I have something called synesthesia. It is a phenomenon where your sensory and cognitive pathways intertwine resulting in involuntary sensory-cognitive experiences. In my case, I see days and months in colours set in a specific space. There is a pattern and colour to the way days and months are set in my imagination. And for a very long time, I figured it was the same for everyone else.
While, we may not share a synesthetic mind, seeing colours in other human beings is a common and often involuntary phenomenon in our day to day lives. The tendency to associate colour to race based on ingrained stereotypes and generate further stereotypes based on both (colour and race) is extremely problematic.
Race is usually defined by geographical ancestry, physical features and related to culture and ethnicity. These need not necessarily co-relate. On 18th July 1950, post World War II, lead by UNESCO, the UN decided to replace the term 'race' with 'ethnic group'.
Biologically, colour is relatively simpler to comprehend. The colour of your skin primarily depends on the presence of the pigment melanin located on the epidermis or outer layer of your skin. Melanin is present in both light and dark-skinned individuals. The melanin activity and content is controlled by genes. The cells that produce melanin (melanocytes) are smart, sunlight-sensitive cells that on exposure to UV radiation and extensive sunlight produces more melanin to protect the skin from UV radiation. Therefore, individuals belonging to tropical regions with extensive sun exposure inherently have a higher melanin content and a darker skin tone.
The race/colour dichotomy has enough material amongst them to serve as reading material for a whole decade or two. So I'll focus extensively on India's relationship with colour and the related brush with race.
A few weeks back at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), India faced severe scrutiny regarding various issues. At the 27th UPR session of the UNHRC, the Indian inter-ministerial delegation was led by attorney general Mukul Rastogi. Among the key issues discussed, the discrimination against African nationals was raised. The Haitian delegation especially called upon India to deal with "racial attacks". As part of the reply from a member of the Indian delegation which accepted the incidents as "unfortunate" and "painful", and India's proactive reaching out to African diplomatic missions - the government official claimed that "all criminal acts cannot be termed as racist" and added that "we are from the land of Buddha and Gandhi, we cannot have a racist mindset".
Are we a racist/race conscious nation?
We are more of a colour and shade conscious society. And colorism (a term coined by Alice Walker) involves prejudices based on skin colour. This is not synonymous to racism. Though both cannot be considered mutually exclusive.
Indians do not have a homogeneous skin colour. We come in all shades as rightly indicated by the Fair and Lovely fairness meter. And unfortunately, we believe that white is the right shade to be.
Traditionally, black has symbolic associations with what is dark, evil or impure and white is associated with cleanliness, goodness, and purity. Furthermore, some researchers have indicated the relationship between skin colour and its association with the caste system. A lighter skin tone was expected to indicate someone born into a caste deemed superior and a darker skin tone vice versa. Logically, this could have been because a person of lower caste was exposed to outdoor work more than one of a higher caste. But what of dark-skinned Southern Indian higher caste individuals. And what of those born outside the Hindu caste system?
Mythology, can be equally perplexing when it comes to skin tones. Goddess Kali, who is associated with destruction is often considered a dark-skinned goddess. Contradictory to this, everybody's favourite gods from Krishna to Shiva, to the beautiful Draupadi herself are described as dark as the darkest cloud. But most comic strips, visual and other print media portray them in a deep shade of blue.
A professor of mine once set us thinking if we as a country would have felt differently had we been colonised by people of a darker skin tone. Would we have raced towards the sun attempting to look three shades darker had we not been colonised by a white Anglo-Saxon group?
Matrimonial columns look for 'fair-skinned' brides. We use the term 'wheatish' to describe a duskier skin-tone or there is the word 'dusky' in itself. We have ministers vouching for our immense 'tolerance' for different shades of colour by pointing out how north and south Indians live in the same country despite the latter belonging to the darker end of the colour spectrum.
And then there is the tendency to define what is brown or dusky or 'wheatish' as the exotic. Popular culture and literature describe the dark-skinned individual as the exotic representative of the orient. The dark-skinned beauty who is seductive and promiscuous (ever heard the lyrics of Ladki beautiful kargayi chul).
Buried in face creams, lotions and potions that promise a lighter, brighter and whiter skin, India is a safe haven for the capitalist cosmetic market for skin whitening. Pregnant mothers include saffron in their diet hoping to have a fair-skinned baby. We grow up buried in turmeric paste and are berated if we spend too long in the sun. If you fall into any of the cis genders (male or female) there is a product for you that is supposed to make your skin look lighter and as per the advertisements will improve your chances in your personal and professional life.
We are a country that churns out some of the brightest minds in the world. Sundar Pichai and Indira Nooyi are pioneers in their respective fields because of their intelligence, commitment and hard-work not the shade of brown they turned out to be. We have so much more to worry about than the difference in our skin tone - a growing population, the need for greater economic feasibility that is equally distributed across all social strata and much more.
We as a nation strongly condemn racial profiling and discrimination based on colour. But we are guilty of discrimination based on colour within our own country. A foreigner who is black is treated differently from one who is white. This is quite unsurprising considering colour preference within the country. Also, we fail to realise the fact that once we step out of the subcontinent, despite our fifty shades we are all considered brown.
Mahatma Gandhi was once thrown off a moving train, a regime that extolled racially superiority and used blue eyes and blonde hair as trademarks of the same caused one of the worst atrocities the world has ever seen. Colour preference has never had a productive or happy ending. If we are to believe in the values of Buddha or Gandhi and perform the rights and duties as laid out in our very constitution, the foundation of which is based in equality - we are to grow beyond tangible differences like skin colour and exhibit the ethics and moral codes that we say we value.