In keeping with SAMHIN’s mission of greater dialogue on mental health in the South Asian community and to highlight the important work of others in this area, we invited Dr. Komal Gupta, clinical psychologist in the Boston area to discuss the ever-present issue of colorism in the South Asian community and the impact on its members.
Colorism is a sensitive topic that is difficult for many South Asians to acknowledge and talk about. For many South Asians, lighter brown skin tones are associated with attractiveness, “goodness”, power, status, and competence (Tummala-Narra, 2007) in comparison to darker brown skin tones, which are associated with “badness”, lower class and caste, lower intelligence, and a lack of beauty. This form of skin-tone prejudice within the South Asian community and the resulting discrimination that occurs is called colorism.
As a psychologist and a South Asian woman, I feel it is important to identify our own internalized colorism and recognize how it impacts our lives and those around us. The intent of this article is not to represent every South Asian person’s experience with colorism. I recognize my experience as someone with light brown skin can limit my perspective, but I hope to increase awareness of the skin-tone biases held for decades within our homes, sociopolitical systems, and media culture of the South Asian community through several examples and initiate discussion on the individual and systemic effects of colorism.
Skin-tone biases are often introduced at home, directly or indirectly, by family, relatives, friends, aunties, and uncles (Shaikh, 2017). Here are some examples:
- Being policed about avoiding sun exposure to avoid a parent or relative’s anger, disapproval, or criticism.
- Witnessing preferential treatment towards South Asians with lighter brown skin tones and discrimination towards South Asians with darker skin tones when trying to access housing, jobs, marital, and economic opportunities.
- Being pressured to date or marry someone with a lighter skin tone.
- Hearing South Asian community members assign positive labels, e.g., smart, good, to South Asians with lighter skin tones and negative labels, e.g., unattractive, to South Asians with darker skin tones.
- Using body language to communicate approval and/or disapproval, e.g., saying words like kaala in a condescending tone.
- Being encouraged to use skin whitening creams to look more “beautiful” while downplaying the negative health effects.
Sociopolitical systems play a significant role in the biases we have.
Skin color stereotypes in the South Asian community are rooted in a long history of casteism and colonialism (Shaikh, 2017). These stereotypes can be even more pronounced for South Asians living in countries that uphold a racial hierarchy. In the United States, for example, white supremacy is deeply ingrained in sociopolitical systems (Shaikh, 2017). South Asians in the U.S. experience discrimination in an unpredictable manner because of being racially ambiguous; the range of brown skin tones can make it difficult for people to identify their racial background (Modi, 2016). As a result, South Asians can experience the repercussions of racial and ethnic stereotypes depending on whether someone assumes you are a “model minority,” “terrorist,” or “criminal” solely based on your skin color and facial features (Shaikh, 2017; Modi, 2016).
Popular culture, multinational corporations, literature, and media systemically perpetuate these skin color biases either by villainizing darker skin tones, idealizing lighter skin tones, or lacking representation of darker skin tones. Some examples include:
- Villains in Bollywood movies are often portrayed by someone with a darker skin tone, indicating they are either from the working class, lower castes, or religious minorities (Modi, 2016).
- Having a “fair complexion” was considered as an important criterion for marriageability in Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking.
- Multinational corporations and marketing practices reinforce negative stereotypes of darker skin tones in efforts to promote their products, e.g., Fair & Lovely.
- Some children’s books including some classics reinforce racial stereotypes, do not display variations in brown skin tones, and do not tend to represent darker skin tones, in general.
In summary, our skin-tone biases are developed through a complex interplay of family, community, sociopolitical systems, marketing practices, and popular culture. Colorism can impact many aspects of your life including how you feel about yourself, your identity, your relationships, and access to life opportunities.
Hwang, W (2021). Demystifying and addressing internalized racism and oppression among Asian Americans. American Psychologist, 76(4), 596-610
Modi, R. “Brown: The Asianization of the U.S. Racial Divide” (2016). Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations. 1903.
Shaikh, M. (2017). Struggling to escape colorism: Skin color discrimination experiences of South Asian Americans. Thesis
Tummala-Narra, P. (2007). Skin color and the therapeutic relationship. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 24(2), 255-270.
Tummala-Narra, P. (2013). Psychotherapy with South Asian women: Dilemmas of the immigrant and first generations. Women & Therapy, 36(3-4), 176-197.
By Dr. Komal Gupta
Dr. Komal Gupta is a clinical psychologist who provides virtual individual therapy services in the Boston area. Dr. Gupta also has a passion for writing and speaking about the ups and downs people experience with their family, relationships, parenthood, identity, and culture(s). You can follow her work on her website, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
I would love to hear about your experience on this issue in our community and your comments.
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