Radhika Parameswaran on ‘colorism’ in India

Radhika Parameswaran is Professor in the Media School (Chair of the Journalism unit) and adjunct faculty in the cultural studies, India Studies, and gender studies programs at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. She is currently the Editor of Communication, Culture, and Critique, an official journal of the International Communication Association. She was a Visiting research professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania; Faculty-in-Residence at University of Colorado, Boulder; Invited expert at the NCA Doctoral Honors Seminar; and a Research expert twice for junior faculty workshops at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is the recipient of six top research paper awards (five from AEJMC and one from ICA). Her publications include a 2013 Wiley-Blackwell edited encyclopedic volume on global audience studies, two monographs, 26 articles in leading journals in communication and media studies (five reprinted as book chapters), and thirteen book chapters. Her research has been published in a variety of academic journals, including, Journal of Children & Media, Communication, Culture, & Critique, Journal of Communication Inquiry, Critical Studies in Media Communication, Communication Theory, Qualitative Inquiry, Communication Review, and Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies. She is a member of the advisory board of the Mellon-funded “Framing the Global” project at Indiana University, Bloomington, and she has served on the editorial boards of Asian Journal of Communication, Critical Studies in Media Communication, Communication Monographs, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, and Journal of Communication Inquiry. She served as a mentor for the Journalism’s honors program (2011-2015), and she is the recipient of three outstanding teaching awards from the Journalism unit in the Media School. Her current research project examines transnational media activism that targets issues of colorism, beauty, and sexism in India. She was interviewed by Kimaya De Silva '17 and Alexandra Cheng '18 on Nov. 19, 2015.

First of all, for our readers who haven't read your work, could you give us a little bit of your background and tell us about your work on ‘colorism’ in India, the media's role, and the role of advertising?

A little bit of personal background, I grew up in India in a city called Hyderabad (in South India). I am Tamil speaking so I consider myself both a Hyderabadi and a Tamil Indian. I came here about 25 years ago. I did my masters in media studies and my PhD here in the U.S. but the intellectual journey I am on today, and continue to be on, started in my PhD with the courses I took in my main field of study. I got a PhD in mass communications with a minor in gender and women's studies. Those two—mass communication and gender studies-- came together for me in a very nice way. Honestly, when I was in the PhD program, I was not at all sure I wanted to be an academic. I had been working in book publishing as an editor when I first entered the academy and the PhD, to me, was going to be a fun project. I wanted to be at a big research university in the United States and have a chance to take all these courses and enjoy the vibrant intellectual climate, but I was really not at all sure if academia was for me. Still, some of the courses I took were really inspirational and pushed me to consider the academic profession.

A lot of the readings I did really got me thinking about my own life, my grandmother's life, my mother's life, my nieces’ lives today, about the vast social abyss between myself and my grandmother (who had very little formal education), not in an individualistic way but really looking at how our own personal histories intersected with larger collective histories and global transformations in social, political, and economic structures. Then my focus shifted more toward India’s place in the wider context of the world. While personal reflection has inspired and motivated a great number of my projects, I haven't written a lot about myself. The classes that I took encouraged me to think about my own biography—my privileges and marginalities—in a very political and charged way and that reflection led to particular questions and projects about India, women, colonial history, and media culture.

Studying colorism is a part of that journey for me because I grew up with intense colorism around me, in school, media, my extended family, neighborhoods—wherever you go, colorism is always there, in visible and invisible ways. The larger platform for my research is broadly about gender, globalization, South Asia, and the colorism’s intersections with media really fits into that well. For me, my interests in colorism represent this long standing trajectory of drawing on what I saw growing up and connecting that to broader issues of power, caste hierarchy, class hierarchy, and so on.


What are some sociological factors that affect colorism in India? How do British colonialism and the caste system play into this issue?

Broadly, what I would say is that I'm very interested in looking at how skin color intersects with other hierarchies of race, gender, caste, class, and nation. How does skin color interact with all of these different categories of identities and power hierarchies? I am a media scholar and am very interested in the role that cultural texts and media representations play in conjunction with other sociological and historical factors. I would say that there are probably three big forces that shape colorism in India and among immigrant Indian communities across the world.

(a) One of them is caste. Caste is a system that seems unique to South Asia, although the mechanisms of hierarchical power can function in somewhat similar ways across power structures so that you have class and caste inequalities sharing common ground and race can take on a caste-like structure and vice versa. While caste has become a hierarchy that can be seen as a South Asian problem, we have to be careful about projecting caste as a primitive and unchanging aspect of South Asian sociology. There is this idea of the occupational hierarchy of caste getting overlaid onto skin color—that you have these different castes who performed different kinds of labor ranging from managing people, governing states, reading and interpreting religious texts, using intellectual skills to hard manual labor and that these castes can be graded according to skin color. The castes that are not connected to manual labor outdoors tend to have higher status and prestige according to social norms. Lighter skin color is viewed as a status symbol for the middle and upper castes, who did not have to do manual labor. From a historical and anthropological point of view, the relationship between caste and skin color is murky. There is no established causal relationship or even correlation between skin color and caste. But here's what I will tell you, there is a strong perception that skin color and caste are linked and as long as that perception lasts, it will matter a great deal. So, I would say there is a widespread and entrenched perception that lighter skin color equals higher caste.

(b) Number two, I would certainly say that colonialism could have played a role just as slavery played a role in perpetuating skin color hierarchy in the U.S. European colonialism and ideas of white supremacy could have played a role in fueling colorism in India. But, the way colonialism affected colorism is not a simple translation. You cannot assume that colorism means, “White people are superior in every instance.” It's not so simplistic because of nationalism and anti-colonialism and the ways in which caste operates in a complicated fashion among different ethnic and regional communities in India.

For example, my paternal grandmother who lived with us did not think white people were always superior to her. As an upper-caste Hindu woman, she felt at times that everybody was inferior to her. [Laughter] You can't make it a simplistic fact of essentialized and static white supremacy, and in fact, one of the things she would say when I was growing up was, “white people are not that hygienic and sanitary, they use toilet paper.” She would say that because in India a majority of people wash with water. In addition, for her, feminine beauty was about an Indian/Tamil form of beauty—a certain grace, charm, and liveliness—embodied performative practices—in addition to physical appearance.

But there is a general notion that whiteness does equate to capitalist, consumer, and scientific modernities, and certain kinds of achievements, like industrial and scientific advancements, are identified with Europeans. Those perceptions are still very much present, and of course there is a certain amount of admiration for all that and a desire to imitate those achievements and aspirations. But I would be careful to assume that, in India or South Asia, because we were colonized, everybody thinks white people are superior. For example, you will hear Indian women living in the US say, “My parents only want me to marry an Indian man not a white man.” However, if white men were always viewed as superior, it would of course be more preferable to marry white men, right? National, religious, and caste identities complicate whiteness in the subcontinent.

And I would add that colorism affects Indian women far more because women are supposed to literally and culturally reproduce the caste. If a woman is lighter skinned then the assumption is she will have a lighter skinned baby. So, women become society’s vehicles to reproduce caste and class status. In turn, this colorism affects women within the caste system very unequally. Gender becomes this cleavage between castes, further differentiating colorism.

(c) The third aspect is contemporary globalization and the glut of imported images and media that have come in along with the burgeoning domestic media culture from Bollywood, television, magazines, etc. This is not the saturated media environment in which I grew up. I have two young nieces in India and their immersion in American and imported media far exceeds mine.

So those are the three factors to answer your questions—caste, colonialism, and contemporary consumer and media culture.


And what is Bollywood's effect on the dissemination of these images?

So you have globalization and contemporary consumer and popular culture but one of the things to also remember is that this preference for light skin had been very much embedded within Indian popular culture, far before American or imported culture arrived. So you definitely have all the light skinned Bollywood heroines like Aishwarya Rai and Kareena Kapoor with the exception of a few actors who are labeled as “dusky” or “wheatish brown.” They'll say it's progress that you have these women who are not really light-skinned, and I do think it’s good, but there are very few women and then they're never really that dark-skinned.

For instance, I consider myself a little more on the dark-skinned side. You won't see anyone of my skin color really starring in Bollywood films. There’s some accommodation in that you will see some representative who will be put up to say, “look how progressive we are,” but really you don't see very dark skin. The Bollywood effect, however, is only one part of the picture.

Could you tell us a little bit about skin-lightening products? In Melanin on the Margins, you wrote that skin-lightening products boomed in the year 2000. Has anything changed since then, 15 years down the line?

The boom has now reached saturation. But the interesting thing is that every other product is calling itself a skin-lightening product. There's a brand in India called ‘Biotique'. They are quite popular and have a dizzying range of products but anything you pick up from there will say blah-blah-blah and “lightens.” Basically the market has reached a saturation point but that doesn't mean that this craze has really stopped. I would say that the big craze in terms of constantly bringing out new products probably lasted from 2000 to 2010, where you had this intense competition. It was that type of hectic activity with companies bringing out new brands and new products like baby oil and underarm and nipple creams, where the products would say, “we lighten your skin.” Sunscreen also jumped on the colorism stage by saying it prevents darkening of skin.

I want you both to know that I am currently working on a project now on activism around colorism. I have shifted my focus to studying critiques of colorism and those range from online parodies and spoofs of skin-lightening ads to well-known journalists’ public affairs programs. For example, I found a wonderful funny video—it's for testicular whitening. It's a spoof by Indian comedian Varun Thakur, who was so horrified by this skin lightening craze that he produced this interesting spoof where women kept on rejecting him because they looked at his groin area and it was too dark, and they were horrified. He was critiquing products for intimate or vaginal whitening for women.

This research has really broadened my horizons. I was initially very immersed in India but this phenomenon is so global that it forced me to really expand my lenses. I've read a lot about skin lightening in Japan, in Malaysia, in Indonesia, in China and in Africa—so many countries in Africa—and so it's interesting how this is not just an Indian issue. Colorism may have characteristics that are perhaps particular to India, but it's present in so many countries and carries connotations of purity, class status, beauty, and so on.


A & K: How has advertising developed over time in terms of colorism? Are there any positive changes visible today to do with the representation of beauty?

Advertising has not changed. No, no, no. I wish I could tell you it has changed. It will take a long time to change because to ask advertising to change without society changing—that's a tall order. Advertising and society have such a symbiotic, dialectical relationship. I would say that in advertising for mainstream products like groceries, cooking oil, all of that, all the women presented are still very light-skinned and considered very beautiful. You see that the light skin norm is still operating in a widespread and rigid way.

It is different in elite circles. For example, the actress model Naomi Campbell visited India and she's popular there in certain high fashion/beauty realms of metropolitan culture—she's considered beautiful in these spaces. Upper class Indians who want to be seen as part of the cosmopolitan transnational elite will acknowledge dark-skinned foreign beauty to show that their distance from those “rural, illiterate Indians” who are viewed as backward. They will have this very visible recognition of dark skin color and say they consider it very beautiful etc. But, in their own private lives, if their son brings home a really dark-skinned girlfriend, I don't know how they would react. You will see some acknowledgement of dark-skinned beauty in mainstream venues, more than what I saw growing up. Film actors like Nandita Das are openly challenging light skin norms too. Now at least because India has had to join the world stage, there is more of an acceptance of different skin colors, different kinds of beauty and so on in certain compartmentalized sectors of public culture. But I would say that it is by no means percolating downwards into everyday culture.


Along the same lines, this obviously disproportionately affects women but what about men? Obviously they perpetuate the system in many ways, but how does it affect them directly?

To a large degree, yes it affects Indian women in an unequal way and it's very interesting that this is true of many other communities in the US, Asia, and Africa. Dark-skinned African-American women are affected way more by colorism than dark-skinned African-American men. This gendered manifestation of colorism also holds in the Latina/o community. So colorism in India echoes these patterns found elsewhere. But I would say that men are able to overcome the penalties of colorism because they are seen in the provider role. In the arranged marriage system, if the man had education, a string of degrees and professional status he possessed economic and cultural capital. No matter which caste or class you were from, there's the concept of the “good job” for a man of that class. Even if you're in the lower income group, be it a clerk in the government or an “office boy” as they call it that would be considered a good job for men of that class. So across the spectrum, if a man had a secure job and professional success, it would allow him to overcome colorism.

I think it’s slightly different today. I think that to some degree, it’s because India’s corporate sector has boomed. Earlier in my time, the government was a big employer, just like in many postcolonial developing countries. Now you see that the corporate sector has really boomed and we have a different culture of who fits in, who gets to be promoted, and who can be a symbol of corporate success. With a new focus on service in the hospitality, retail, and tourism industries and the general expansion in the corporate and service sectors, I believe that there is also pressure on men now.

If you want to be middle manager, if you want to go to meetings, if you want to represent your company, and if you want to become a spokesperson for your company, I wouldn't doubt that there is pressure on the young men who go to these job interviews now. I have no doubt that they feel that if they're dark-skinned, all things being equal, they may not be hired. In jobs in sales and marketing where who you are, how you look, and how you can persuade people have become very important, I wouldn't doubt that those types of professions have also raised the bar for appearance.

A third factor for young men to become more conscious of appearance is that we're gradually moving away from an arranged marriage to more of a “let's date, let's get to know each other”-type of romantic relationship, and you can see that appearance will also begin to matter in that realm there with its own normative packaging of attractiveness and chemistry. Some of that is good in that women get to have a say, but women are as subject to norms as men so there is also this pressure on men to now appeal to women. And since women have economic power now, they have a certain level of permission that men have and they get to say, “I'm going to judge you now.”

I think those three new issues are putting more pressure on men, and that's why you do have lightening products for men. The actor Shahrukh Khan was an endorser of skin lightening products and has done so repeatedly.

Earlier you mentioned your two nieces who are definitely growing up in a different generation from you. We were wondering how technology and social media is changing the discourse on light skin supremacy, and whether the younger generation is expressing different values on the topic?

First of all, I should say that on the one hand you are seeing this emphasis on lighter skin in the commercial sphere—in the sphere of advertising, corporate media, popular culture—that is further endorsed by advertisers. But at the same time, you are also seeing a questioning of it. I won't say that the questioning of it is drowning out the other side because it is not, but I call this an interruption. And an interruption is a beginning—it's a beginning, not the end yet. There is this well known Indian journalist Barkha Dutt, who is kind of like Christiane Amanpour, the Iranian-American journalist—very intelligent and sharp, and Barkha is kind of like that in India. Barkha hosted two episodes on on colorism in her lively regular talk show called, “We the People.” Both episodes expose and condemn colorism as well as discuss the reasons behind it. There was this debate on the show about colorism and its origins and what advertisers should do to be more ethical. There are also lots of blogs now by Indians and the Indian diaspora concerning colorism. There’s a women's movement called, “Women of Worth” and they come from South India. They've launched this anti-colorism Facebook page and a young Indian American woman named Jasmine Thana had a Tumblr site requesting people to send her images of beautiful dark skinned women so that she and other people can flood the digital sphere with them.

While the winds of progressive change around colorism are blowing on the younger generation and some of them would certainly express outrage at skin color discrimination, but I also would not doubt that they continue to feel the pressure to conform. I would not doubt that their own norms of beauty are somewhat anchored to skin color. We're all trying not to be racist, we're all trying not to be colorist, we're trying not to be sexist—but these are very deeply ingrained in us, so much so that women are not excluded from holding racist and sexist beliefs too. We can enact practices of sexism but that doesn't mean female sexism has the same power that male sexism has, right? This is also an institutional and structural issue. What I’m saying is that these hierarchical ways of thinking are not going to go away soon. But at least my nieces, as opposed to say my grandmother's generation, explicitly and openly denounce colorism, which is a great thing. I would say that they try very hard not to let the influences of colorism—let me use a pun here—color their thinking, but I would say that, to some degree, they're probably trapped in it. Colorism has been around for so long in the South Asian context that it's going to take a long time to change. But I think they have made a good start. I am optimistic while always recognizing the constraints and burdens upon us—what other choice do we have if we want to create collective change?

That's very positive. We were also wondering, if you were to write Melanin on the Margins again or do a second part, is there anything you'd like to include based on what's changed over the years or based on what we've spoken about?

I haven't done much with colorism and Bollywood so I think that it would be interesting to look at some of the stars from the 1960s onwards. There was this beautiful star named Nutan who played a role in a film called “Sujatha” where she was presented as not the ideal light-skinned beauty and as a member of the “untouchable caste.” I wish I could have analyzed those types of films. A dark-skinned actress of my generation—late seventies and eighties—was Smita Patil who moved from alternative cinema to Bollywood. I would like to look at who these women who didn't fit the norm and how they navigated their roles. Then there's another actress named Rekha—she was certainly seen as very beautiful and so on, but the rumor then was that she always had this ‘white face’ on, that she wore a lot of makeup. I would have liked to do more research on these types of women. Now, there’s an actress named Nandita Das who has spoken out about colorism and who is actually the mascot for this “Women of Worth” campaign. She also appeared in one of Barkha Dutt’s shows. Establishing some kind of lineage of women who did not just fit into that light-skinned prototype very easily would be an interesting line of inquiry to pursue.

Additionally, I would have liked to explore how beauty is defined in indigenous cultures and various other subcultures in India. For example, back to my grandmother who lived with us and helped raise us. She was very light-skinned and she married my grandfather, who had much darker skin. It was an arranged marriage but my grandfather's professional achievements basically over-ruled his appearance; it was okay that he was dark-skinned. Because my grandfather was a young and upcoming lawyer, my grandmother’s much more wealthy family possibly disregarded his dark skin. Even then, people used to be surprised at my own darker skin color because my grandmother was so much lighter skinned than me. She was an interesting character trapped in all those sorts of problematic hierarchies of her generation, but when people would sometimes say to her, “Look at your grandkids, wow. They're so dark,” she would get upset and say, “They’re so lively and animated and nobody can match them in charm.” After these critical people left, she would say to me, “What is the point of being light skinned and looking like concrete? What is the point of looking like some pale, dull, heavy concrete? You know, I would much rather have charm and grace and intelligence.” I would have liked to interview older generation Indians like her and asked, “Where do you get these ideas of beauty?” I would have liked to study further how beauty is encoded perhaps in indigenous religious texts, in ancient poetry and so on.

I am also curious to know how colorism affects different communities in India—Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs—and whether there is any difference from the Hindu community.


Lastly, is anything else that you would like to add?

So one thing I would like to add is that when I started doing the second part of my ongoing project—looking at activism around colorism—what became very interesting to me was how the phrase “black is beautiful” was used by African-Americans in the civil rights movement. It was very much a part of public civil rights activist projects and also a way of helping black children overcome issues of self-esteem. This phrase challenged the notion that only white is beautiful, and ultimately became a very politically charged type of activist discourse and about more than just outward appearance. I would like to try to compare this kind of activism to the rise in activism around colorism in India in order to evaluate its potential in enacting change. Is it really transformative? Once you have activism around colorism, will that spill into anti-caste politics or will it remain at this superficial level of, “Let's also call middle class, dark-skinned girls beautiful.” If it is all about middle class politics, I see it as very limited. You would hope that these activist currents of anti-colorism located in discourses on beauty would find a way into also being protests about classism and casteism. I’ve become very interested in looking at the scope and potential of these new forms of “activist interruptions” and how they measure up against what happened in the U.S. That's why I find anti-racism and race politics in the US so interesting—not just because I teach about it, but because of how it sort of latches and maps onto skin color in so many different parts of the world.

Recommended reading

“Melanin on the Margins: Advertising and the Cultural Politics of Fair/Light/White Beauty” in India by Radhika Parameswaran and Kavitha Cardoza

“E-Race-ing Color: Gender and Transnational Visual Economies of Beauty in India” by Radhika Parameswaran

“Malu: Coloring Shame and Shaming the Color of Beauty” by L. Ayu Saraswati

“Ash‐colored whiteness: The transfiguration of Aishwarya Rai” by Goldie Osuri

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