GUEST POST (Series 1, #2): Priyanka Jhalani on the Effects of Colorism

From the light skin-dark skin rivalry in the Black community to the central question of Snow White–“Who’s the fairest of them all?”–colorism is everywhere. Colorism is systematic discrimination based on skin color. It insinuates that dark-skinned people are inferior to light-skinned people. Colorist ideals often manifest themselves in our society. For example, there is a clear preference towards light-skinned people in the media. The ABC series How to Get Away With Murder challenges colorist standards by starring a Black, dark-skinned woman.

While it does affect men, colorism is usually directed more towards women. Color becomes part of a never-ending, unattainable beauty checklist. But the root of the issue with beauty standards isn’t just about their unattainability. It’s the messages they send. Focusing so much on a woman’s color and other physical attributes implies that her appearance is the only thing that matters. This implication doesn’t do either of these genders justice. Women are much more than their appearance and men are more than capable of recognizing that.

Colorism is especially prevalent in India where skin color is often viewed as a sign of caste. Darker skin indicates a lower caste, while lighter skin is considered characteristic of higher castes. These assumptions generally come from the fact that people in lower castes had to do manual labor. So, they had darker skin while wealthy people from high castes could afford to stay out of the sun. However, this color bias is deeply rooted in Indian culture for many more reasons than caste. It was also reaffirmed when the British colonized us.

Lighter skin equated to better treatment in many racial hierarchies. This point was true in regards to slavery in both India and America. In the U.S., having lighter skin made integrating into White society much easier. If your skin was light enough to pass as White, you got to enjoy the privileges that came along with it. The motives for wanting light skin are complex results of long-standing hierarchies.

Unfortunately, doing whatever it takes to get lighter skin in India is normal. According to Didier Villanueva, the country manager for L’Oréal India, skin lightening creams account for half of the skin care market. One of India’s first lightening creams was “Fair and Lovely,” owned by Unilever (the same company that owns Dove). It started in 1978 and has expanded to lip balms, sunscreens and other products since then. This is not to say that colorism itself was created by these industries, but it is certainly perpetuated and exploited by them.

The skin lightening industry looks to Bollywood actors and actresses for its promotion. Their endorsement drives pop culture and deepens a color bias. This support, in turn, creates more demand for the product. For example, Emami’s line of skin lightening cream for men, “Fair and Handsome,” dominated the market after Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan promoted it.

Additionally, Aishwarya Rai, a woman many consider the face of India, is extremely fair. Although she often defends Indian culture, much of her success is a result of colorism. Rai perpetuates this bias herself. Most actresses in Bollywood are exceptionally fair and many have even undergone skin lightening treatments. There’s nothing wrong with being fair, but there is an issue when beautiful, successful women are only portrayed as fair, eliminating the representation of darker-skinned women in the media. Not to mention: the majority of India is dark-skinned.

Colorism teaches people that color is more important than intellect, personality, and ambition. It convinces people that their worth is somehow reflected by the color—or shade—of their skin.

Indians were finally outraged when advertisement companies implied that bleaching private parts would lead to a more fulfilling sex life. In response, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) set strict guidelines for the industry. Now, companies cannot advertise lightening products by showing dark-skinned people as inferior. This includes implying that dark-skinned people are less attractive, successful, or capable.

The Dark is Beautiful campaign started by Women of Worth has also taken a stand against colorism. Thankfully, Bollywood actress Nandita Das has agreed to be the face of this fight. Yet, even in an article denouncing colorism, editors lightened Das’s picture. Of course, she instructed them to repost the original. However, this wasn’t Das’s first encounter with “helpful” corrections. When playing intelligent, successful women, she’s often told to use lightening creams.

While this Indian stigma is horrible, it’s not the only one of its kind. In the Western world, the craze for skin lightening mirrors the fight for anti-aging and tanning obsessions. In the U.S., being pale is unattractive, so women spend hours in salons trying to get a golden brown glow. Despite this desire to be darker, the ideal skin color here is still light. People continue to be wary of getting “too dark.” However, colorism creates the notion that someone can be “too dark.”

Colorism is just one aspect of the many impossible beauty standards we often judge ourselves and others by. We should be learning to focus on the beauty that does exist within people. Why should we buy into an image of beauty that’s promoted by industries who want us to fall short?

Priyanka Jhalani is a high school senior who is passionate about social justice work. Since her sophomore year, she has been heavily involved in diversity and inclusivity initiatives. She’s facilitated numerous discussions and given several speeches at her school. She’s a first generation Indian woman and lived in France during her junior year of school. When she has the time, Priyanka loves to write, read, run, and dance.

Editor’s Note: This article is the second of three in Teaching Social Justice’s first series. If you haven’t done so already, please read Priyanka’s first piece that came out in May on growing up bicultural. The final article in the series will be posted within the coming weeks.



GUEST POST (Series 1, #1): Priyanka Jhalani on Growing Up Bicultural

Since seventh grade, Hercules has been one of my favorite movies, which is strange considering the first time I watched it, my eyes were filled with tears. As a twelve-year-old, I was fascinated by the “Gods” on my television screen, and proudly proclaimed, “I’m going to be Hera!” to which a well-intentioned classmate remarked, “but you’re brown.” Hera was, of course, pink. Now, almost five years later as a senior about to graduate high school, I still remember this moment clearly, but not for the reasons one might think.

Immediately following my peer’s acknowledgement of my skin color, I cried. My teacher, to her credit, made my classmate apologize, yet this moment remains a powerful memory because it reflects that I, at twelve years old, had already internalized the idea that being brown was something to be ashamed of.

I grew up attending a predominantly white, affluent, private school in Orange County, and needless to say, between me and the other Indian girl in my class, there wasn’t exactly an accurate representation of Indians.

For my classmates, there was little-to-no cultural context for understanding the Indian American experience. Race and ethnicity were seldom discussed, and when they were, teachers only addressed issues that were black and white. When the word “Indian” did come up it was, inaccurately, used to describe Indigenous American peoples. I thought maybe we’d be acknowledged when people referred to Asians, but quickly learned that this term was reserved strictly for descendants of the East side of the continent.

I came to find that while much of my culture was left uncovered within the classroom, it was an entirely different story outside of it. Indian accents were widely promoted through pop culture as hilarious—and images of us as cab drivers or covered in henna tattoos and colored powder were of no shortage. Whenever Indians were mentioned, it was through stereotypes about how “exotic” we were, nods to our intelligence, and other overgeneralizations. I struggled to find myself in the misguided images provided by the media and was getting mixed signals on when it was “okay” to be Indian.

Saris, bindis, and henna tattoos were cool—and everybody loved Indian food—but as soon as Slumdog Millionaire came out, I became the Indian ambassador—everyone expected me to have all the answers related to Indian culture and be accountable for 1.3 billion people’s actions. I was learning very harshly that American pop culture picked, rather selectively, what it was going to accept and what it was going to reject from any given culture.

Pop culture made festivals such as Holi—the celebration of color in which we throw colored powders at one another—yoga, and meditation all seem like fads. I would see images of non-Indians dressed in saris, throwing colors at each other and think to myself, they’re enjoying Indian culture now, but at the end of the day they don’t have to deal with being brown. They have the privilege of celebrating our holidays and taking “trendy” pictures, but then turning right back around and mocking our accents or telling us we smell like curry.

The most daunting question of all was the dreaded, “Can you do your Indian accent for me?” which wide-eyed classmates lined up to hear, ready to imitate and mock my heritage in the most excruciating manner. I felt like a puppet, like a circus act, and horribly used when people asked me this question. My classmates, who were mostly white and weren’t struggling with the identity crisis I was, couldn’t understand why this question was so hurtful.

I didn’t want people to just see me as that Indian girl or talk to me about their fascination with Indians as if I was some type of “exotic” fetish.

Problems occurred when my two worlds collided and someone decided to bring up stereotypes about Indians or talk about how cool it would be to have Holi at school. I loved my Indian culture, but in typical middle school fashion, I was embarrassed by the thing that made me different. Every time it came up, I felt singled out. Part of this was because I’d internalized the American concept that race isn’t an appropriate conversation topic, but the other part was because of the valid reality of racism in the United States.

I was far from understanding the complex racial dynamics of America in middle school and even further from being able to explain them. As a result, I hid my heritage but owned my skin color. Basically, I understood that the color of my skin was brown and I couldn’t hide from that, but since Indian culture wasn’t highly publicized and I clearly wasn’t white, peers tended to lump me into the black category. Of course, their classification relied exclusively on stereotypes, like being able to dance and my “sassy” nature.

The funny thing is, I didn’t mind. Like I said, at this point I had no concept of race in America. I grew up with the same ideals as every other American kid: we are all equal and race doesn’t matter. So, I went on being called black because, in this context, it was cool; of course, I was doing the same thing non-Indians were doing when they celebrated Holi on their own. I was taking what I liked from black culture (the accepted part of it) and using it to my advantage.

What finally put an end to this identity crisis was getting into social justice work. My sophomore year of high school, I got the opportunity to attend the Student Diversity Leadership Conference—better known as SDLC.

This conference was for students from independent schools around the country who wanted to learn more about identity. During one of the sessions, we were all instructed to go to our cultural affinity groups. In reality, this was the same as me going to a family party to see my Indian friends for a night, but at that point I couldn’t understand why we needed to do this.

However, when I joined the circle of over a hundred other Indian American youth, I knew I was right where I belonged. We talked about our favorite Bollywood movies, how annoying it was to be asked to do our accents, and how often people mispronounced our names. I could relate to everything that was said! For the first time in a setting outside of my home, I felt my Indian identity affirmed.

I returned to Orange County with a newfound confidence and clarity regarding my Indian identity. I began to correct people when they tried to lump me into a black, or otherwise nonwhite, category and I was proud of my heritage once again. I combatted harmful stereotypes and let others know when their questions or comments about my culture made me uncomfortable.

Today, I’m proud to say that both of the cultures I’ve grown up in, Indian and American alike, exist within me harmoniously. I’m able to embrace one identity as much as the other. Now I know growing up bicultural is a blessing not a burden.

For my graduation next month I’ve decided I want to wear a sari because it’s the outfit that makes me feel the most beautiful and reflects an important part of my culture. The road to self-acceptance, especially in categories as historically and politically charged as race and ethnicity, can be tricky sometimes and it’s okay to stumble and fall—I certainly did.

Priyanka Jhalani is a high school senior who is passionate about social justice work. Since her sophomore year, she has been heavily involved in diversity and inclusivity initiatives. She’s facilitated numerous discussions and given several speeches at her school. She’s a first generation Indian woman and lived in France during her junior year of school. When she has the time, Priyanka loves to write, read, run, and dance.

Editor’s Note: This article is the first of three in Teaching Social Justice’s first series. I am honored that Priyanka chose TSJ as her outlet to publish this work as part of a senior project. Stay tuned for her next article on colorism in the coming weeks.


Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 1.00.00 PM

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

neutraloppressorDoes my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 1.06.26 PMJust like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 1.10.24 PMDid you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 1.12.08 PMDoes my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 1.14.58 PMYou may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

ac6qxuw3ogsc6chngc5oDoes my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

11193321_10101769550134147_1503411069760286507_nOut of the huts of history’s shame
I rise

martin_luther_king_arrestUp from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise

MarchonWashington1963I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise

3034486-slide-s-1-hands-up-dont-shootInto a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise


Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

–Maya Angelou

Change is happening.

Sometimes it is easy to get lost in the negativity of -isms and -phobias existing in the world: racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, etc. However, the more I pay attention to the news, read [your] blogs, and listen to popular music, the more I realize that the world is changing, however slowly. This change is something that needs to be addressed, not only by ourselves, but in our classrooms.

Food for thought:

While at the JoLLE conference last weekend, Dr. Mollie Blackburn discussed how coming out is a form of activism. She is completely right, and we see the courage it takes in this video. One would think it would be easy for someone so famous, beautiful, and talented like Ellen Page to come out, but there is difficulty in her words — pain, even.

Shortly before Page came out at the Human Rights Campaign, Michael Sam shocked the world, aiming to be the first openly gay man playing for the NFL. While there has been a lot of push back against his announcement, it has been received better than expected (at least, in my opinion). Both of these inspirational examples, and their reception, seems to show that America is ready to accept the LGBTQ community — at least, more ready than it has ever been. That gives me hope, even though we still have a long way to go.