As protests and civil unrest erupted across the United States following the
killing of an unarmed “Black” man by a couple of “White” policemen, the hashtag BlackLivesMatter started trending across social media again.
The protests, which in several US cities have now turned into anarchic
rioting, are against the systemic abuse and discrimination meted out to “Blacks”
across the United States. The systemic discrimination against “Blacks”, or people
of African descent, is a problem which has persisted in the United States ever
since the first ships carrying “slaves” from Africa docked at American ports,
centuries ago. After slavery was abolished in the United States, the former
slaves and their children became free men and women (and others). The
“Blacks” became US citizens, equal in the eyes of law, but not so much in the
eyes of the predominantly “White” society, even after a two-term “Black”
President (President Barack H. Obama).
One of the most gruesome manifestations of discrimination against people
of African descent in the United States is the continued existence of cases of
disproportionate police excess and brutality against them. An entire race of
people, comprising about 12.7% of the America’s population or a little over 40
million (4 crore) people is a victim to this systemic and institutionalised racial
oppression. Severe injury and even death of “unarmed Black individuals” at the
hands of police is not an uncommon news story in the United States.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement stands fiercely against this brutality and
oppression people of African descent face, alongwith all the other forms of
discrimination that they face every single day.
The discussion is vitally important for and to the American society but is
largely irrelevant for Indian society. I’m not saying that Indians don’t have their
fair share of biases and prejudices against people of African descent, or
“negroes” as some would like to call them (inappropriately). But, there is no
systematic or institutionalised oppression or discrimination of “Black Lives”
happening in India. We have our own equivalents of “Blacks”, whom we and are
system oppress; the Dalits, the Muslims, and the poor.
However, following the good ol’ Indian saying of, “If the Americans are
doing it, it must be cool!”, privileged “international” Indian citizens couldn’t be
seen missing out on raising their voice against this grave social injustice in the
“land of the free”. Hoards of them started showing their solidarity with the
movement and went about posting “#BlackLivesMatter” on their social media
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong in raising one’s voice against an
injustice being meted out in a foreign land, but I’m just saying that it’s kind of
pointless and hypocritical to be bothered about “Black Lives” in America while
turning a blind eye to “Dalit Lives”, “Muslim Lives”, and “Poor Lives” in India.
But as Indravadan Sarabhai would say, “Hypocrisy to.. inski surname hai”
(Hypocrisy is their surname), Bollywood never shies away from flaunting its
surname. Ranks of Bollywood celebrities lined up to show their solidarity with
the movement, after nearly all of them having had stayed silent on the shocking
incidents of police excess, brutality (and inaction) against students of Aligarh
Muslim University, Jamia Milia Islamia University, Jawaharlal Nehru University,
and the countless incidents of brutality by Indian policemen on the oppressed
classes of their own country.
And with that, started another barrage of farcical irrelevant discussion,
again by the privileged “international” Indians, albeit this time the not-so
People were quick to point out the hypocrisy of those Bollywood
celebrities who’re showing solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement,
“yet” (I say, “and”; I’ll explain later) endorse fairness creams. The charge is “On
the one hand you sell a product to make people “white”, on the other you detest
discrimination of the Blacks, so you must be hypocritical”.
And for me, that’s a wholly misconceived argument which leads to, pardon
my abhorring bluntness, a stupid non-sensical conclusion. Endorsing a “beauty
product” marketed in India to makes one’s complexion “fairer and whiter” does
not amount to endorsing the “superiority” of “Whites” (a race of people having
European descent) over the “Blacks” (a race of people having specific African
descent) and by no means does it amount to endorsing the discrimination and
oppression of the “Blacks” in the US.
The “Whites” and “Blacks” in the US are not a segregation of people on
the basis of their skin tone, but a segregation on the basis of descent and
cultural history. “Blacks” in the US suffer from discrimination not because they
have a darker skin tone than the “Whites”, but because the White Supremacists
perceive them as an inferior race, the descendants of slaves. The “Whites” came
to the US from Europe, the continent of colonisers, as people of the “superior
race” (As the White Supremacists like to see themselves). While the “Blacks”
came to the US from Africa, as slaves.
No matter what the skin tone of a “Black” American is, in America, they’ll
always be Black. “Black” Americans suffering from Albinism have a much fairer
skin tone than most “White” Americans, but that still doesn’t make them “Black”,
for in America, “Black” is a race, and not a skin tone.
Similarly, many Indians have a fairer skin complexion than some “White
Americans”, and likewise many Indians have a darker skin complexion than some
“Black Americans”. Their complexion, however, is not going to make them
“White” or “Black” in America, they’d still be Asian/ Indian/ Brown.
The discourse surrounding race, the one of “Whites” and “Blacks”, in the
United States, is not a discourse of fairer and darker complexion, it’s one of
European and African descent. It’s oppression and discrimination faced by the
descendants of former slaves at the hands of descendents of former colonisers.
The colour of skin, even though that’s how it seems to manifest, isn’t the cause
of discrimination in the US, it is the historic descent.
In India, skin colour has nothing to do with race. For all practical purposes,
there’s no concept of race in India. We aren’t a country divided along racial
faultlines, we are a country divided along casteist faultlines, among several
others. This, however, is not to say that there exists no discrimination in India on
the basis of skin colour.
Discrimination on the basis of skin complexion is especially notorious
across most parts of North India. Social acceptance, suitability for marriage,
perception of affluence, and a lot of other things hinges on the purely superficial
and baseless skin tone. Children with a darker complexion in posh schools are
often the target of body-shaming and ridicule, solely because of the colour of
their skin. This discrimination is a consequence of the broad societal mindset that
“fairer is better”, but isn’t like the class oppression of the “Blacks” in the US.
And, this societal bigotry surrounding the complexion of one’s skin is
exactly what makers of most fairness creams in India pry on, while marketing
their product. More often than not, they don’t try to sell a product to lighten one’s
skin tone, but instead try to sell some magic lotion for a “better life”.
Dating life going bad? Use a fairness cream. Not getting a job? Use a
fairness cream. People thinking you’re a dumb idiot? Use a fairness cream. And
THAT is what is problematic; the notion and proposition that a person with a
fairer skin (still wouldn’t make you “White”) is somehow smarter, more
presentable, and ultimately superior than one with a darker complexion. Here,
the superiority is touted on the grounds of a more “desirable” (as the broad
mindset of the society irrationally perceives it) physical attribute, and not on the
grounds of descent, as in the US.
There’s nothing wrong with a beauty product for lightening one’s skin
tone, per se. What’s gravely wrong is the way most of them are marketed in
India. Of all the things that are, fairness creams are by no means the flag-bearers
The everyday discrimination faced by people of darker complexion in India
is much different from the systemic and institutionlised oppression of the
“Blacks” in the US. Being “dark” in India is not going to kill you, in the US,
however, it very well might. And this is exactly why the movement in the US is
titled “Black Lives Matter”. While problematic still, this discrimination in India
nowhere compares in gravitas to the discrimination in the US.
And this stark distinction in the cause and manifestation of discrimination
on the basis of skin colour in the two countries is precisely why one can use and
endorse fairness creams in India “and” (not, “yet”) still support racial equality in
the US. The two seem related, but they’re vastly different. So, supporting the
“Blacks” of the US while inferiorising those with a dark skin colour in India is not
hypocritical, it’s just doing a right alongside a wrong.
I’m not saying that we should not hold our “public influencers”, the
celebrities trying to sell us a whole barrage of products all day long, we should
and we must. We must call out celebrities for endorsing products marketed in a
manner that reinforce problematic and bigoted broad societal mindsets. We
must call out the celebrities who come out on our television screens telling us
how using a fairness cream is going to transform our lives and pull us out of the
desolation that our lives are for having a darker skin complexion.
In short, the discussion of oppression of “Blacks”, i.e., people of African
descent, and the police brutality they face in the United States, is really serious,
and is something that is primarily relevant only in the American context.
However, It has nothing to do with the bigoted marketing of fairness creams in
the Indian context. Both are issues that need looking into, both are issues serious
in their own right, but let’s not needlessly mix the two, and let’s not diminish the
value and point of #BlackLivesMatter.
We have too many of our own battles to fight first, before we can go fight
another’s battle. So let’s first fix our own house in tatters, and then go fixing the
neighbour’s sink. Let’s raise our voice where we ‘can’ (hopefully) bring a change.
Let’s talk about the oppression of Dalits and Muslims in India. Let’s talk
about the disturbing economic disparity and consequent plight of the poor in our
own country. Let’s talk about the discrimination against people from the
North-East in the country. Let’s talk about all the issues we need to, and not just
waste our time outraging, pointing to the farcical hypocrisies of a gone lot.
And even so more importantly, let’s not just talk about these issues. Let’s
act. Let’s stop discriminating between our own. Let’s stop body-shaming those
with a darker skin or a shorter height or a balder head. Let’s stop othering the
Muslims, the Dalits, people from North-East and the poor. Let’s just act like
decent human beings!
Author:- Nikhil Jain, Advocate, Supreme Court of India