Are Fairness Creams About Racism? Here’s Why We Should Not Go Overboard With Criticism

The fairness debate
  • Trying to wrongly label Indians as racist purely based on western experiences is pointless.

    We need to be conscious of our discriminatory attitudes. Nothing more, nothing less.

There has been much brouhaha over Indians’ alleged racism, following the beating up of some Nigerians and – more obviously – our in-born preference for fair-skinned people, whether as spouses or advertising models.

There is certainly a tinge of racism involved in Indian attitudes to people who are darker than themselves, but we need more nuance in this argument, as this columnist argues in DailyO. Racism is a term invented in the West in the context of its own conquests of coloured peoples and in-built negative attitudes to the people it subjugated. In India, we are no strangers to discrimination and stereotyping, but racism is probably the wrong word for our obsession with fairness. We can call it evolutionary preference or prejudice, but it is not necessarily racism as the West practises it.

Racism can exist only when we define what constitutes a particular racial feature. But are Indians a single race? From the fair-skinned north-easterners (where Tibetan-Burman facial features predominate) to dark-skinned people of the south, to the fairer and wheatish complexioned Indians of the north-west and north India, we are a mongrel nation. On average, we are darker than Americans and Europeans, but within India, our complexions diverge so much that it is difficult to define what constitutes an Indian racial feature based purely on skin colour or texture.


So how did we become racist in the first place? We may be prejudiced against darker-skinned people in general, but there is little that is racial about this bias. It has been part of our evolutionary learning of what works.

Which brings us to the second point. Is a fondness for fairness creams and skin-bleaching products an indication of the average Indian’s innate racism? The right way to look at this Indian preference is to see it as an effort by the user to give herself (or, increasingly, himself) an advantage in the business of finding life partners. If fairer skin can get you a better spouse or mate, one can hardly call it racism. It is no different from individuals undergoing rhinoplasty, breast-enhancement (or reduction) surgeries, botox, make-up, hair removal, or anything that will advance your appeal to the opposite sex. Human beings will do anything to find a good mate – and fairness creams are a part of this process. If doing a nose job or botox operation to make yourself look younger – either for feeling good about yourself or for finding a partner – is not racism, why should fairness products be called racist? Don’t excessively fair-skinned people seek tans to get the right colour for themselves?

But it is worth mentioning that discrimination is for real in India (as elsewhere), whether it is by caste, or colour of skin, or gender, or age. We routinely discriminate against people who are older, less good looking, or of the wrong gender. (Example: how many companies hire without looking at age even if the person is willing to work for the wages mentioned?) It is this all-too-human biases we need to fight against by making people aware of their hidden preferences – something they may not recognise in themselves.


Trying to wrongly label Indians as racist purely based on western experiences is pointless. We need to be conscious of our discriminatory attitudes. Nothing more, nothing less.

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