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FAIR & HANDSOME…. May 30, 2007

Posted by Joseph in Caste, India.
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Fair and Handsome
4000 years of racism distilled into a bottle and spread over the airwaves every ten minutes to millions of souls.

Driving through the streets of Delhi there is only one thing on the airwaves that everyone must listen to; Cricket. And after every over we are transported away from the maidan (cricket pitch) and the baying joyful crowds and taken on a journey through the psyche and history of this immense subcontinent.
‘Hey, handsome hey’ calls the voice from the radio – in English – and then a plug for Unilever’s ‘Fair and Handsome’ whitening cream. ‘Handsome’ because it is said to whiten the skin of boys and men, this fairness (here in between the cricket (naturally it is on t.v. as well), will ‘of course’ enable one to be more successful with the opposite sex and generally be more ‘successful’ in life.
I have discussed this with many puzzled white folk who compare it to the tanning fad that has engrossed image conscious people in the west and has now even compelled ageing men to further wrinkle their skin and turn it a strange shade of orange. This new trend has sprung up in western post-materialist societies where most of us are not ‘fortunate’ enough to spend our days toiling under the sun, where we hark for the healthy glow of living in a Mediterranean rural idyll, or it could also indicate that one is rich enough to have been on holiday to some where hot and sunny; always a hand when engaged in the most important of tasks; engaging with the opposite sex.
However, it appears whitening, while possessing much of the same allure as western tanning in much of Asia, also has a deeper historical element in India that could only be described as one of the most deep routed and complex systems of racial, discrimination in existence.
The evidence suggests and it is widely believed that in the 2nd millennia BCE, a nomadic peoples known as Aryans entered North West India and settled. The method of migration; conquest or assimilation, as you can imagine is a hotly debated political issue within India. Who were these people and how did they relate to the existing inhabitants of what is today India and is probably best described as the ‘gangetic’ plain?
They were probably lighter skinned and it is probable they had very different lifestyles. For many this is the start of the caste system. The new comers would have asserted a new hegemony on the local population, not unlike a colonial occupation but with a longevity incomparable to modern examples. Initial assertions of class, or hierarchy one imagines, would have been of a violent nature but slowly as the Aryan families begun to dominate certain professions through nepotism and as this new system evolved it became asserted in religious documents such as Manu Smriti, written, naturally by the highest castes, namely Brahmins.
The castes were described as Varnas, which translates variously as arrangement, hierarchy or most notably colour. Thus we see that the evolution of caste and the growth of a hierarchy has a direct link to colour. Undoubtedly this is linked to an intentionally developed aspirational system that will denote ones occupation.
Ok, so buy fair and handsome, or fair and lovely, if you are a lady and it will help denote that one is from better ‘stock’ one doesn’t work in the fields or do nasty manual labour.
These lighter skinned families also managed too, partly through the occupations that the darker skinned folk carried out and partly through sheer propaganda, associate darker skin with ‘impurity’ and even dirtiness over the years. Caste and darkness are not strictly linked; it is an assumption that pervades society.
This culture and attitude affects the whole fabric and make up of Indian culture and life. Large campaigns and multitudes of parties and individuals have fought for the overthrow of this system and its shackles yet the oppression of class is still very real today, some 4000 years after the arrival of these tribes*. The combined force, however of subtle discrimination and now of marketing manages to hold in place the traditional hierarchies.
Fairness cream accounts for 60% of the Indian facial cream market. The market is a hot bed of vicious global competition. With ‘veritable’ institutions from Europe and the U.S. and cheap ‘unofficial’ (‘care and lovely’) varieties all fighting to smear their vile bleach paste on to the faces of the image conscious citizens of India; there seems an up hill struggle in removing this craze. Women’s groups have been vocal in campaigning against these products and the insidious adverts but for much more well publicised reasons. It is difficult to see a light at the end of this ‘fair’ tunnel; the subconscious is the marketing man’s greatest friend and common senses great enemy within. The beauty industry will no doubt continue exploiting and enhancing people’s prejudices in their brain dead hunt for a larger market share using time honoured propaganda Goebels would have been proud of.
So if you’re feeling a bit dark or under appreciated and you fancy getting an education or maybe you want to get a good job, or get a lover, just remember you’re cream; you really will need it! Hey handsome, Hey……..
*Most notably Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), alternately credited with being ‘father of the Dalits’, architect of the Indian constitution and India’s greatest human rights campaigner. He inspired and pioneered the rigorous uncompromising demand for equality and human rights amongst the most oppressed in India.

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