Shadism. One world. Many colours. – Subhojit Das BA LLB 2013

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Reminiscing childhood, I recalled once a distant relative asking a friend of mine, “How come your sister has such light skin and you’re so dark?”

What exactly is Shadism? It is a form of skin tone bias that identifies groups and individuals on the basis of their skin pigmentation.  It tends to override distinctions of class, gender, religion, and ethnic origin, with members of the society basing skin color as the most important parameter for judging other members of society. It is not only an international phenomenon but also local. It is rather difficult to comprehend as to why people are judged on the basis of their skin since it’s a genetic, racial or geographical phenomenon.

Shadism in India can be termed as colorism. Social scientists have recently coined a term called ‘pigmentocracy’ which encapsulates the basic idea that in some societies, wealth and social status are determined by skin colour. Throughout the numerous pigmentocracies across the world, the lightest-skinned peoples have the highest social status, followed by the brown-skinned, and finally the black-skinned who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. This form of prejudice often results in reduced opportunities for those who are discriminated against on the basis of skin colour.

The idea that skin colour must define status did not originate in Hindu mythology, contrary to popular belief. In Mahabharata, one of the two great epics of the religion, Lord Krishna is not fair skinned yet considered as an epitome of beauty. His skin is bluish-black in colour and still manages to catch the fancy of the maidens. Similarly, Lord Shiva, considered the Destroyer, has similar physical features which are regarded as ideal for men. However, just like in every other sphere, the perception of beauty differs between gods and goddesses. While Durga was the embodiment of justice and beauty with her fair skin, Kali was shown as the destroyer, her dark skin conveying the nature of her immense anger and destruction. In Ramayana, Ram is the archetype of princely beauty and is fair skinned. Hence, It can be said that certain parameters of beauty were present in ancient Indian societies, though their presence was subtle and their cogency unconvincing.

From the onset of her birth, the life of a woman is destined to be a story of struggle, irrespective of her caste, class (social and economic) or country. While a woman aspires for an identity other than being the daughter, wife or mother of someone in this world, the pattern society sets for her to be followed. Shadism is just one of the numerous discriminations a woman has to face.

In present times, the skin-whitening-cream industry is on a full scale boom due to the average Indian’s perception that whiter skin equals beauty. Any sort of darkness, pigmentation, mark or scar of any kind that prevents a person from having absolutely flawless fair skin is considered an anomaly and is seen as a hindrance by people on their way to success. To counter these ‘problems’, easy ‘solutions’ are provided.

These ‘solutions’ basically come in the form of cheap skin whitening creams whose dermatological effects are highly doubtful, but their tremendous palliative effect on the psychology of the average Indian, on the other hand, is not lost.

The advertisements for such fairness products are grossly misleading. For boys, these creams are touted as keys to the gates of fancy pertaining to the opposite sex and also as a recipe of fame. For girls, fairer whiter skin is assumed to open all sorts of doors- both professional and personal: they are shown to find jobs easily and climb up the social ladder faster with fairer skin than with darker tones and even the dark skinned girl starts getting innumerable marriage proposals when her skin lightens. Fairness is a booming business in India, one with serious psychological ramifications.

It is indeed ironical that even dark skinned actors endorse skin lightening products. For example, Shah Rukh Khan, the baadshah of Bollywood- the Hindi film industry- advertises several skin whitening products even though the skin tone of the actor himself is wheatish. A powerful message is conveyed: ‘a lighter skin tone enhances chances of social and professional successes’. The actresses of the industry of course are mostly white skinned, which is almost always a requisite for women to break into the industry.

At an international level, the recent crowning of Miss America, Nina Davuluri speaks volumes. She, apparently, is too ‘Indian’ to be Miss America or even Miss India for that matter: Davuluri is dark-skinned. In India, where skin colour is a national obsession, it is highly unlikely for one to see someone of her complexion in a pageant, much less winning one. As a dark skinned Indian male, I can speak for myself, but shadism is a very real thing that still exists in this world.

We are in the 50th year of Martin Luther king’s soul stirring speech – ‘I have a dream’ and the world celebrates its significance as we speak. In that age defining speech one particular line still catches our fancy – ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.’

It is indeed sad that fifty years have passed and yet that dream is far from being realised.


About cwlsc

The Centre for Women, Law and Social Change has been established to advance inter-disciplinary approaches to feminism in teaching, research and policy advocacy. Along with academic commitment to high-quality research in the field of gender and the Centre aims to actively contribute to wider legal thinking on issues related to social justice. The Centre aims to support the initiatives of all the Centres of the JGU and actively collaborate with international, national and grassroots organisations. It encourages various student initiatives in the field of gender and social justice, and seeks to encourage critical thinking on how gender operates in a dynamic with other structures of power in both historical and contemporary contexts. The Centre members teach courses on Feminist Jurisprudence; Gender Law and Governance and Family Law.
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