Unbearable whiteness of being
By: Shad Moarif
IN a recent Guardian report, Zara, a 29-year-old Pakistani fashion buyer in London, confesses to following rigorous skincare routines because “I would be pitted against my darker-skinned cousin as the ‘prettier one’, which equipped me with the wrong notions of beauty when entering puberty and the wider world”. As an adult, Zara tired of the “colonial attitude that ‘white is right’ even while recognising that throughout her life, she has “benefited from skin privilege”.
Millions of others benefit likewise. Every day. But the issue is more than skin deep. Beneath the seemingly innocuous admiration for lighter skin tones as a standard of beauty, lurk notions of power, privilege and prejudice. These have infected the thinking of billions in our subcontinent and led them to believe that darker skin suggests inferiority.
Pakistani sufferers of skin tone prejudice wrongly attribute to Indian history the association of darker skin with ‘lowness’ of race. A glance at statues and paintings in this region dating back thousands of years show humans depicted in realistic brown tones. Since the Ajanta caves, art has faithfully reflected the subcontinent’s diversity of races and religions. India and Colourism: the Finer Nuances by Neha Mishra notes that Krishna was a dark-complexioned hero of the Yadava tribe and an incarnation of Lord Vishnu who too had dark skin. (The word ‘Krishna’ itself means black in Sanskrit.)
Sufferers of skin tone prejudice wrongly attribute to Indian history the association of darker skin with ‘lowness’ of race.
The Rig Veda’s hero, Trasadasyu, son of Purukutsa, was the dark-skinned leader of the similarly complexioned Dasyus. The Rig Veda mentions Dirghatamas the singer, as dark skinned, while Angiras, one of its authors, was black. The heroes, heroines, gods and goddesses, whose powers defined the universe, all had dark skins. They exist today in shrines and temples and command a privilege unmatched by humans. One would be hard-pressed to believe that the subcontinent fostered any indigenous form of colour prejudice that associated power and privilege with the whiteness of the human skin.
When Western civilisation, with its Graeco-Roman roots, converted to Christianity, paganism was displaced by monotheism. Notably, early Christian art (200-1450 AD) depicted Jesus — a Semite — as well as Mary and his apostles, as dark-skinned. Indeed, in religious paintings of that period, biblical personalities, including saints and apostles, were painted as having brown skin.
Although Mughal artworks depicted the Mughals, a mixture of Persians, Turks, and Arabs, with pale Caucasoid skin, the imperial power of the global Ottoman Empire remained disassociated with the colour of its pale-skinned rulers. Arab, Persian, Turkish and Indian traditions of knowledge bowed to those whose superiority shone through their wisdom, understanding and humility. Sages commanded reverence and devotion for reasons that were more than skin deep.
Tragically, the landscape in the subcontinent changed during the early decades of the 19th century. Much of it has to do with the advent of the European Renaissance. Following the Age of Discovery (post 15th century), something remarkable happened. With every victory and conquest over non-white tribes, races and nations, the Europeans’ need to present a triumphant icon of human superiority grew. The whiteness of the European Christians’ skin was fast becoming a universal standard, a scale by which to judge human superiority in all aspects of life, even more so in the wake of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution that aspired to colonise distant populations.
It was therefore no coincidence that from the 15th century onwards, almost all of Europe’s artistic depictions of Jesus (along with his followers) changed to white European skin tones. For the past 600 years, generations of Europeans have grown up believing that Jesus and his apostles were white Europeans and Christianity was originally a ‘white’ religion. This Santa Claus-ian myth coexists peaceably at the Louvre alongside the knowledge of the brown-skinned Jesus of Semitic stock in Middle Eastern Bethlehem.
It took 200 years of colonial administration and Jesuit schooling for the British Raj to inoculate the subcontinent with the virus of white racial superiority. By then Europeans had become passionate in their belief that the white pigmentation of their skin was a divine catalyst that made the creation of all new knowledge possible.
Automation and engines had much to do with it. Auto machines driven by electricity enthralled the subcontinental mind. It sparked their imagination and stirred a new modernist instinct for instant gratification possible only through cars, cameras, motorbikes, steam engines, ships and the like. For many thought leaders of the time (barring Gandhi), the unburdening of physical labour promised the radical transformation of an ancient, stationary civilisation into a modern, progressive one. European minds were seen by locals in a new light, ie they possessed new knowledge that would benefit mankind. It led inevitably to a power differential: when one ‘looks up’ to another, the other responds by ‘looking down’ at one. In this context, the idea of white racial superiority had been around for over a century. Those ‘below’ barely perceived that they were internalising the inverse, ie the idea of their own ‘racial inferiority’. It was a voluntary act of submission, not an act of colonial will.
An act of submission is often an act of faith, of trust, in another, as in a parent. It is also an act of self-disempowerment. After two centuries of submission and much learning, we need to reclaim our trust and faith in ourselves, break through the mould and rediscover our new selves. It is easy to reconnect with a heritage that knew and understood the evils of stunting, malnutrition and lack of cleanliness, education and corruption. Easier still to stop pleading innocence and helplessness in these matters and go begging for assistance. We may blame the ‘inferiority mindset’ for ignoring evils familiar to us for generations, but can we absolve ourselves of such acts of ignorance?