Black Lives Matter Gets Indians Talking About Skin Lightening And Colorism

Prompting a needed discussion:

Chandana Hiran loves reading, arts and crafts, and recycling. At 22, she’s enrolled in college, studying to be an accountant. She considers herself a feminist.

But something else is a big part of her identity too.

“I’m slightly dark,” Hiran tells NPR in a phone interview from her family’s Mumbai home, her bold voice suddenly going soft. “I’d be called one of the dark-skinned people in our country.”

In India, colorism is rampant. Darker-skinned Indians, especially women, face discrimination at work, at school — even in love. Some arranged marriage websites let families filter out prospective brides by skin tone.

So it may be no wonder that about half of all skin care products in India, according to the World Health Organization, are lighteners designed to “brighten” or “lift” — essentially to whiten — a user’s skin color. WHO estimates that such products amount to about a $500 million industry in India alone. Until recently, some of them even came with shade cards — like paint swatches — so that users could track the lightening of their skin.

Some products claim to “lighten” the skin using multivitamins such as vitamin B3, and many users have said they’re happy with the results. Other products may contain mercury or bleach, which WHO cautions can damage skin cells. Other skin-lightening treatments, including intravenous and pill formulas, have been linked to liver and kidney damage.

The most popular brand of skin lightener is Fair & Lovely, made by the consumer goods giant Unilever. Generations of Indians have grown up with grocery store shelves lined with Fair & Lovely creams and face washes. They’ve been sold in India since 1975 with a marketing campaign of TV commercials and billboards that equate pale, fair skin with beauty and success.

Those are stereotypes that many find deeply unfair. And as the Black Lives Matter movement spreads across the world, it has prompted a reckoning about skin color in India and a brazen revolt against one of its most popular cosmetics.

Feeling insecure

Being slightly browner than the average Indian, by her own assessment, has left Hiran feeling insecure all her life.

“Even the smallest of things, like not wanting to wear brighter colors or just random people coming to you and saying, ‘Oh, maybe you should apply something on your face,’ ” Hiran recalls. “There is not a single Bollywood actress who could represent my skin tone.”

Instead, Bollywood actresses star in TV commercials for skin-lightening creams.

The Indian beauty queen-turned-actress Priyanka Chopra — who starred in the U.S. TV hit Quantico — is one of the most famous. In 2008, she appeared in a series of promotional videos for a product called White Beauty. She played a forlorn-looking single woman who, in the first episode, watched a slightly lighter-skinned woman strut past with a handsome man on her arm. In later episodes, after she used the skin-lightening cream, the man fell in love with her instead.

Another ad for Fair & Lovely suggests using it before going to a job interview.

Praise for white skin is a theme in popular music too. In a 2015 hit song called “Chittiyaan Kalaiyaan” — which means “pale wrists” in the Hindi language — the male singer croons about how a woman’s pale skin makes him swoon.

“Oh my darling, angel baby, white kalaiyaan drives me crazy!” the refrain goes.

When Hiran was a teenager, listening to such songs, she started using Fair & Lovely. She didn’t even have to buy it; her mother always had some in the family medicine cabinet.

The impact of Black Lives Matter

So that was the backdrop in India this spring, when George Floyd was killed in the U.S. and calls for racial justice echoed around the world.

“Can Indians support Black Lives Matter when we ourselves have so many prejudices?” asks activist Kavitha Emmanuel, founder of a women’s charity in southern India called Women of Worth.

In 2009, Emmanuel started a campaign called Dark Is Beautiful to combat colorism in India. Over the years, while counseling girls, she says she realized how deeply hurt Indian women have been by media messages about skin color.

“In our counseling sessions, this would keep surfacing. [They would keep] saying, ‘I am dark,’ ” she told NPR by phone from her home in Chennai. “It is not just about self-esteem in terms of their looks, but it also affects their overall performance in life.”

A study confirms that the scenes in TV commercials for skin-lightening creams may sadly be accurate. A 2015 report by professors at Southern Illinois University and the Rochester Institute of Technology found that in India:

“A woman’s dark skin can preclude her from entering positions such as news anchor, sales associate, flight attendant and even receptionist because these jobs require exposure to and interaction with the public, who will judge her as unattractive, unworthy and incompetent. Fair-skinned women, conversely, are seen in most of these roles; their skin tone grants them unearned privilege and power within organizations as a result.”

Emmanuel says many Indians now expressing support for Black Lives Matter in the U.S. are blind to such discrimination against racial and religious minorities at home. Many of the same celebrities tweeting about racial justice in the U.S. have actually starred in ads for skin-lightening creams.

Bollywood backlash

Among the first Indian celebrities to express public sympathy after Floyd’s killing in the U.S. was the film star Chopra, who posted a lengthy message on Instagram in May with some of Floyd’s last words: “please, i can’t breathe.”

“There is so much work to be done and it needs to starts at an individual level on a global scale,” she wrote. “We all have a responsibility to educate ourselves and end this hate.”

Her comments drew a backlash online. When Chopra’s husband, American singer/songwriter Nick Jonas, tweeted that he and his wife “Pri” have “heavy hearts” over “systemic racism, bigotry and exclusion,” one user replied: “Was pri’s ‘heart heavy’ before or after she promoted skin lightening creams?”

Chopra has not replied to the tweets. But in a 2017 interview with Vogue India, she said she regretted appearing in ads for skin-lightening products. “I used it [when I was very young]. Then when I was an actor, around my early twenties, I did a commercial for a skin-lightening cream. I was playing that girl with insecurities. And when I saw it, I was like, ‘Oh s**t. What did I do?’ ” Chopra was quoted as saying.

She told Vogue that she now sympathizes with girls who feel insecure about their skin tone and has turned down offers to star in any more such ads.

Human rights activists in India have also accused Chopra and other Indian celebrities of hypocrisy for expressing sympathy for Floyd and outrage over his killing but not condemning similar violence against minorities, particularly Muslims, in India. In recent years, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, attacks on India’s minority Muslims have skyrocketed. Dozens have been lynched in the streets with little public outcry.

Colonialism and caste

Emmanuel and others trace India’s color discrimination back to the colonial period when mostly white Britons ruled over darker-skinned Indians. But its roots may go back even further than that — to Hinduism’s ancient caste system, roughly based on a hierarchy of professions people are born into.

Historians of ancient India say discrimination based explicitly on skin color has never been part of the Hindu caste system. But it may have evolved over time. For centuries, members of the less privileged, lower castes traditionally did manual labor outdoors under the sun.

“The British colonizers were able to build on India’s existing caste system. So the upper-caste people who were powerful had fairer skin. And the lower-caste people, when they would work outside, those castes started having darker skin [from prolonged sun exposure],” explains Neha Dixit, an Indian journalist who has studied the history of colorism and written about her own experience as a slightly darker-skinned woman. (The euphemism her relatives used for her skin color is “wheatish” — the color of wheat.)

“We have actually internalized all those prejudices,” she says. “So anybody with fairer skin is supposed to be better off than a dark-skinned person.”

Those stereotypes have been reinforced in India for millennia. But modern ideas of racial equality — and the Black Lives Matter movement — are slowly making a dent. A landmark case against caste discrimination is currently under litigation in California, where Indian American tech workers are accused of discriminating against a colleague because he’s a member of a lower caste.

New name, same cream

A few years ago, when she was in her late teens, Hiran, the accounting student, stopped using Fair & Lovely cream. Unilever says its products do not contain potentially harmful bleach or mercury. But Hiran’s decision had more to do with a maturing sense of self rather than any health concerns, she says.

“I started to realize, OK, maybe the problem is not with me. Maybe I’m not supposed to look any other way,” she says. “And I’m not supposed to feel insecure about my own skin.”

This year, Hiran started an online petition to get the name of the product changed. It’s one of several such petitions that have flooded the Internet in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.

A Texas woman of South Asian descent, Hetal Lakhani, also started an online petition against, one of the most popular matrimonial websites, demanding that it remove a function that allows users to search for potential partners on the basis of their skin color. Last month, the website obliged, issuing a statement saying that it “does not discriminate” and that the skin color filter was a “product debris left-over in one of our advanced search pages.”

Then, in late June, Fair & Lovely’s manufacturer, Unilever, made an announcement: It’s removing any references to “fair/fairness,” “white/whitening” and “light/lightening” from all of its packaging.

“We are fully committed to having a global portfolio of skin care brands that is inclusive and cares for all skin tones, celebrating greater diversity of beauty,” Sunny Jain, president of the company’s beauty and personal care division, was quoted as saying. “We recognize that the use of the words ‘fair,’ ‘white’ and ‘light’ suggest a singular ideal of beauty that we don’t think is right.”

But even though the packaging now says only that the product moisturizes and gives a pink glow, these terms are understood to be euphemisms for lightening your skin.

This month, Unilever’s Indian branch announced a new name: Glow & Lovely. Its men’s product line will also be rebranded, as Glow & Handsome. The company says the name changes will happen in the coming months.

The cosmetics brand L’Oréal says it’s making a similar change.

But some activists say that’s not enough — that it’s not the names that needed to be scrapped but the products themselves. Another big company, Johnson & Johnson, says it’s discontinuing two of its skin-lightening products altogether.

Souvenir tube

Hiran calls the Fair & Lovely name change “a step in the right direction.”

“It’s not a small thing that Fair & Lovely has done. Because this brand has thrived all these years on the insecurities of women. This is really changing the narrative,” she says. “But it’s only the first step toward being more inclusive and diverse. No matter what you call it, it’s still going to be offensive.”

Even though she hadn’t used the product in years, Hiran says she recently found an old tube of Fair & Lovely in her medicine cabinet. She says she’ll probably hold on to it.

“Now it’s going to become a souvenir,” she laughs.

So the Fair & Lovely label will soon be history. But the question remains as to how long these skin-lightening products — whatever they’re called — will remain in India, along with the attitudes behind them.

Source: Black Lives Matter Gets Indians Talking About Skin Lightening And Colorism

Douglas Todd: Popular Canadian student visas leading to exploitation

More from Douglas Todd on Indian student visa holders:

Senior Indian politicians are warning tens of thousands of young Punjabis about the dangers of trying to take advantage of student visas to try to become Canadian citizens.

Indian nationals — some of whom are using student visas primarily to work rather than study in Canada — are being exploited in both countries for their money and cheap labour, say South Asian media outlets and officials in both India and Canada.

The Punjab’s education minister, Charanjit Singh Channi, says he recently travelled to Canada and “saw the plight of students there,” with many working 16 hours a day to make ends meet and attending fly-by-night colleges with just five students enrolled.

Channi, who is concerned about a growing brain drain of young Punjabis to Canada, told the Indian media he is cautioning students against “falling into the emigration trap.” He is one of many officials raising alarms about fraudulent immigration agents who are financially bleeding low-income families in India with false promises their offspring will easily obtain immigrant status in Canada.

Many Indo-Canadians in Metro Vancouver and Toronto are in an uproar over the surge in students from India, with their presence feeding community tensions, allegations of financial exploitation by colleges and universities, employer abuse and fears some young newcomers are “buying jobs” in Canada while working for less than minimum wage, undercutting local South Asians.

The number of Indian students in Canada, mostly from the Punjab, has increased about five-fold in the past few years, since the federal government began to favour international students as future permanent residents.

Canada has 130,000 students from India now, compared to 20,000 in Britain, 70,000 in Australia and 186,000 in the U.S., which has almost 10 times Canada’s population.

“Most international students, especially from China and India, see being an international student as an opportunity to migrate to Canada for greener pastures, to pave way for their families to eventually join them,” says Barj Dhahan, a major B.C. employer and philanthropist.

“They end up paying large sums of money to ‘immigration consultants’ … to help them obtain admissions to Canadian institutions and get visas to Canada. Many of these students are enrolled in short-term degree programs” And, he said, many end up working more than the 20 hours a week are allowed under student study permits.”

Dhahan, owner of the Sandhurst Group of companies that specializes in B.C. restaurants, gas stations and commercial real estate, said some of the 500,000 international students in Canada “work illegally under the table to make ends meet, and are usually paid in cash.” In the process, he said, many are exploited by dubious employers and so-called consultants.

The Tribune is one of several Indian media outlets reporting that young Punjabis and their often-rural families are being gouged by educational institutions, landlords and employers in Canada, as well as by so-called “immigration consultants” in India.

The Punjab newspaper says it typically costs Indian students more than $15,000 Cdn for their first year in Canada, but that consultants don’t tell families that educational fees and housing costs will mushroom to $100,000 to $150,000 for a multi-year program. Last month, Indian headlines trumpeted a police raid on the office of a prominent Punjab immigration consultancy headed by Vinay Hari, who had sponsored large ads celebrating the visit of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Immigration lawyers in Metro Vancouver, such as George Lee and Richard Kurland, say international students from India and China, the two biggest source countries for Canada, are among those who end up trying to extend their chances of gaining immigrant status in Canada by “buying jobs,” some of which don’t exist.

Burnaby immigration lawyer George Lee says some international students from India and China are among those who try to extend their chances of gaining immigrant status in Canada by “buying jobs.”

Shinder Purewal, a Kwantlen Polytechnic University political scientist and a former citizenship court judge, said “Immigration is the main motive of most international students coming to Canada,” particularly those who sign up with low-tier public and private educational institutions with little intention of obtaining a serious diploma and a much stronger inclination to find work.

One of the most lucrative money-making schemes for fraudulent immigration agents in India and Canada, Purewal said, is arranging often-fake Canadian labour-market impact assessments for international students who seek a long-term work permit to cement their chance of being approved for permanent resident status, the precursor to becoming a Canadian citizen.

Some Indo-Canadian business owners, Purewal said, collude with the agents to charge Indian students $20,000 to $50,000 for a false labour-market assessment, which claims a foreign national is needed for a job because Canadians cannot be found.

Although newcomers on student visas are limited to working 20 hours a week, Purewal said most end up “working more than full time to cover costs, simply because Canadian employers don’t even pay them minimum wage. The system allows ‘immigration consultants’ and businesses to cheat, commit fraud and brutally exploit young people.”

Vancouver immigration lawyer Sam Hyman says there is a “rampant” underground economy devoted to creating false labour-market assessments for international students in Canada, regardless of their nationality. If the students who buy such fraudulent job offers are caught, Hyman warned, “they are likely to bear the enforcement consequences — including deportation — more readily than the fraudsters who victimize them and reap the profits of such illegal activity.”

Source: Douglas Todd: Popular Canadian student visas leading to exploitation

Allan Gregg » Tecumseh’s Ghost

For your Sunday reading.

A long piece by Allan Gregg on the history of the War of 1812, Tecumseh, and the taking of Indian land in North America. Long but engaging, and one of the uncomfortable truths of Canadian history.

Allan Gregg » Tecumseh’s Ghost.