Sunday 9 August 2020

When Fair is not so Fair!

Illustration: Bharati Varrier

Revolts and revolutions against discrimination based on skin colour have rocked the world at every turn of history. Rather, these revolts mark the turn of the history. But what’s exactly in skin colour? Melanin, of course. Melanin, is the pigment which in different forms and ratios gives the skin its colour. And then there are factors like genes, exposure to sunlight, etc. So basically your skin colour – just like who you are born to – is a mere accident. And factors like how close you live to the equator are coincidental. The colour of an individual’s skin, hence, is neither an indicator of their class nor a measure of their ability.

Then what made the ‘whites’ feel superior and why were the non-whites helpless enough to allow this discrimination? The whites were not superior because of their colour, they were superior because of their power. And that’s definitely not fair. If blacks (kindly pardon the usage, but one’s trying to make a point) had been more powerful, then perhaps the whole picture would have been its own negative version.

Recently the multinational company Johnson and Johnson took the decision to stop selling skin-lightening products. It’s heartening, and it’s high time. Indian companies are also rethinking their business tactics.

To overpower the acts of discrimination of others, however powerful they may be, is by far easier than to conquer the sense of discrimination within the self. Indians, more than 7 decades ago, in spite of their skin colour which includes white, black and all the hues, tones and tints in between, and with hardly any power as compared to the whites who ruled over them, still managed to overthrow those in power and gain freedom. Though the ruling whites left the country, the seed of discrimination they left behind have been growing tall, with its roots running deep.

It is still prevalent in India to ask whether a newly born or a prospective bride or groom is fair or dark. This in a land where deities like Goddess Kali and Lord Krishna are dark as their names proclaim! Then there is the discrimination between the fair ‘northies’ and the dark ‘southies’. Imagine India being located farther away from or closer to the equator, then you will also be able to visualize shifting monochromes of the same picture.

Indian epics and puranas have many heroes and heroines – Draupadi and Arjuna, for example – who were dark and much extolled for their looks. In the ancient vernacular literature, syamavarna (dark complexion) was considered an epitome of beauty. And none of the world literature, art or revolutions, which came later and threw light on the unfairness meted out by the fair on the not so fair through the centuries, could restore blackness to its past glory. Unfortunately, not all the progressive thought, enlightenment and knowledge helped humans evolve beyond their skin.

Today the world is raging post the George Floyd tragedy. Humans are fighting for the rights of humans (one consciously avoids saying ‘whites are fighting for blacks’), trying to overthrow statues in an attempt to overthrow the stigmas associated with ‘black’. And it’s in this context, one hit upon the history of the word ‘black’. It seems it was one of the earliest words in the language. According to an update by, the word is also described as ‘absence of colour’. In that sense, black is then perhaps the most ethical of all colours. The problem, after all, is not in the word, it’s in misconstruing it.

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