My great grandparents migrated from Gujarat, India to Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania decades ago. As the family grew, they boasted a large bloodline that would intertwine throughout the country. But I realised quickly that most of these ‘older generations’ were simply oblivious to the shortcomings of their time.
I grew up fair-skinned; my older sister was born dark. I vividly recall my first encounter with bigotry when I was ten years old. My father’s cousin had come to visit from abroad, and as she saw my sister, her face instantly dulled with disappointment. She twisted her head and looked at me, telling my mother that I glowed differently as she praised me. At the time I did not understand, my parents had sheltered us from ideologies that they themselves as light-skinned Indians did not face. I silently watched as distant relatives invasively blasted my mother with recipes to lighten my sister’s brown skin, which they called wheatish and dusky.
“Turmeric and honey; she is darker, so you must leave it on for longer,” they said among other unprompted skin lightening solutions.
Despite all the reassurance and sheltering, my parents failed to protect my sister from an environment where fair skin was idolised. And soon, I idolised it too.
As I began to grow older, playing sports at school and running about the beautiful beaches on the coast of Dar-es-salaam took a toll on the colour of my skin. I stared into the large mirror in the corner of my room, grimacing at the tan lines that seemed to stretch endlessly across my body. I used to love soaking up the sun as a kid, feeling the warmth of its rays on my skin. I didn’t worry about the fact that my skin would get darker the longer I remained out, a stark change from high school when my friends from South Asia and I hid in the shade while our friends from other races stayed out in the sun watching us sceptically.
My mind began to rake through solutions as I panicked over how dark I had become. I ran to my mother in tears, pulling at my skin, frantically yelling about how ugly I looked; she assured me that a few showers would rid me of this tan that I hated so, so much.
This brutal wheel of colourism in the South Asian community only perpetuated the race hierarchy in Tanzania. With the systematic and structural oppression of those who are black prevailing, my community remains one of the main perpetrators. Years of colonialism, slavery and labour exploitation have allowed this to continue.
Both India’s and Tanzania’s media and advertisement industries are still selling on the idea that women with darker complexions should strive to become lighter, with skin lightening creams like “Fair and Lovely” that only now are facing consumer boycott. The brand came under fire after the recent murder of George Floyd which prompted protests across the globe advocating against racial injustices. However, despite L’oreal’s statement “The L’Oreal Group acknowledges the legitimate concerns about the terms used to describe skin even-ing products, and has therefore decided to remove the words white/whitening, fair or fairness, light/lightening from all its skin even-ing products,” in describing how they would remove the words “fair” and “white” off of their packaging, the demand for skin bleaching products is unlikely to fall. Years of the cultural obsession with fair skin is not going to change overnight; the damage has already been made.
The reason why there is such a demand for skin-lightening products is that being fair has always been associated with beauty and power. Our colonisers were white, forcing us to internalise their racist oppression by imitating them, hence, being darker was associated with being from a lower class, as it implied strenuous manual labour under the sun-such as farming. Not only does colourism force physical bias, but immortalises class inequality.
We need to deconstruct these beauty standards of “whiteness”, and unlearn our internal conditioning. The problem of colourism furthermore intersects with misogyny/sexism, in which dark-skinned women are most violently penalised for simply the ‘offence’ of being dark. They are considered a burden to the family, undesirable and therefore unmarriageable. This subjection of women to systematic aggressions, where their worth is reduced to what society deems as beautiful, has perpetuated a cycle of misery, mental health issues to evils like dowry, and honour killings.
Ten years later, my sister comes back home from University, a beautiful caramel; she is still asked “tu kem atli kari thai gaiche?” (why are you so dark?); her eyes shine bright as she smiles and lifts her head high.