White bias in the land of colors

9 years ago

Last week, BlogHer CE Lanaid's post raised the issue of racial biases among ethnic minorities in America: A former  professor of Indian-origin, who was unhappy that his son (then 19 years old with no college degree) had married an African-American woman, allegedly ordered his daughter-in-law to be killed. Lanaid's post has details about the case, so I'll skip those. What I'll attempt to do here is look at the role that race and skin color play in India (and, I am guessing, in a large part of the sub-continent).

You will find this post chock-a-block with likely's, probably's and maybe's. That's because I'm just beginning to dig deeper. Ideas and experiences are more than welcome.

Before I tread that dreaded path, a quick note about the Sparkle Rai case: This is a murder. No matter how racially, ethnically or culturally we try to define it, it is still a murder and there is no excuse for it. Contrary to some of the comments I have read on related blogs, this will be considered and prosecuted as a murder in India as well. If he did "get away" with it in India, it would be more due to bad policing than any cultural or legal sanction. However, what he may have gotten away with is his belief that his son was marrying the "wrong girl" and that he had to try hard to "fix the problem".

To discuss this fairly, it is absolutely essential that we decouple this case and how race plays out in America, from India's cultural and color biases. They are different. It's complicated, I know, but that's the only way it can be understood. There's never a single all-encompassing answer to any question about India.

Indians and race: What race do Indians belong to? I haven't the foggiest idea. There have been several theories about our racial roots, none too conclusive. Given the influx of foreign settlers over thousands of years, and the range of skin tones but roughly similar features that we share, we are probably a mash-up of several races. 

Blogger Nita made an attempt to understand the complexities of India's racial origins. Her post led me to an Indian government policy not to track race:


Pursuant of the policy of the Govt. Of India to discourage community distinction based on Caste, the 1951 Census marked a complete departure from the traditional recording of Race, Tribe or Caste and the only relevant question on caste or tribe incorporated in the Census Schedule was to enquire if the person enumerated was a member of any 'Scheduled Caste', or any 'Scheduled Tribe' or any other 'Backward class' or if he was an 'Anglo Indian'.

In 1961 and 1971 Censuses the information was collected only for each Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe.

So, Indians, by definition, don't view each other by race the way it is understood in America. But we do differentiate (and discriminate) by region (most often characterized by different languages), caste, religion and class.
As a British colony, India did have its share of a brand of racism. But the British were sent packing, so who are we fighting over? Our own prejudices that we don't believe qualify as "racism".

How do we feel about other more clearly-defined races like Black or White? Mostly, we associate them with their economic, social and historical status: Whites are perceived as educated, smart, successful and well-off; Blacks as predominantly poor, uneducated and hence subjugated.

Also, India's last rulers were white, who held Indians as beneath them. So, it's likely that we think we are equally good and will one day prove to be their equals, but that doesn't necessarily make us compassionate towards other races. Or perhaps, this "insensitivity" or "prejudice" stems from ignorance: In the recent past Indians have had no direct experience of living with people of African origin. They were not in India, but the Europeans were, as was their worldview.

Again, the demarcations are not exact, but these perceptions are likely to play out in a marriage.

India and skin color: Yes, quite a few people in India -- the land of colors where white signifies death and mourning for many --- have a fetish for lighter skin tone. I can't put my finger on where or how this skewed sense of beauty originated. In Hindu pantheon, some of the most powerful and favorite avatars  -- Krishna, Vishnu, Draupadi -- are specifically described as dark-skinned and good-looking. Indians come in a range of shades from almost white/green-eyed to near-black.

But the prejudice exists in every strata of society, and since women bear most of the burden of looking good, they bear the brunt of the prejudice as well.
The word used to describe the lighter tone is "fair". Men and women seeking partners through matrimonial services almost always want a "fair" bride, or advertise that the girl is "fair". The entertainment and advertising industry has a disproportionate number of light-skinned women (and men). And now, Caucasian men and women are moving in to meet this demand and fascination. (Fair Skin Sells).

An ongoing raucous
over a highly-popular skin-lightening product has highlighted this bias more than ever.

My mother -- who is the (comparitively) lighter-skinned member in her south Indian family -- would joke about how women were viewed by their skin color in eastern India, my dad's home: 'You can look like the back of a bus, but as long as you are fair and chubby, you are beautiful'. Over the years, she too, like so many others, started referring to people's skin tone (especially in the context of a marriage) in a matter-of-fact manner.

I remained unaffected by these standards, thanks to the same mother (and father) who raised me to ignore the exterior and focus on an education and personal growth. Since this idea -- that beauty and light skin are synonymous -- held little significance for me, it became clear to me as I moved out of town and then India, that this aesthetic preference had more to do with conditioning than reality. It is a notion: We are probably attributing some social hierarchy to the color of the skin.

So, for Indians (and most likely for the subcontinent's population), race and color are not synonymous. How else do you explain this case of another South Asian-origin man from Georgia who is facing charges of killing his own daughter for wanting out of an arranged marriage? Incidentally, he is married to an African-American woman himself, so color isn't the issue.

But the color bias persists, nevertheless. Some say our preoccupation with the white skin is a colonial hangover. Maybe. Then why did we want our "white masters" gone? More importantly, why do we hold on dearly to our traditions if we consider the white race as superior?

Sangu Subramani, an upper-caste, dark-skinned man from a south Indian state, blogs about this bias through his life's experiences. I wish I could quote the entire post here -- I couldn't have explained this better myself. But here's a gem from it:

[...] I had frequently noticed even earlier how people in Chennai [...]placed a premium on white skin. In Chennai at least, it was mostly mentioned in the context of girls, although I suspected a similar bias existed even in the case of boys. [...] It was not as if people would say "Wow! You look beautiful! You are so white!". It was much more subtle and somewhat unspoken. Whenever they saw a fair girl, the eyebrows of men would arch up faintly and their eyes would shine with a strange light. It was easy to miss but nevertheless noticeable. Women reacted differently. Outwardly they appeared unaffected. But inside, you could sense a feeling of grudging respect. When the fair girl left them, comments of admiration would invariably followed. If it was a dark girl, there would be little or no reaction at all. People would at most assume that the girl was average in all aspects of life. ie. Nothing special. Life could be hard if you are a dark skinned Indian lass.

This post reminded me of a recent Tyra Banks show about skin color prejudices among African-Americans themselves. [I couldn't find a video of that episode, but Siditty blogs about it here.].

The one event where all these prejudices and preferences come to the surface is marriage -- the final frontier of parental control.

Indian marriages in America:  I grew up believing Indian-Americans in the U.S. didn't have arranged marriages (forced or assisted), couldn't arrange their children's marriages, simply because it was alien to American culture. I had a similar idea about Indians living in other Western nations.
I was in for a HUGE surprise when I arrived here. Not only is the practice alive, in some cases it is a reflection of what's happening back in India and not what's happening in America. Sometimes, it appears to me, people cling on to what they left behind when they left the subcontinent.

Quoting from an NYT story on marriages in the South Asian community here:

In large part, Ms. Khandelwal said, the transition from formally arranged marriage reflects social changes in India itself, where assisted marriage is now common among the educated, urban middle class.
"The purpose of assisted marriage here is not simply to preserve Indian
cultural identity, but more pointedly to maintain class, religious and
regional identities in a place where they might easily be diffused,
those who have studied the Indian diaspora say.
Arranged and assisted marriage have left Indians with the lowest rate
of intermarriage of any major immigrant group in the United States.
Among South Asian men and women here in their 20's and 30's, the vast
majority of whom are foreign born, fewer than 10 percent marry outside
their ethnic group, according to an analysis of the Census Bureau's
2003 American Community Survey conducted for this article.

Why? Is it fear of loss of a deep-rooted, ancient culture? Or is it to establish identity? Maybe both. I only recently realized -- having heard a first-hand account of how NOT passing on one's cultural roots can also adversely affect American-born (brown) children -- that a lack of cultural grounding can lead to an identity crisis.
As I had mentioned in an earlier series on arranged marriages, the practical reason is ease: similar cultural background, same language and religion make adjusting to each other and their families much easier.
I guess we are trapped in a mindset that is a culmination of many factors, which we now conveniently pass off "tradition". 

Which brings me back to Sparkle Rai's murder case. Let's take the murder out of this discussion for simplicity's sake. Would Chiman Rai's disagreement with his son's decision then be racially-motivated? Is it?

I can't read his mind, I don't know.

But I can see how an Indian parent -- who is himself/herself educated as are all of his other children -- can get worked-up about a teenage son with no degree and a non-Indian wife. Would his unhappiness be any less if Sparkle Rai had white skin, everything else being equal? I doubt it.

What irks me, however, is he made Sparkle Rai pay for what he perceives as his son's "failings". This is the oh-so-familiar attitude that our boys are never wrong and are precious. It's always the girl's fault, no matter what.

Which is exactly what Sepia Mutiny argues: 

The son is the one who has dishonored the family here, right? So what does the father do? Disinherit him? Kill his son? Nope - he hires hitmen to kill his daughter-in-law. [...] No matter who does something “wrong” (the son, the daughter) nor what that “wrong” thing is (getting married, getting divorced), the answer is always the same: if you want to preserve the family’s honor, kill the bride and regain your “izzat.” Bride-killing, on the other hand, well that’s not shameful at all.

As one of the mutineers pointed out in a comment:

If Mr.Rai had a daughter that he had married a black man, that I bet he would have killed her, but since it was the other way around. The son is more popular then the daughter among many people with the same background with me.

The eternal optimist that I am, I'd like to conclude with a pat on the backs of the millions of Indians across the world who recognize deep-rooted prejudices as a problem and want them gone. The fact that so many of us are writing and discussing this tells me there's much more than a flicker of hope.
And to all those Indian-Americans who have willingly blessed their children who chose to marry out of race, caste, religion, and region, thank you, and more power to you.

More on color bias in India:

Racism Not Always Black and White (ABC)
Fair Factor --"The Whiter the Better" (Star, 2006)
In All Fairness (The Times of India, 2002)
All's Not Fair For The Dark-Skinned (The Tribune, 2001)

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