From depictions of ‘suitable’ marriage partners in Netflix series Indian Matchmaking to the on-going popularity of skin-lightening creams, colourism remains rife in certain communities. Here, writer Ayesha Muttucumaru details her complicated relationship with the word ‘fair’ – and why calling out shade bias is vital.
‘They dropped the F-Bomb.’ From the moment my mum and I started watching Indian Matchmaking on Netflix, we felt it would only be a matter of time until the word that makes us wince like no other was uttered. The term in question? No, not a four lettered expletive, but something far more insidious. ‘Fair.’
As you might know, the docu-series follows ‘Mumbai’s top matchmaker,’ Sima Taparia, as she helps a range of single people in India and the US, with the help of their families, find their future wife or husband. The format has proven divisive. Criticisms levied by certain members of the Indian diaspora on Twitter include that some of the show’s participants engage in caste-discrimintion, mostly using euphemistic terms (‘from a good family’, ‘similar backgrounds’), as well as colourism (a prejudice or discrimination towards those with dark skin that usually occurs within the same ethnic group).
The latter is seen when some participants request a match with ‘fair’ skin. As well as affecting those with darker complexions in south Asian communities, it should be noted that attitudes such as these can lead people down a dangerous road to anti-Blackness.
These statements, some said, go unchallenged by Taparia, which could lead to the normalisation or affirmation of such views. (Speaking to The Cut, Smriti Mundhra, the show’s executive producer, said that she welcomes critique: ‘We’re now at a point where we can actually hold representation to a higher standard and push for better and more nuanced stories. I want to be held accountable. Push me so I can push too.’)
Why the word ‘fair’ is problematic
As to why the word ‘fair’ is an issue? Short story: it is not just seen as a way to denote someone’s appearance, but a character trait, having become synonymous with a person’s place in society, their chances of professional success, status and self-worth. The connotations go far beyond the superficial.
Sounds archaic, right? However, seeing one US-based show contestant casually list: ‘not too dark’ and ‘fair skin’ as a preferred ‘want’ in a potential parter was a stark reminder that colourism seems to be very much alive and kicking, even in my millennial generation.
The history of colourism in south Asian communities
Colonialism and the caste system are two of the reasons attributed to enduring colourist attitudes, as is the way skin colour is portrayed in the film industry, the media and by beauty brands. One notable example is the ‘fairness’ cream Fair & Lovely whose advertisements in India have historically implied that