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Spill the Chai: On Colourism in the South Asian Community

By Aymen Sherwani, May 13 2020 —


noun col·or·ism

The notion that individuals of a darker skin tone are less beautiful, less successful, and deserve less respect than their lighter-skinned counterparts, despite belonging to the same racial group.

A before and after picture of an Indian bride. // Photo courtesy of 9gag.

In between watching videos of little girls crying because they’re being bullied for their skin tones, and viral TikTok trends in India where users darken their skin and pretend to be sad, before smiling and revealing their lighter skin tone, you really wonder where we went wrong as a society for allowing this to continue. Actresses like Priyanka Chopra, who star in commercials where they find love after lightening their otherwise normal-looking skin with a “fairness” cream are what further ingrain those colonial standards of societal beauty into the minds of South Asians who would otherwise love the way they look. It’s just ironic that Chopra only jumped on the “love your brown skin” train when she tried launching her career in Hollywood as if no one would notice and crown her as a champion of women of colour. Instead, India’s multi-billion dollar skin-lightening industry is what compels women and girls to obsessively rub lemon juice on their faces, hoping to get a few shades lighter, but get acid burn instead. It’s what compels darker-skinned women to agree to, quite literally, be painted with what looks like the lightest shade of foundation available, because God forbid a bride look dark-skinned on her wedding day. 

In a way, I’m glad I live in such a multicultural society, where all skin colours are accepted, albeit some colourism still continuing to persist as a result of generational influence. I would be lying if I didn’t go through a phase where I wished I was lighter after a summer working outdoors for a children’s non-profit, and religiously wore foundation a few shades lighter before eventually learning to love the skin that I was born in. My friend Arooba and I have a running joke about that year when all the aunties wouldn’t stop commenting about how burnt we looked. That being said, brown girls in this generation, who quite frankly are sick of this shit, are trailblazing the movement to loving your natural skin tone, and making it known just how dynamic South Asian beauty is. 

Simran Saroya (@simartistry on Instagram) is a 23-year-old makeup artist and business owner, and the genius behind all the dewy-gold makeup looks as shown above. I had the pleasure of working with Simran this year, and I’ve come to know her as an artist that places a high value on inclusivity, especially when it comes to all skin tones and body types. Let’s just say I knew she walked the walk when she took the time to figure out what my actual shade was, undertones and all, rather than just slapping on any shade that made me look lighter. 

In an interview with the Gauntlet, Simran says that “I will never push for a client to accept this notion of colorism, even as a joke. I don’t believe in making someone look fairer to make them look “more pretty”. I have had clients come to me that have gotten married in India and shown me their wedding pictures. Of course, the mindset is different there but the makeup artists will make you look white! I think embracing the colour of your skin and just being yourself is so important. I know that colorism is a huge issue in South Asian communities and I think I do my part by trying to be a positive and empowering individual that my clients come across.” 

Colourism in the South Asian community has literally made it so that not having light skin is a deal-breaker for modelling and job opportunities, marriages, and even apparently a basic level of respect for a human being. Simran has made a tremendous impact through the work she has done for not only sweet sixteens and bridal events, but also for the existing South Asian beauty community in Canada, by dedicating her makeup brand to inclusivity, in an industry where aspiring brown models are limited in their choice of makeup, and subsequently the opportunities they receive. 

She said, “When it comes to clients, I view it as a way to make someone feel empowered, strong and beautiful. I have worked with all kinds of people from different cultures, races, face shapes and physical appearances. I believe that makeup enhances the beauty you already have and I don’t believe in not thinking someone is capable enough of pulling off a look. I try to collaborate with vendors who see this same vision. I also feel it is important to showcase your work on every kind of person.”

It’s this mindset that actually fosters the love and acceptance for every form of beauty in the South Asian community, making it especially inclusive of people who have deeper skin tones. The fact that women who have the most expressive eyes, or look like they were literally carved by angels, are told they’re not a good fit for the beauty industry because their melanin is hard to work with, should be something of the past. If anything, the lack of colour diversity in the beauty industry is what perpetuates the barriers for brown-skinned women in the first place. From what used to be a typical 8 shade range, today’s makeup has drastically changed to include the evolving standards of beauty, as brands are increasingly dedicated to colour diversity. Simran says that “beauty has come a long way. I see the inclusivity thriving in the beauty industry and personally try to follow brands that preach that. @livetinted being one of them. I think mindsets need a little more work, I understand wanting to promote your work but we are in a different century where we are striving to be more accepting, loving and diverse.”

To all my South Asians, or any people of colour for that matter, who have ever felt less than because you weren’t “light” enough because of the societal standards that dictate your “place” in society, I want you to know that your melanin is a gift. Your beautiful brown skin is not only brown, it tells the story of your ancestors that carried their rich complexions with unapologetic pride against anyone who told them differently. That within itself is the definition of beauty. 

Spill the Chai is a weekly column that seeks to showcase the talents and achievements of the South Asian and Middle Eastern communities at the University of Calgary campus, but also “spills the chai” on the issues they face on a daily basis, by speaking power into the narratives of the many students of colour on campus. This column is a part of our Voices section.

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