“Hate is not inborn; it has to be constantly cultivated, to be brought into being, in conflict with more or less recognized guilt complexes.” – Frantz Fanon
From a demographic perspective, South Asia is relatively racially homogenous—everyone is “brown.” But the shades of brown matter.
A deeper analysis may show that race is arguably more prominent in South Asian culture than at first glance. Inferiority complexes of all kinds—linguistic, physical, ethnic, and religious—run deep in the South Asian public imaginary, inside and outside of the region.
Skin-color presents itself as a particularly important case, since all one needs to do is look. Prevailing sentiments within most circles equate beauty, goodness, and success with fair skin color. Skin tone continues to exist in a discursive space: While Indian cosmetics companies like Fair & Lovely feed on an insecurity and promise lighter skin to their consumers, campaigns such as Dark is Beautiful applaud a diversity of skin tones, underwritten by slogans such as “Celebrating 1.2 Billion Shades of Beautiful.” The campaign has also called out Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone for her "glaring change” to a lighter skin tone over time. Padukone was an ambassador for Neutrogena Fine Fairness cream.
In a broader context, the ironic denouement of colonialism may just be that South Asia is attempting to become the type of society that oppressed it for centuries. The British conceived of and used categories of difference like ethnicity and religion to administer their colonies all over the world—categories that were incredibly effective in cold, calculated management of populations. Now South Asian corporations are using those same categories, and the deep, abiding scars that they created, to make a profit.
At Harvard, many would like to think that such distinctions are absent—after all, the norm on campus is a markedly liberal political commitment. However students have an imperfect sense of obligation to a post-racial (or post-color) ideal, an ideal that they also lack a complete understanding of. Because of this, as with other social issues, colorism has definitely made a blotch on campus. Implicit in dating in general, for example, is a preference for lighter skinned women in particular—the Harvard Women’s Center held an last semester addressing race and dating.
To extend this framework and include Latinx and black students would not be beyond a reasonable charge of colorism on campus. Concerns surrounding differential treatment of minorities manifested themselves in campus movements at Mizzou and Yale last year. The Harvard community has shown solidarity with these movements, through plays such as Black Magic, written and performed by students of color to highlight the black student experience on campus. Moreover, the social impact and work of movements like Black Lives Matter have brought skin color to the forefront of the American quotidian routine, during class, meals, or sports events.
It may be difficult for students to admit that they “like” a certain skin tone (light skin in this case) in a period in history where such sentiment would be seen as offensive. So it would not seem ludicrous for many to think that colorism is not an issue on campus. However, like racism in recent years, colorism simply exhibits itself in very subtle ways. Overcoming these barriers will not come without struggle, a struggle in the form of honest and open dialogue about dating preferences and deeply internalized prejudices about skin tone—issues that are certainly difficult even in the most intimate of settings.
Fanon’s insights hold more true today on Harvard’s campus and in the wider world than possibly during his own time. That the United States has transitioned to a post-racial society is a pervasive mawkishness that has been challenged by recent tensions about race—especially the 2016 American presidential elections. Parameters of social differentiation like race, ethnicity, and skin tone are still incredibly important to the way people perceive one another.
The lessons from conversations about colorism will allow Harvard students to think hard about how they betray the values of racial equality they claim to uphold. Regardless of the (ostensible) progress that has been made in race relations, darkness remains an undesirable physicality, maintained as a sickness South Asians attempt to cure, but to no avail—even on campus. That may be because darkness isn’t a sickness, but something to be proud of. Something to love. Whereas some might (and do) demand darkness be wretched, others might (and should) demand it be celebrated.
Shahrukh H. Khan '17, is a Social Studies concentrator living in Mather House.