Updated: Dec 30, 2020
Sophia Saeed is a British Pakistani undergraduate student at the University College London. For her final year dissertation, Sophia is investigating skin colour as a standard of beauty as well as exploring the use of skin lightening treatments, procedures and remedies amongst young British Indians. Sophia has taken interest in this topic through her own experiences of colourism within her family and social network, leading her to carry out over 20 interviews with young British Indians about their experiences of colourism in the UK.
My experiences and my dedication to combatting colourism especially for those truly suffering limits in society due to their darker skin has led me to focus my undergraduate dissertation on this really important matter.
Colourism has effected me differently than what you would say a stereotypically British Pakistani would experience. With both my parents originally being from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in North Pakistan and my grandma being Afghani, we are Pashtuns so I am very fair-skinned for a Pakistani. This has led me to be both privileged and discriminated by different groups of people. I acknowledge that I have a skin colour privilege as a light-skinned Pakistani whereby I can easily pass for European and not face skin colour discrimination in certain social situations. For example, in highly populated Caucasian areas, I wouldn’t be made to feel out of place compared to darker-skinned ethnic minorities. I've heard comments within my family and friends about calling people "tak tor" - Pushto for "really dark" but these comments have never been aimed at me. In fact, as a baby, I was cooed over for being fair (& chubby) and was told that I was "lucky" to be this colour. So now you might be thinking, how has colourism even affected me?
But when I was growing up in primary and secondary school, despite this "fair skin privilege", I had very non-Caucasian features. I have dark thick hair and you can imagine, having dark eyebrows and visible facial/bodily hair didn't exactly fit in with Western beauty standards. I was teased here and there and made to feel like an outsider because I didn't fit in with White British beauty standards but I was also too fair to be classified as a typical brown girl. Throughout my whole life it was a game for people to guess my ethnicity, "Are you Spanish?" or "Is your dad white?". Another classic was when British white people would come back from holiday and say "I'm browner than Sophia and she is actually Asian". These comments led me to actively try to naturally and fake tan to look less pale. I even distinctly remember going to a Pakistani society event at UCL and another Pakistani girl saying to me "Are you even from Pakistan?" and I responded a little stunned with "Yes of course". Experiencing the feeling of not fitting in with both parts of my identity was difficult but I am lucky to be now surrounded by a community of people who see my colour clearly.
Nevertheless, I strongly acknowledge my privilege of being fair and my experiences of colourism are not nearly as extreme as other individuals when we live within a society whereby white people are superior. My experiences and my dedication to combatting colourism especially for those truly suffering limits in society due to their darker skin has led me to focus my undergraduate dissertation on this really important matter.
Combatting colourism is not changing the name of a fairness cream from "Fair and Lovely" to "Glow and Lovely" but it is tackling the deeply engrained skin colour biases within the South Asian community.
Firstly, communication and discussion within your own home and social network are essential. Tackling and confronting skin colour biases opens up discussion and room to educate others on the implications of their harsh dialogues. When a family member associates dark with unattractiveness, we need to call them out and inform them of the secondary effects of these words. On a wider scale, education in schools to highlight that being Asian is not just one colour and that people of colour should not be homogenised.
Furthermore, the media has a large part to play in colourism in society today. In the Bollywood and Lollywood film industry, the lead actors are often darker and older as opposed to the females who are much fairer, skinnier and younger. Also, celebrities like Priyanka Chopra are constantly endorsing fairness products in toxic advertisements. This, as well as a poor representation of South Asian on TV shows and magazines, further influence how impressionable South Asians view their skin colour. We naturally follow what is popular and when you are made to feel like only tan or glowy olive skin is "in", that is what you aspire to be.
We need companies and celebrities to apologise for their blatant colourism and actively rectify the media to represent South Asians accurately. I want to see more people like me and my South Asian peers being treated like "normal people" rather than the token sidekick brown person used as a tickbox for inclusion and diversity. How cool would it be to just see a Pashtun or South Indian actress playing a lead role on the BBC?
Throughout interviewing over 20 British Indians for my dissertation, I have listened to, and sympathised with, the experiences of these women. Experiences have ranged from being treated differently by grandparents due to their darker colour to a female burning their skin in aspiration to be fairer. These women have opened up to me about their insecurities and vulnerabilities and have inspired me to help towards the movement to overcome colourism in the South Asian society.
Brown, black or white is beautiful. You are born with your skin colour and you should never feel like you need to change this.
Cover Art courtesy of Ridhi Virmani @thevisualflair