#Peoplewithapassion – Reefaya Noortaj

I have a chat with Reefaya on the topic “The Effects Of Colonialism On Colourism In South Asia” as she has completed her dissertation based on this at LSE and get’s into the details with us on what inspired her and her advice for us millennials to not confine with the norms of society, especially the traditional ones.

1) Could you give us a brief insight into your dissertation on colorism?  

– The reason why I chose this specific topic for my dissertation at LSE is not that I’ve ever been victimized, but rather know the truth, complexities behind it, and the disturbing connotations that have been naturalized across South Asia. To put it plainly, colorism is rooted in racism and trickled down as ‘intracialism’ amongst POC communities that automatically invites oppression in social, political, and economic forms. I wrote this dissertation due to a harrowing memory that took place around when I was 14 years old, which I still recall up until this day. This one memory has inspired me to always fight back colorism, even if you have to contest your South Asian relatives who are very much conditioned to uphold the paradigms of colorism. I have an extremely dark cousin and we were posing for a selfie, you know taking selfies on your NOKIA phone was cool and hip. We both stuck our tongues out for fun and one of my relatives rushed over to quickly tell my cousin to not pose like that. Her reason being, she was too dark and she looked like a monkey so her bright pink tongue made her look like an animal. My cousin didn’t even flinch out of anger but agreed as if she’s become numb so such intraracial judgments. As soon as my relative left, I clearly explained to her that she was beautiful just the way she was born and never absorb comments concerning her skin tone. She cracked a tiny smile holding back her tears as she was looking at the ground, but once I convinced her to take the selfie me (whilst sticking our tongue out), she smiled with her teeth out from ear to ear. 

– It’s very important to address this post-colonial mindset because it only attacks one mentally but physically too; bleaching the skin causes skin cancer due to high levels of mercury contained in these products, suicide for not meeting neo-colonial South Asian beauty, and self-harm. “Fairness” in contemporary South Asian culture is associated with purity, beauty, and success. The older standards of sub-continental indigenous Indian women and men no longer match with contemporary international standards of beauty. Instead, they needed to look “above average”, which is looking European; tall, slender, fair, and sharper features. You absolutely cannot deny this, Bollywood constantly changes the frames of Indian beauty that affects the rest of its surrounding countries. Total body modification of the South Asian identity has become a socio-cultural symbol of prestige and beauty reflecting their strong desire to still meet colonial standards of beauty.

2) In your research so far, what are some of the traditional practices that South Asian Countries continue to follow, that need to evolve? 

– Marriage proposals for fair girls are prime examples previous generations still follow. The bride must be fair before anything else as the latter is secondary. If she is “dark” then she’s considered sweet and educated but not beautiful. Bollywood actors and actresses becoming ambassadors for fairness products are also classic examples of attaining hegemonic upper-class lifestyle only fair-passing individuals can afford. Fairness connotates to purity, power, progressiveness, and a stable future. Aren’t 99.9% of Bollywood actors/actresses fair or have become fair? I mean, just look at Kajol and Deepika now! As of recent years, advertisements push the narrative of blending technology and chemicals that will activate skin cells to become fairer or eradicate melanin from deep within. MNC’s push this narrative to make to promote a more promising result and smartly convinces consumers that the results will remain permanent. Makeup is another solid example that is easily spotted across events we attend in our communities. How many aunties and female cousins do we know who opt for a foundation that matches their true skin tone? Hardly, I would say. Reaching out for shades that are 1-2 hues lighters helps women consumers feel more comfortable because we have been taught to only feel content looking as light as possible. 

3) Are there certain leaders that are fighting against this and have inspired you to delve into the topic of interracial colorism?

– Rihanna! She has done justice to her brand and her international followers in terms of denouncing colorism and racism through her products. Rihanna being a black international icon for her music and her establishment with her brand in the West will trickle as gradual progress to the global south (since South Asia follows takes a cue from Western progressive paradigms) and will counteract intraracial judgments once girls are encouraged to accept their true skin tone and that leads to accepting our identity as a whole. 

– I believe most people are not aware of intraracial practices in South Asia, or as a matter of fact across Asia. Intraracial practices as explained by Peter Wade are a racial concept that’s monotonous and fixated that sets skin tone as an analytical tool to measure social position and differences. Keith Herring argues that colorism intertwines intraracial and interracial functionalities. Intraracial colorism is practiced when members of an explicit group make judgments upon skin color between members within their racial group. 

4) What is your opinion is the solution to breaking this cycle? 

– Sharing its history, educating the importance of identity, the continuing consequences, worth, and speaking against/boycotting products that do promote colorism, and finally implement laws that specifically ban the use of skin bleaching products. 

5) Are there any steps that you’ve taken, whether small or big in eradicating the South Asian mentality backed by the color-based caste system? 

– My step is also always call out (against family or friends) and my second biggest step was writing this dissertation that I could share with anyone wanting more insight into this social issue. 

– Colorism flows through class and caste, but one thing remains common between the two. The higher the caste or class, the fairer individuals look either through skin treatment or breeding with fair/white (race) individuals to keep the trait alive.

6) Are there any recent changes you’ve noticed personally after the current racial circumstances that we’ve seen in the media? 

– Millennials and Gen Z age groups are starting to contest against MNC’s and other related institutions that are held accountable for preserving post-colonial narratives. For example, Priyanka Chopra’s post about BLM sparked such controversy amongst her 50 million followers. She spoke for BLM as a strategy to keep her pseudo alliance alive for POC communities when in reality she endorsed Garnier fairness products and a racist scene from her movie Fashion. This altogether seems performative to me and as well as to her followers, so the commenters confronted her sheer hypocrisy.

7) Any quote that stood out and you would like to share with our readers?

– To me, the most realistic quote to date is one by Frantz Fanon “The white man is sealed in his whiteness. The black man is sealed in his blackness. There is a fact: white men consider themselves superior to black men. Black men want to prove to white men, at all costs, the richness of their thought, the equal value of their intellect. For the black man, there is only one destiny. And it is white” (Fanon, 1967). This quote by Fanon was not only true back then, but lives firmly in our 21st century.

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