Fair? Unfair!

December 11, 2007

I think I can safely state that Indians in general have a “thing” about fair skin. Perhaps it has to do with the controversial Aryan invasion a few millennia ago? Whatever the cause may be, in general Indians do have a thing with fairness, whether among Indians or in foreigners.

Growing up in North India, I was complimented many times, from early childhood onwards, on my “fairness”. When I first met Amit’s extended family, before our wedding, the first thing they commented upon was my skin colour.

The predilection for fairness is markedly more in the North – where, on average, complexions are lighter – than it is here in the South, if Bangalore can be taken as representative of the South in general.

Unfortunately, I have not myself escaped entirely from a bias towards fairness. When I look at movie stars, models, or other icons, I generally tend to find fair people more good-looking than dark people – but not without exception. From super-models, to friends, to complete strangers, there are lots of dusky-complexioned people I find good-looking. Still, to be completely honest with myself, I know that skin-colour is a factor in my perception of beauty. This is not something I’m happy about, and I wish it weren’t so… but it is.

Up North, there are also a lot of stereotypes attached to dark-skinned people – they are probably poor, are probably dirty, probably hail from a few specific states, are probably of a lower cast, are probably uneducated street people, etc etc etc…The important thing is, though, that, for me, if skin colour is at all a factor, it is only so in the assessment of a person’s looks – not in the assessment of a person. There is no associated judgment on a person’s character, or background, or abilities, or on whether or not I like a person. This is important.

When we thought of adoption, skin colour was one of the issues that we discussed, both within the family and with the adoption agency. They warned us that we were unlikely to find a child of an appropriate complexion. Yet, they also accepted (or expected?) that we might refuse a candidate on the basis of his/her complexion.

For me, this was never an option. Just as I couldn’t imagine holding even a subconscious belief that “dark-skinned people are less nice people than white-skinned people” I couldn’t imagine thinking of a child “you are too dark for me to love you”. True, my conception of an ideal baby, the one I spent years imagining for us, would have been your typical Johnson baby (they never show a dusky or dark baby, do they?) – yet, when it came to adoption, how could I hold the colour of its skin against an innocent child?

Our twins are dark – or at least, they are not fair, as a biological child of ours might have been. Do I love them less for it? Not a bit. Does it trouble me that they are dark? Yes, to be honest, it does, just a little bit. Again, I wish it didn’t.

One of the reasons it troubles me is that it makes it very obvious that these kids are not our biological kids. While I have no intention of hiding this from them or anyone else, it would have been nice not to have to wear it like a label on our foreheads. The other reason, of course, is because it means that our kids don’t look like what I had visualized as our “perfect” baby. But I don’t know – does any real child ever look like the idealized picture that the mother carries around in her heart for months or years before?

What this has made me realize, though, is that I’m very happy we are here in Bangalore, where we attract a lot of admiring looks and only a few adverse comments when we go out in public. Up North, it would have been a LOT of very blatant comments about their colour and few, if any, admiring looks.

We also get a lot of advice – unasked for, of course, as advice generally is – on how to go about lightening their skin colour. This, I blithely ignore. I might have liked them to be fairer, but to set about actually doing anything to make them fairer doesn’t seem like something I want to do. Maybe I don’t want to pander to my own bias.

And maybe that’s good. One day, as I was washing them in the bathroom, in the mirror I caught sight of the stark contrast of my hand against the dark skin of their backs, and I found myself thinking, not how dark they are, or whether their skin will ever lighten, but instead: “I wish my colour was closer to theirs.”

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