In Whiteness, we stand united

Merlyn Thomas 6 November 2016

On terrorism, territory and policy, we are divided. But in our passion for whiteness we are united. Each summer, I return to India. And there is yet another woman looking sad and dismayed with her ashy complexion on my TV screen, only to have her skin magically transformed into a celestially, white complexion within the magic number of weeks. Sometimes 10, sometimes 7 – the best are most definitely the ones that claim to perform these miracles overnight. Each time it is a different scenario: a girl unhappy she is not fair enough for her wedding, or a girl worried her complexion is not light enough for the all important CEO interview. And each time, a different skin-lightening cream comes to the rescue, whether it’s Pond’s, Garnier, L’Oreal or the most renowned Fair and Lovely. But the result is the same: a delighted, beaming girl with skin lightened by a few hundred shades. With a wave of a wand, deep-rooted issues in culture are banished.

Most hair-raising is probably the Indian product “Clean and Dry Intimate Wash”, a skin lightener that allows women to bleach their oh-sounmentionable areas into fairness. A real testament to the fact that there is no part of the brown body that cannot be lightened or bleached.

Our hostile histories are wellknown and deeply-engrained within our communities, but argue as we may over foreign policy, border control and agricultural treaties, Pakistanis and Indians are united in one thing: the dream of whiteness. The issue of this dream may be framed in different ways in the respective countries. One with issues of caste and creed playing heavily into the rhetoric in India whist in Pakistan, there seems to be a sense of extracting and locating any links to past Arab heritage. However regardless of where this idea stemmed from, the rhetoric is the same now: those who are darker are less beautiful. Even between the the Pakistani colonel guard and the enthusiastic Hindu nationalist one thing is agreed: the daughter, wife, sister – insert female – must be white.

A few months ago the hashtag “#UnfairAndLovely” was born and exploded on twitter. Created by two American-born SouthAsian girls, Mirusha and Anusha Yogarajah, the hashtag was born of the frustration and pressure many South-Asian girls face with respect to the colour of their skin. The campaign saw women calling out the blatant racism prevalent in these South-Asian communities baring photos of their brownness, challenging the norms.

Beacons of white hope are everywhere – at least in South Asia. Even cosmetic products advertised to primarily moisturise, cleanse, soften or smooth still have that bonus feature: to whiten. Whether it be on TV, in the magazines, in your local shop, or in your bedside drawers, these lightening creams are no secret and they don’t claim to be. What is perhaps the most disturbing of all is the latent betrayal of the truth. Although these adverts are brandished amongst women very obviously, the war against brown, ashy, dark skin is one which is waged silently and secretly. There is no prize for using these creams and being fair. The prize is for those who were born this way. Women must pretend they were born this way, rather than bleached this way.

From closed bedroom doors in Pune, to beauty salons and doctor’s clinics in Peshawar, the women shoulder the heavy burden of whiteness. Neither religion nor caste, status nor language will separate us from buying into the delusion of whiteness that we are constantly fed. What is perhaps more suprising is that there is no correlation to our anti-colonial histories. From revolt against British colonialism in mid 20th century, to a defiant nod to US intrusions in Pakistan, you might be forgiven for thinking that chemical whiteness could not be sold to us.

The sad truth is it is. And it doesn’t even really work. Experts have warned that these skin bleaching creams can have long-lasting harmful effects on skin. A drug widely advertised on the Internet as a skin-whitening agent, Glutathione, which is at best a very strong antioxidant scientifically documented to reduce toxicity of certain anti-cancer drugs. But the rest of its claims are vague and unproven. Many experts point out that lightening creams can only lighten the melanin in the skin to a certain extent, but the drastic changes we see on TV of this “Snow White” complexion is a myth. Outside South Asian communities however, questions of complexion are few and far between. When I arrived in the UK, I found it freeing in some senses. Although being brown and foreign raised equally difficult issues, the degree of my brownness was never called into question. Even now, my friends are confused when I explain this fascination with being fairer, whiter, anything to get that one-inch closer to the Western beauty ideals. Outside of India I am brown. I am not light-brown or dark-brown but simply brown.

Within Pakistan and India however, the war still wages on. Our young countries – not even a century old – have a bitter history with deeprunning wounds that seem to have no end or resolve as of yet. With rising tensions in the political sphere between Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif, we spend a lot of our time looking over at one another from either side of the border, arguing over differences and interests, alliances and cricketing rivalries. But whilst shots may be fired from other side of the Kashmir border, we share one hurdle we have yet to overcome. In accepting our brownness, without justification or shame, and finally ending our longstanding battle to achieve whiteness – in this we are united.