Shadeism, closely related to ‘colourism’, is an associated practice that is the manifestation of an internalised, colonial-induced racial self-hatred. It determines your social rank and status by the shade of your skin tone and is a common practice of discrimination among lighter-skinned and darker-skinned members of the same community.
From both working in the acting and commercial industries from the age of 15, and having a background of an eclectic mix of ethnicities, I’m no stranger to the term shadeism. It is perhaps my experience in the industries I have worked in that have made it so important for my identity and race to be defined. So often we are encouraged to classify our identities in tick boxes: ‘Asian Black, ‘Asian Chinese, ‘Asian Other’ – we always seem to be made aware our differences.
In my experience at work, often casting calls will be sent to my agents requesting an ‘Indian girl, petite, fresh and young-looking’. I “fit the brief” they’d say, but I “didn’t exactly look Indian”. It got me thinking: what’s that supposed to mean? How could I not look like my ethnicity?
It was then that I began to look closer at the way female ethnic minorities were presented on television and in the media. The variation in the types of Indian women in television and film were dramatically scarce. It appeared to me, that the more ‘Western’ their features were, the higher chance they would be cast for roles. It struck me that the Indian actresses in soaps, television dramas and films were light-skinned and more often than not, descended from a Gujarati or Punjabi background. You need not look further than the actress Aishwarya Rai, BBC presenter Jameela Jamil and actress Freida Pinto to notice the common trend of light-skinned Asian women. There is however a recent exception, Vera Mindy Chokalingham, better known as Mindy Kaling. As an actress, comedian, writer and America’s breathe-of-fresh-air, Mindy fits the brief as a relatable, ‘realistic’, Indian woman. With a Tamil and Bengali ethnic background, she is the first counter-reaction to shadeism I have ever seen on primetime television in the modern era. And yet, trolls of the Twitter-sphere never fail to spout the most derogatory terms that fall under the shadeism umbrella: ‘That girl on the Mindy Project is too dark.’
Tragically, shadeism is a fierce appropriation in countries with strong ethnic communities. It is both scary and shocking to see the differences in how developing countries, such as India, Grenada or Jamaica, define beauty. In India, for instance, it has long since been believed that darker-skinned women identify with poor and working-class backgrounds and that the lighter the skin tone, the more beautiful, intellectual and rich they were. To be fair-skinned is a hope for many women of colour, for many it’s a goal.
As a consequence of this abhorrent belief, a trip to visit relatives abroad last Summer, even resulted to me being given skin-lightening products as a gift. I accepted them out of politeness and with a wry smile, but I didn’t appreciate the gesture – not one bit. My friends at home say I should have thrown them back in their faces, but it is a way of life for them. The concept of bleaching has been ‘normalised’ for generations and they have not been educated to understand otherwise. This growing trend of racial targeting by the cosmetics industry: eye-lid surgeries, chemical hair straightening and skin-bleaching, are just a few of the options advertised to people of colour who wish to change their ‘shade’ and features.
This is an issue of beauty, of old ideas that determine what is still beautiful. Of how the colour of our skin has and continues to affect how we view ourselves. Even down to the cultural idols in some religious texts such as Hinduism: light-skin was good, and dark-skin was evil.
We need to change these dangerous habits by bringing self love back into our own perceptions of beauty. Educate the unfortunate communities who make commission from these lethal skin-lightening substances and teach people to appreciate the shade that looks back at them in the mirror. Shadeism is a phenomenon that needs to be stopped, but, if you want to change a person, you must first change the awareness of themselves – it starts with consciousness.