In Part One of our blog, we looked at the experience of one of our readers who signed up to Sephora Online in the Asia Pacific – and then started noticing skin bleaching spam in her online footprint. This led us on a journey to China, where we examined what it takes to be Bai Fu Mei (White, Rich and Beautiful). Now our unexpected journey takes us to South Asia and Toronto…
Part 2: MIRUSHA “Unfair and Lovely”
If Skin whitening is big in China, I wanted to get a personal perspective about South Asia – where fascination with fair skin is unabashed and unapologetic. Who can forget when Bollywood actress Rimi Sen strutted down the red carpet and proclaimed that a certain film director was so talented that “he can make even a black African look pretty”.
I spoke to Mirusha Yogarajah, co-founder of the ‘Unfair and Lovely’ movement, which is the clap back and counter movement to the widely available Fair and Lovely cream (found over the counter at your local Indian store), and the associated attitudes that necessitate that cream.
This is Mirusha’s experience.
“I am Eelam Tamil which is essentially an ethnic group within the state of Sri Lanka. We don’t really claim the state of Sri Lanka because there is a genocide against my ethnic group – so we refer to ourselves as Eelam Tamil.
I was born in Toronto. I grew up in Texas for 15 years but now I’m back in Toronto. My mother and my two sisters play a really intricate role in the advocacy I take on and are a lot of the motivation behind my feminism.”
Tell me about the ‘Unfair & Lovely’ movement. It’s huge.
My friend Pax who is the photographer and co-founder of the movement asked me to be in a photo shoot with my sister. I mentioned the idea of “Unfair and Lovely” to caption the photos – and a friend recommended we create a hashtag. Both of us then attached our experiences with colorism within our respective communities. Pax is black, I’m Eelam Tamil.
There are some commentators who question if the support of darker skinned women actually translates from online into real societies/communities. How is ‘Unfair and Lovely’ more than a hashtag?
There have been so many narratives that people have come to me with. Girls have talked about going make-up shopping and traditionally their mothers encouraged them to buy a lighter shade of foundation, and after Unfair and Lovely they’ve stopped doing that. They actually started having conversations with their family members and friends about colorism. They’ve received so much in-person support and confidence from seeing the images and the narratives of darker skinned people like themselves. So I think there is a lot of translation from online into real world impact.
What are some of the attitudes South Asian people have toward African people?
The south-Asian community is very anti-black. A lot of Tamil people are ‘otherised’ by the South-Asian community as a result of their proximity to blackness. We are probably the darkest ethnic group in the South-Asian community. There’s a notion that dark is unattractive. Black women are associated with masculinity, they are not considered desirable. There is an idea that blackness equals laziness. There’s just so much anti-blackness within the South-Asian community. It’s a perpetuation of the stereotypes and caricatures of black people which South-Asians adopt. So anti-blackness is global.
Dark-skinned south-Asian people are just not considered desirable for anything – marriage, jobs. A lot of it is intertwined with the caste system. There’s a pretty strong correlation that if you’re darker then you’re of lower caste. Caste-ism is rampant within the south-Asian community, within Hinduism specifically. A lot of things are just dumb jokes, dumb micro-aggressions but it also culminates in genocide. Within Sri Lanka there was a genocide of the Tamil community. It’s not just a negative attitude, it’s violence towards dark-skinned people within the South-Asian community.
You’ve spoken previously about growing up with a “yearning for whiteness” that was quite destructive. Was this yearning reinforced by attitudes within your friends/family group?
The yearning for whiteness was reinforced by everyone around me. It’s considered what we strive to be. Whether it be attitude-wise, income-wise – you were essentially taught by everyone around you that in order to be successful you need to be in close proximity to whiteness.
Let’s talk about physical characteristics. What’s prized and by whom?
European features are still one hundred percent still prized by South Asians – even amongst younger south-Asians. 100%. In fact the South-Asian community has this really bad habit of hiring white models and actresses when there are plenty of south-Asians who can take those roles – but they’d rather see a white person portray a South-Asian because that’s what the South-Asian community wants to believe in.
Why do you think darker skinned men seem to have no requirement for movements such as Unfair and Lovely?
Colorism is gendered. Women and gender-queer people are far more impacted by colorism. With black men, there is a degree of masculinity that is asserted upon them – which for the most part, they desire to have. But dark-skinned women have to fight for their femininity. That’s why colorism is gendered.
“Women and gender-queer people are far more impacted by colorism.”
In your view, what is the number one obstacle to tackling colorism in South Asian communities?
It’s “the Aunties”. It’s wild. I’m in Toronto and even though I am part of Unfair and Lovely – my aunties still talk about how dark people are and how there’s no way they could be personally beautiful because they’re dark. It’s so bizarre that they are in my presence and have heard of this idea of ‘Unfair and Lovely’ – and they still talk about how lighter people are more attractive and darker people are unattractive. Aunties don’t always have access to social media like the younger generations – and they are so entrenched in this approach to beauty and racism. They’re far more entrenched in terms of time. I think that’s the real obstacle – the impact of the older generations.