Behind the cliché
Light or Dark Complexion: Colourism in Bangladesh
Once, in Dhaka, I was having evening snacks with one of my Australian friends at a fast food restaurant at Dhanmondi in Dhaka. A bunch of university students were chatting beside us. I, with my surprise, observed that after they noticed the white lady’s presence, they immediately started their conversation in English. My Australian friend did not understand the reason behind their inclination to English all on a sudden after noticing her. She just exclaimed, ‘I never understood young Bangladeshis.’ Later on, they literally intruded into our personal space and tried to start a conversation with an over-imposed fake American accent. I wondered, what could be the meaning of such interaction. Was it an act representing our hospitality? Was it an act to show we know English? Or was it an attempt to associate with someone with white skin?
Whatever the answer may be, it seems appropriate to realise that Bangladeshis have an ambiguous and unpredictable mind-set and approach towards white or fair skin. We tend to promote a subjective favour for people with lighter skin colour. Intra-racial colour discrimination is an embarrassing and controversial subject in our country. While many prefer not to discuss it, especially in the professional sectors, others oppose that skin colour bias no longer exists—that it is history, water over the dam. However, underneath a surface appearance of brown solidarity lies a matrix of attitudes about skin colour and features in which colour, not character, characterises friendships; degree of skin lightness, not expertise, influences job opportunities; and complexion, not talent, dictates casting for television and film. In the world of entertainment in Bangladesh, a superstar with brown skin colour tries to alter his or her features to the point where he or she no longer looks brown on television or broad screens. Explore a little deeper, and you will find a pool of guilt and anger that threatens to overflow, exposing to Bangladeshis the truth that skin colour still matters.
No doubt, a preference towards lighter or ‘fair’ skin colour has become instinctual for most Bangladeshis. We already are quite aware and having clichéd discussions on the desired fair skin for women in marriage industry, especially in the male-dominated society in Bangladesh. However, the desire for a fair skin is no longer limited among women. A significant rise in purchasing men’s skin lightening cream manifests that the desire has embedded in men’s psyche as well. Though I am using the words like ‘lighter’ or ‘fair,’ I do believe that these words were initiated by white English speakers to humiliate the black or brown skin colour, insisting on defining the colour as ‘darker.’ It seems like these words bear discriminating colour politics beyond their apparent meaning. In Bangla, the word shyamal Baran or shyamla for brown skin tones has been celebrated in all genres of Bangla literature and artistic creations. Yet, we are keen to observe how farsha or ‘fair’ a person is. We have internalised the very notion through which white westerners used to demean our identity and skin colour.
The practice of demonstrating an unfair favour for people with lighter skin colour is known as colourism. It is important to remember that prejudice of any kind initiates customs of privilege as well as oppression. Skin colour bias is no different; while many Bangladeshis are hurt by colourism, others benefit of it. Bangladeshis have different tones of brown skin, starting from lighter to darker shades. Apparently, our use of the Bangla word shundar, as a determiner, refers to someone with lighter skin tone. We use the word in a way which poses a discriminatory status, as if we are locating someone special within a crowd of average brown skin tones. We know shundar as a word means the beauty of a person based on his or her achievements, qualities and personality. It refers to both inner and outer beauties. We tend to reduce the significance of such a vibrant Bangla word, and we limit its meaning by keeping it within skin tones. Therefore, a student with lighter skin in a class, or an employee with ‘fair’ skin in an organization may receive favours that others do not. The trend of colourism has become so instinctual that we fail to realize it may hurt others who do not possess the so called fair skin. In Bangladesh, a dark complexion is an obstacle for many men and women in their way of having marriage or employment prospects.
In South Asia, the caste and discriminatory systems of the white Aryans are frequently referred as a source of colourism. However, I believe the brain-wash performed on Bangladeshis (or on all South Asians) by the British during the colonial period plays a major role in constructing our colour complex. Lord Babington Macaulay presented the ‘Minutes on Indian Education’ in the British Parliament on 2nd February 1835. Apparently, this proposal on the education of Indian subcontinent constructed the ideology for all South Asians; an ideology that promotes and prefers western values and culture. In his speech, he said, ‘we must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.’ The white British colonial rulers brain-washed a certain class of South Asians, including Bangladeshis, who, later on, constructed our ideology on class, culture, and beauty. Now we think that everything related with the west or the British is better and sophisticated. We have become engrossed with western culture so much that we even prefer their white skin colour as the colour of beauty. Therefore, we are prone to admire the people who have the ‘fair’ and white-like skin tones.
Our media also trails after the norms of white beauty established by the British colonial power. There is a number of advertisements promoting skin-lightening creams and promising ‘fair’ skins. It is a matter of distress when we find Bangladeshis believing in these advertisements and buying the skin-lightening products, which, according to the health researchers, cause cancer. At present, I am studying in Europe, and I find a lot of Europeans asking me about the popularity of skin lightening creams in Bangladesh. To most of them, the idea of skin lightening cream is surprising and humiliating. However, I sense their satisfaction that people in another country are craving for a skin colour similar to their white skin.
Colourism is a creation of white colonial power to intensify our insecurity regarding our skin colour, and we seem eager to confirm and reconfirm the insecurity and promote discrimination in our social space. However, it is true that our perspectives on beauty and skin tones are changing. There are few commercials in Bangladeshi media redefining the concept of beauty. We no longer go for the glamour of Shakib Khan’s ‘fair’ skin; rather we prefer to admire Chanchal Chowdhury, Mosharraf Karim, and Fazlur Rahman Babu, because they represent the everyday people, everyday skin colour. Yet, there are ambiguous and unexplained skin colour complex operating in our minds, and it is high time for us to promote a concept of Bangladeshi beauty that will not consider skin colour at all.