of ArcelorMittal – some of the wealthiest people on the planet. Both are banias – traders, merchants. Not upper caste, but more upper class than most of us will ever be. At just about any time in history. No joke.

Colorism, caste and class – they intersect, but they are not one and the same. Nor does any one factor automatically determine the other two. Class is a function of money, which has nothing to do with caste. And even then, as the new rich can attest to in any society, money doesn't mean you automatically have class. My family isn't wealthy, and yet no one in India would consider us remotely middle-class even though that's where our finances squarely place us. We're more like impoverished upper class aristocrats, where everyone works for a living.

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Famous case of marrying out. Indira Nehru, a very high caste brahmin, marrying Feroze Gandhi, who wasn't a Hindu, or even, for that matter, a particularly wealthy Parsi. My friend married an India, but she also married out. And a big plus point in her favor to smooth things over was, you guessed it, her fairness.

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Go to any Indian store in the US and look behind the counter. Yep. That's definitely a Fair and Lovely  skin lightening cream back there. I think of them as the Twinkies of the Indian store. Should the nuclear winter ever be upon us, I guarantee there will be a Fair And Lovely at your corner Indian store, covered in a thick layer of dust, probably just as chemically potent as the day the product rolled off the line.

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In an odd development, in the new India, the one on the upswing with the emerging economy and infinite possibilities for the first time since the decline of the Mughal Empire, there is a strange new gender parity. My father never had to worry about how he looked. He was male in a patriarchal male-dominated society. If he was a good provider, so much the better. But in today's India, as Rachel discovered in the Fair and Handsome commercial, men have to care about looks too. Frankly, I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing.

What are your thoughts? Reactions? Does anyone experience something like this in your part of the world?


Emom said...

So happy to be me....smiles.

DesignTies said...

Very interesting post. I wonder if the idea that "lighter is better" comes from the days when members of the lower/working class had darker skin because they were working outside in the sun.


Chroma said...

Thank you so much for the great info. I always thought I understood what caste was, but now I realize I didn't have a clue. Very interesting post!

Barbara Jacobs said...

Very interesting and well written. Thanks for introducing a color-based subject that has tremendous social relevance.
Rachel, I love the variety on your blog!

aneyefordetail said...

This was one of those posts you remember...thank you! I've been to India, both city and country, and am dying to return. Thank you for such an in-depth blog post, the kind we don't see very often....

Rachel said...

I'm so glad I could convince Sonu to contribute this post, and am thrilled by how well-received it has been. Thank you Sonu for all the hard work and time you put into this fascinating article!

On that topic- I'd love to have more in-depth articles like this on Hue; if you would like to contribute, please contact me with ideas. They don't have to be fully-developed, and you don't need to be a seasoned writer. Your unique take on a color-topic is what we want to see!

ohslowburn said...

@ Rachel, thank you for the opportunity to opine! @ everyone else, I'm glad you've all enjoyed the post. You never know how something like this will go over!

Kelly, Arte Styling said...

great post! thanks for the color lesson of the day. :)

Maria Killam said...

Wow Rachel, this is why I love your blog, I love the way your brain works!! Great post as usual!

AB HOME Interiors said...

Wow this post was very informative. I just watched an Oprah show about this subject. Where on Gods green earth did society decide that fair is better. I often wonder how these things start. Great post

ohslowburn said...

@AB Home Interiors - Funny you should ask. Because a book just out is Nell Irvin Painter's "History of White People."

It's kind of an interesting look at how whiteness and/or desirability (the two not being the same) have changed over the years. I particularly found this bit from the book review interesting:

"Centuries later, European travel writers regarded the light-skinned Circassians, a k a Caucasians, as people best fit only for slavery, yet at the same time labeled Circassian slave women the epitome of beauty. Exoticizing and sexualizing women of allegedly inferior “races” has a long and continuous history in racial thought; it’s just that today they are usually darker-skinned women."



Here's what I think - a beautiful woman is beautiful. No matter how she looks.

Elizabeth Brown said...

Rachel... As usual, thank you for broadening my horizons. Sonu, could you some time give us the "inside" tour of the colorful festival of Holi with your eloquence? That would be great.

Anonymous said...

This woman does not live in India. I am a dark skinned educated Indian and I encounter colorism everyday. People make their first judgement on the basis of how you look all over the world but in India, the color of your skin is an additional component. As a dark skinned educated Indian, it is always a loop - if they dont know you, the first dismiss you and once they realise what you are capable of, everything falls in place....

Rachel said...

thanks for your input. It's always interesting to hear the difference in perspectives from people

Anonymous said...

this is some what interesting. but extremely over simplified. no offense to Sonu or the creater of this blog but this was the equivalent of asking a random American soccer mom about race relations in the states. yes she would have some incite but most likely not enough to be asked to educate anyone on the matter. to the Americans reading this article i would suggest not taking it to be any type of authority on caste, color, and class in India. Many Indians when pressured to come up with an explanation for their overt colorism ( which turns into racism upon their immigration into a multi racial society) will explain it in a way that makes it seem not so bad, or that its just some big east/west misunderstanding, but don't be mistaken. it's an ugly, hate full part of Indian society that is so extremely ingrained into the culture that I can't imagine an end to it.

Rachel said...

anon- i completely understand that this is an enormous issue that cannot just be explained away in one article. What I hoped for was to open the dialogue and let readers in on an issue that some of us might not have even been aware of. thanks for your insight

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anonymous. Sonu is right that Caste, class and color are not the same thing, but her denial that India's obsession with light skin has nothing to do with wanting to be white is false. She completely left out the effects of Colonialsim and Western, particularly American, influence on Indian beauty standards. And if anyone tries to claim that it's pre-colonial your're wrong.

Sonu said that Indians are proud of their culture. So what? You can be proud of your (material) culture and still have a nation wide identity crisis or self-hatred. The demand for whiteness both literally and figuratively (European features) is global.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anonymous especially his/her comment of Feb3.2012. Light skin in India has lot of advantages and similiarly it can be tough time for dark skinned person if not strong enough.

Anonymous said...

It may be ok if you are at top of caste pyramid and dark, but if you are at bottom of caste pyramid and dark, god save you.....