#70: Shout out against Shadism

CC licensed image by Flickr user Vinoth Chandar
CC licensed image by Flickr user Vinoth Chandar

I’m currently taking a qualification course on equity and inclusion and, as one of the course’s tasks, was asked to reflect upon a personal experience dealing with inclusion/exclusion. I chose to write an honest piece about shadism. While racism is seen as discrimination between racial groups, shadism is seen as discrimination between shades of colour within a racial group. This discrimination has its roots in colonialism and classist hierarchies between those who worked outdoors in the fields and those with more aristocracy. Most commonly, shadist discrimination is against those who are darker, who are perceived to have an inferior status (related to wealth, attractiveness, and thus power, in general). However, shadism can also be against those who are fairer skinned, who may be seen by their racial or cultural group as ‘less pure’ or a deviation from the original heritage. Here is my personal account of shadism.

I’m fortunate to say that I did not experience much overt racism growing up, but upon reflection, I realize that I have been subject to ongoing and subtle forms of ‘shadism‘. I grew up with the message that a fairer complexion is considered more beautiful. This notion is quite predominant in South Asian culture (amongst others, such as East Asian, Caribbean, African and Hispanic), of which I am from. Every few years, my family and I would travel to India to visit my relatives and upon seeing me, I would get comments on how fair or dark I had become. Billboards, TV commercials and revered Bollywood actresses would exclusively portray fair South Asian women. Drug store shelves would be lined with skin lightening products. As noted in this article, this ‘snow white syndrome’ accounts for sales of whitening creams in India exceeding sales of Coca-Cola and Tea. This was the reality that I knew existed in India and although I didn’t think much about the meaning behind these messages at the time (perhaps in this case, ignorance as a child was bliss), I do believe that they played some part in shaping my identity growing up. When I reached high school, shadism became more obvious in my relationship to myself and others. At times, I felt a degree of exclusion by my fairer South Asian peers. It was not necessarily deliberate, but more subtle and most likely unintentional. I would often hear passing comments from them regarding other people, such as “He/She is good looking…but dark”. Such comments were never directed at me, but I always felt uncomfortable, knowing what they implied about people’s underlying thoughts around beauty and status. 

Surprisingly, these messages have not ceased since becoming an adult and surprisingly and admittedly, I’ve realized that I have bought into some of these shadist messages as well. During the time of my wedding, the message to stay out of the sun (otherwise I would get too dark for the wedding and would thus not look as attractive) became proverbial in nature, constantly hovering in the ozone of my consciousness. This message was communicated as if it was common knowledge–obviously I wouldn’t be going in the sun and getting darker before my wedding! Admittedly, I found myself staying out of the sun a lot before my wedding day. Why did I feel the need to do this? Clearly, the messages that were laying their groundwork from when I was a child had slowly but surely shaped, or rather, brainwashed my self-image. As someone who works hard at being critical, self-reflective and living authentically, equitably and congruently, I was certainly troubled by my cognitive dissonance. I feel dismayed when I imagine the degree of deep penetration and negative transformation these shadist messages may have on more impressionable, vulnerable young women. This points to a great need for more positive role models and most importantly a shift in implicit and explicit societal messages and community attitudes.

Other comments are still made by peers that just seem to ‘slip out’. I recall a time when an interracial East Asian couple introduced me to their newborn baby. The husband, being darker than his wife, ‘jokingly’ admitted that his wife was very relieved when her daughter was born, upon seeing that she had inherited a lighter complexion. In another instance, a friend of mine was showing me her dating profile on a South Asian dating website. I was shocked to see that they had an optional drop-down menu that allowed people to post their complexion (fair, medium or dark). My friend who is fair chose to list her complexion, while another friend of mine who is darker, told me that she would not feel comfortable listing her complexion. I had such an unnerved feeling inside of me–because of the systems that allow such things to happen in this day and age and because of the realization that many well-intentioned, intelligent and good people I know (which, as I mentioned before doesn’t preclude myself) are being influenced, or rather, manipulated by the system. It made me further ponder where we draw the ethical line when it comes to having and communicating preferences for certain physical characteristics–such as skin colour–when choosing a mate, vs. enabling discrimination based on physical characteristics. We would never tell our children to choose friends based on physical characteristics, so why is it ok to normalize this for adults who are choosing a mate? Does the desire for physical attraction grant us all rights to explicitly label and categorize human beings based on shade, race, ability or other? When I described the drop-down complexion menu to a non South Asian peer of mine, she made an interesting point in asking me what the difference is between stating one’s complexion in writing via a menu and posting it for others to see via one’s profile picture? I think this is a complex issue that walks the ethical line between intentional classist attitudes and behaviours and individual choice. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Furthermore, extending the topic of online dating profiles a step further, is there principally any difference between categories of  physical appearance versus those of income or education (which are commonly listed in profile options on many dating sites)? Are the two not linked to class and lead to further marginalizing and normalizing the more commonly less desirable? These categories are part of day-to-day conversations amongst adults as well, and I think we become part of many implicit hierarchical messages by way of the communities we choose to be a part of and the people we communicate about and with…and the things we choose not to say or do either.

There are many more incidences of such ‘shadism’ I can recall, but the two I will end off with are ones that involved children. One was when my friend and I visited a family at their beach house. Upon seeing the children, my friend pointed out, in a positive tone, to the 6 year old daughter, that she had gotten darker. The 6 year old daughter immediately frowned and looked quite unhappy with this comment. My friend, seeing her expression clarified his comment, saying ‘What I mean is that it seems you’ve been enjoying the sun!’. I don’t know what this child was truly thinking, but clearly there was an initial and immediate negative reaction to hearing that her complexion was darker. The next example comes from when a friend told me that her niece (around the age of 4-6 years), while playing with Barbie dolls, put all the darker skinned Barbies in one group while the blonde hair blued eyed ones were in another. Apparently, when questioned, the girl responded that the lighter ones were more beautiful. There is a traversal here between shadism and racism and these shadist experiences are also related to the pervasive western cultural stereotypes and stigmas that exist around body image, self-esteem, self-image and generally, the way we treat others who are different from us. What I think it important to note in examining these two examples is the almost certain fact that these parents whom I know would not have condoned or taught these messages at home. I’m also confident that these messages are not overtly taught at school. This would mean then, that these children were so powerfully internalizing these shadist and racist messages from other areas of their lives–the media, peers or perhaps by observing the subtle and probably unintentional behaviours of the people around them, at home or otherwise. The influence and responsibility we have in shaping the future generation goes far beyond our explicit messages. It is embedded in everything we portray and don’t portray, both verbally and non-verbally.

So, what can we do about all this? I don’t have the full answer, but I think awareness is the first step; awareness of our role in the implicit messages we convey through our thoughts, actions and inactions, and awareness of society’s explicit and implicit messages. Secondly, (and I thank Dr. Gorski’s book ‘Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty’ for providing me with some background knowledge to fine tune and extend my thoughts on classism to this topic of shadism), we ought to strive to recognize and ultimately, eliminate our deeply held biases and stereotypes that label, absolutely describe and categorize people of a certain group–whether that group be white, dark, rich, poor, professional, working-class, able, less-able, young, old, male, female, Latino or East Asian–as similar. As Dr. Gorski emphasizes in his book, there is no evidence to support a uniform ‘culture of poverty’, just as there is no evidence to support that people of a certain shade, colour, income level or group membership bear the same personalities, abilities, IQ’s or other. In breaking down our biases and misinformed stereotypes, we can begin to understand and appreciate the variations and individuality that exists amongst people within groups and amongst groups. Thirdly, once we are aware and attuned to their existence, I think we ought to act out against programs, products, structures and policies that may further marginalize certain groups of people. And finally, and although this may sound somewhat idyllic, I really feel strongly that we must support and model practices that promote universal compassion for all human beings, from the inside out.

Compassion Is Beauty and vice versa!

I am just so moved by Lupita Nyong’o’s speech on this topic.

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