Mirror, Mirror, Who Is The Fairest Of Them All?

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan i i

Indian actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan waves during a photo call for the movie Pink Panther 2 on Feb. 13 at the Berlinale in Berlin, Germany. Markus Schreiber/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Markus Schreiber/AP
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan

Indian actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan waves during a photo call for the movie Pink Panther 2 on Feb. 13 at the Berlinale in Berlin, Germany.

Markus Schreiber/AP

Among Indians, skin color is an issue. I mean Indians like me — the kind from the subcontinent of South Asia. I tend to refer to my people as "brown people" because, by and large, that's the color of our skin. But, as we all know, there are many shades of one color. Actually, if you move across India, you will encounter a variety, from almost Aryan fairness in the north to a dark, dark brown in the south. So as far as skin color goes, it really is a rainbow nation. But, as I said, Indians really have some issues with skin color. What's the desirable color? Fair. And people are not ashamed to say it.

Indians have been obsessed with skin color for centuries, using all sorts of potions and concoctions to help "lighten" the skin. This has been a preoccupation for women, but as NPR's Delhi correspondent reported on Morning Edition, there has been an increased interest on the part of men who want to be fairer. And when Bollywood's biggest movie star endorsed a skin lightening product, "Fair and Handsome," that created a storm.

It's the usual old tropes that get trotted out — you'll get the job, you'll get the girl, fairer is better. Classified ads seeking marriage partners (arranged marriages are still the norm in India) seek potential brides who are "fair." For the most part, Bollywood stars are fair-skinned, as are television presenters or models or other entertainers.

It's all wrapped up in history as well as hierarchies of class, caste and socioeconomic status. The fair-skinned Mughals, and then the British, were conquerors. In Hindu, social structure and caste was (and is) destiny. The higher castes are usually fairer because their professions would not involve outdoor labor. If you didn't have to engage in outdoor labor, you were probably better off economically, pursued a profession, ergo you were economically better off. It's not hard to see how the belief has persisted for generations, even to modern 21st century India. It's not much of a leap from that message to "you'll get the girl" (if you are fair) in one of these modern-day ads.

Madhulika Sikka

Madhulika Sikka is the executive producer for NPR's Morning Edition. hide caption

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Our family is from the north of India. My mom wasn't particularly dark, but she would never have been described as fair. The lore is that when I was born the doctors described me as "white as milk," and the nurses were worried that they had given my mother the wrong baby! Though if you looked at me now, you'd know that I'm not white. I remember returning from my beach honeymoon in Thailand extremely tanned. My aunt, visiting from India, took one look at me and was horrified. "Why did you do that to yourself?" she asked. It was incomprehensible to her that I would willingly subject myself to the sun and literally turn a dark mocha color.

As I reflect on it now, these comments about skin color were really part and parcel of everyday talk among many Indians when I was growing up. Yes, even in polite company. I can't imagine such open conversation taking place in the U.S. Is that good or bad? I'm really not sure, to be honest. I'm sure it is a conversation that is happening in many communities of color across the country. Are we better off to put it out there for everyone, or do we keep it in the family? As the wife of a white American and so the mother of biracial children, I'd like to think that we can talk about it. But as the history of my own culture demonstrates, it's hard to unwind the baggage that all that history carries.

Madhulika Sikka is the executive producer for NPR's Morning Edition.

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