The commercial began innocently enough: A pretty young Indian woman, dressed in a fine sari and jewels, meetsa prospective suitor and his family. Then came the punch: He turns her down, and her mother offers her a tubeof cream called Fair and Lovely. Flash forward to our new, improved heroine. Thanks, ostensibly, to Fair andLovely, her skin is now noticeably lighter. She wins her prize-a handsome, also very fair, husband.So went an ad on Sun TV, a Tamil channel broadcast via satellite from Chennai, merrily spreading its messageto thousands of Indian families around the world: Women with fair skin are prettier and more marriageable, andUnilever's cream, a great equalizer, would help anyone get that way.I watched the ad with growing disgust and complained about it afterwards to my father, who was watching with me."What?" he asked. "That's just the way Hindus are." He found nothing wrong with it, he said. Everyone in India knewthat fair skin was the most beautiful kind.I shouldn't have been surprised by the commercial's blatant racism, since it has long been abundantly clear tome, and obviously to Unilever as well, that Indians place a premium on fair skin. My cousin's fair complexionearned her the nickname "white crow," and family and friends often praise her solely for that reason.Prospective brides and grooms for other family members were routinely described as being attractive in spiteof their dark skin-or worse, unattractive and dark to boot. My mother forever admonishes me to avoid the sunfor fear that it will darken, and therefore ruin, my rather average (that is, medium-brown) skin tone.This reaction to skin color has its roots in the caste system and the degree to which it has insinuated itself into Hindu culture-which is, to a large extent, indistinguishable from Indian culture. The caste system can be attributed in part to a verse from the Rig Veda, an ancient Hindu scripture, which describes the creation of the human race from the primal man, Purusha. From his head sprang the Brahmins, the priestly caste and the highest on the totem pole; from his arms the Kshatriyas, the warrior castes; from his thighs the Vaishyas, or merchant castes; and from his feet the Shudras, the servant or laborer castes. Within each of these castes are thousands of sub-castes, or jatis.Outside of this system were the people that Gandhi labeled, in a well-intentioned but somewhat patronizinggesture, the Harijans, or people of God. Most Indians know them as Untouchables. The caste system's elaboratehierarchy was also reinforced by texts such as the Laws of Manu, a third-century code of social customs and rituals designed to keep Hindu society strictly segregated by caste, and to ensure that upper castes were protected from the lower castes' "pollution." It contains such pearls of wisdom as "One occupation only the lord prescribed to the Shudra, to serve meekly...these three castes."
For years Shudras and Untouchables were confined to what were perceived as the lowest, most unclean occupations in Indian society. They worked as household servants, tanned leather hides, tended to graveyards, and swept out public latrines. A consequence of centuries of hard physical labor under the blazing Indian sunis that many Shudras and Untouchables have very dark skin-and are therefore immediately identifiable aslow-caste, with all the social stigma that implies. Caste and color have, in this way, become inextricablylinked.Many Indians claim that caste no longer exists in India, and will even complain, like American opponents of affirmative action, that low-caste people get ahead these days just because of unjust quotas, and that the upper castes are victims of reverse discrimination. On paper, the caste system-and discrimination on the basis of caste-was abolished in 1949 by the Constitution of the Republic of India.Yet all over India, the vestiges of caste are everywhere. After all, it is a 12-year-old boy from anUntouchable family who dusts my aunt's home in Chennai, a Shudra named Mary who serves as my uncle'shousemaid, and an Untouchable man who sweeps the floors at the local market. Occupations in South Indiaremain stratified by caste. Nowadays it is possible for a Shudra to become a doctor, but it is impossible tofind a Brahmin who works as a bathroom attendant at the airport. Such jobs, it seems, are still reserved forpeople of the low castes. Given both the historical context and modern practices, the notion that dark skin is unattractiveseems to follow directly from the caste system. Dark skin calls to mind low-caste people, people who lack theeducation and opportunity to work in air-conditioned offices, shielded from the sun.Even among the Indian diaspora, who live in racially and ethnically mixed societies, this notion hasmanifested itself in an insidious way. Many Hindus, accustomed to holding fair skin and all it signifies inhigher esteem, continue to view people of certain colors as below them. In the U.S., those people tend to beHispanic and black, and they are viewed with suspicion and disdain. Comments to the effect that "So-and-so isa decent person, even though he's black" and other openly racist remarks are not uncommon in social settings.Indian-Americans with black partners meet with huge resistance, and in some instances, are ignored, shunned,or worse.Perhaps it seems a stretch to argue that there is a link between an ancient Hindu occupational hierarchy andthe racial attitudes of Indians abroad. In my view, though, it isn't a difficult leap to make. In a culturethat not only prizes fair skin and demeans dark skin, but that also associates dark-skinned people with lowlyoccupations, is it surprising that its adherents might, unconsciously or otherwise, bring those sameconceptions with them when they emigrate?
It is high time, more than fifty years after caste was abolished by law, for Hindus in America and elsewhere tocritically examine the bases of their long-held preferences for fair skin, and the influence that such notionshave on their attitudes towards their neighbors. The explanation "That's just the way Hindus are" is notjust unacceptable, it's offensive. The caste system is a shameful blemish on the face of one of the world'smost tolerant and compassionate religions. Hindus must not perpetuate its legacy, either at home, throughtheir attitudes towards other Indians, or abroad, with non-Indians. As for me, I'm planning on hitting thebeach this summer and enjoying a good tan.