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Colorism in Indian Society: A Complex History

Race is a social construct that divides people according to physical appearances. As an imagined classification, it has nothing to do with the natural world. However, racism has real and disastrous effects on the lives of people of color (Blank et. al, 2004). So how does colorism fit into this picture?

Simply put, colorism can be understood as a “hierarchy within a hierarchy” that rests atop the racial scheme but creates deeper divides within categorizations (Dhillon-Jamerson, 2018). Unlike racism, which implies all phenotypic characteristics, colorism concentrates on skin tone (Sealy-Harrington et. al, 2018). Thereby, colorism results in a consistent rivalry for resources between the racial divisions; people who are lighter in skin tone benefit from resources that a white population has accorded to them. This describes a “racial contract,” a term coined by Charles Mills, which aims to prevent infringements and ensure compliance (Allen, 2001).

Before European colonization, a preference for lighter skin tones developed independently across societies as a sign of being free from outdoor labor and having acquired “spiritual purity” (Jablonski, 2014). Darker-skinned slaves were regarded as more suitable for physical labor (Dhillon-Jamerson, 2018). Eventually, this distinction gave rise to hierarchies, triggered by both external influences and internal dynamics (Jablonski, 2014). The United States, Brazil, and South Africa are now typically presented as places to which these understandings of skin color were exported. Slavery, the settlement of Europeans, and racial segregation all contributed to a color divide that was collectively underpinned for centuries. India and Japan, conversely, are examples of societies in which these narratives gained traction before the interference of European colonizers.

Historical roots

Colorism in India originally started as a relatively loose hierarchy, expressed as class (varna) and caste (jati), but became more rigid over time. The caste stratification rested on four main pillars, which developed into various sub-castes. Brahmanas were put at the top of the ladder; its members were intellectuals who worked as scholars, teachers, and priests. Kshatriyas performed military tasks, Vaisyas were farmers and merchants. Lastly, Sudras were placed on the lowest rank and subservient to the other castes. Since Sudras had to carry out tasks that involved outdoor labor, their skin tones were usually darker than those of Brahmanas. Nevertheless, darker-skinned individuals could be members of the higher castes as well, and several Hindu deities are depicted in Rigveda – a collection of sacred Hindu texts – with dark complexions (Mishra, 2015). This example goes to show that Hinduism alone did not present color as a source of stigma; castes had previously existed as a structure that shaped the social structure regardless of racial markers (Trautmann, 1997). The caste stratification was rather thought of as a way to group different occupations together, albeit with different measures of social status accorded to each group.

This all began with the Aryans who invaded and assumed control over the Indian subcontinent, originally inhabited by Dravidians, and used caste as a tool to preserve their physical appearance and light skin. Their influence on the caste scheme added the binary of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’ by visualizing Brahmanas as the embodiment of the spiritual, as opposed to Sudras who functioned as a proxy for “darkness and filth” (Nadeem, 2014). Beyond castes, skin color constituted a decisive element in the allocation of opportunities (Nadeem, 2014). Complexion, materialized as caste affiliation, became more stringent and inheritable. Henceforth, the objective of caste was to preserve the purity of race and blood (Ambedkar, 2020). In other words, as some have argued, Aryans hereby expanded the caste system with the element of skin color (Dube, 1990).

Scholars remain uncertain about the degree to which the color narrative was deterministic in ancient Hindu society (Dixon et. al, 2017). What is certain, however, is the fact that the subcontinent has been under the control of numerous foreign rulers. After the Aryan incursion and long before India became the ‘Jewel of the British crown,’ the invasion of the Mughals (1526-1857) marks the oppression by another foreign invader who had fairer skin than the local Indians. With the emergence of the Indian Ocean slave trade and the forced movement of African enslaved people to India and other parts of South Asia, the dynamics of color in the caste system became more apparent (Jayawardene, 2016). Dark-skinned African slaves were employed at the homes of the elite as domestic servants or served as soldiers. Owning a slave was seen as prestigious and African slaves were known for their “loyalty” (Jayawardene, 2016, p. 328). European powers also used slaves in support of their colonial ambitions. The trade of African slaves joined with other external influences from foreign occupiers that may have contributed to the embedding of the color notion in Indian society. Ultimately, the Mughals were succeeded by the British, who held control of the subcontinent well into the 20th century.

The British encountered a civilization comprised by a blend of cultures, religions, and languages that had been exposed to the oppression by foreign powers for centuries, beginning with Aryans, Mughals, and European trading companies that incited the colonization by Western powers (Trautmann, 1997). The British dominion over the Indian subcontinent led to the most significant changes in the hierarchy of caste, suffusing it with racial beliefs (Jayawardene, 2016). During the colonization of India, the British Empire was able to draw on a repertoire of racist beliefs provided by European scholarship. By enforcing such policies, the British rulers reinterpreted caste groupings to be in conformity with their own racial narratives. As with the racial segregation in South Africa and the US, discriminatory practices such as prohibiting dark-skinned Indians from entering restaurants and educational institutions deepened the color divide (Mishra, 2015).

The notion of “pollution” became entrenched in the social hierarchy (Douglas, 1966). Castes developed into a system that classified some objects and behavioral patterns as vessels for pollution, others as pure and sacred. Any beliefs that did not neatly fit into those classifications were distorted, lest they upset this imagined order. Over the course of centuries, Brahmanas have prevented the lower castes from rising to the cultural level of the higher castes. The dualism of pollution and purity aided to entrench tenets of superiority and inferiority. This has led people to attribute value to color, exacerbated by foreign powers’ constructions of social stratifications.

As Indians were viewed by foreign rulers in contrast to oneself, the hegemony of Whiteness was gradually embedded. Perceptions of color existed before European colonization and are an integral part of caste classifications, even if castes were heavily influenced by elements of European racial ideology. Today, it is a complex undertaking to differentiate between those concepts, as they are greatly intertwined.

The Siddi Community

Another case can be made for the Siddis, an Indian community of African descent, who were either forcefully brought or migrated to India on their own as merchants or in search of employment from the 7th until the 19th century. Interviews conducted with members of the Siddi community in August 2020 (as part of the author’s Master’s Thesis) reveal the daily struggles of dark-skinned individuals as well as outcasts living in India. Colorism is unravelled through the lenses of Siddis, Dalits, Africans, and members of marginalized groups that are pushed to the periphery. In 2017, five Nigerian students were beaten up by a mob in Noida following the death of a 19-year-old Indian student (Anand, 2017). The mob accused the Nigerians of cannibalism and searched for the body in their fridges. In the same year, two other Nigerian students were assaulted by a group of 44 people in a mall. The numerous attacks in recent years on African students are striking as those students are targeted exclusively because of their physical appearance, highlighting the prevalence of racial prejudices in Indian society.

Colorism, Culture, and Economics

In India of the 21st century, skin complexion constitutes a perpetual marker that allocates career opportunities, societal resources, and has exigent implications on matrimonial decisions (Nadeem, 2014). In a society that greatly relies on arranged marriages, skin tone is positioned within conceptions of caste (Harari, 2011). For the parents, who are the ones arranging the marriage, a suitable match is assessed not only based on their educational background, economic attainment, and caste affiliation, but also on the tone of their complexion. This takes place irrespective of gender (Mishra, 2015). Indian matrimonial advertisements, both in newspapers or on websites that function like dating platforms, typically assign prominence to people with fair skin.

Moreover, by those upholding the caste scheme, crossing social barriers is viewed as an offense to the stratification (Harari, 2011). Even in postcolonial India, “Untouchables” (known as Dalits) may evoke aggression from orthodox Brahmanas for breaches with the caste regime. Untouchable men, women, and children face the risk of severe punishments, including hanging in the name of honor killings. In 2020, Indian newspaper headlines spoke of a mother who killed her 19-year-old daughter for wanting to marry a Dalit (Rajkot, 2020). Today’s India continues to witness caste-related violence. While racism, religious fundamentalism, and sexism have been intellectually and politically challenged at international forums, the practice of the caste hierarchy, the “most brutal modes of hierarchical social organization”, managed to elude similar scrutiny (­Roy, 2017).

The relevance of skin color in Indian society is also portrayed in Bollywood productions and the consumption of bleaching products. In the movie industry, skin pigmentation of poor characters may be temporarily darkened while protagonists are shown with fair skin (Sarkar, 2020). In the beauty industry, globalization underlines the notion that whiteness is beautiful – India is one of the largest markets in the world for skin lightening products (Nadeem, 2014). Advertisements for Fair and Lovely, a producer that occupies most of the market share, suggest that fair people are beautiful, and conflates darkness with impoverishment and misery.

Karnani (2007) describes similar patterns in TV commercials. For instance, one commercial shows the suffering of an impoverished, dark-skinned family. Husband and wife discuss how to improve their situation; the husband laments that he wishes to have a son to support them, drawing on the widespread stigma that daughters pose a burden on their families. Their dark-skinned daughter overhears this. Suddenly, the daughter spots an advertisement for the recruitment of flight attendants and contemplates this as a way to support her parents. Then appears the bleaching cream of Fair and Lovely. As soon as she applies the facial cream, she walks full of confidence to the job interview, impresses the interviewers, and instantly lands the job.


The take-away point is that while overt racism is declining, colorism is not. People continue to operate in a global regime that bestows social privileges to light-skinned individuals (Dixon et al., 2017). A better understanding of these affairs is imperative in order to identify and address colorism (Sealy-Harrington et al., 2018). More and more groups strive to abolish these types of discrimination, and we may expect Indian society to disentangle the dichotomy of pollution and purity and embrace Siddis and other deprived communities as equals and fellow citizens (Sims et al., 2016). Women of Worth, an NGO addressing the issue, and similar initiatives in India, often promoted by Indian celebrities, are paving the way for a more equal future. Ultimately, changing the trajectory of colorism is a challenging procedure that involves commitment from individuals, investments in education and research, and political and societal support.



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1 Comment

Aaron in USA
Aaron in USA
Dec 01, 2023

Indeed humans have always had a curious and irrational relationship with skin colors of humans. Since humans are so wired as to attach a lot of emphasis on visual cues, as opposed to so many of the animal species who are highly dependent on olfactory input, the immediate reaction to other humans comes from visual cues.

It would take humanity to wait until the appearance of Baha'u'llah to shift our focus away from the physical outer aspects of the human being and His Message which now conditions humanity to concentrate more on the spiritual aspect of a human being. It is that feature---the soul---that really defines the humans and serves as the chief means of guiding our behaviors and channeling…

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