Combatting discrimination based on skin color
As part of Middle Eastern and South Asian (ME/SA) Community Week, the Indian Student Association (ISA) of UC Davis hosted its first discussion on shadeism and sexism within the South Asian community last Thursday in the Student Community Center (SCC).
“Shadeism” is relatively unknown term — in fact, many of the attendees had never heard the word before. Shadeism describes the discrimination against people with darker skin colors within a community, and has been known to be particularly present within the South Asian community.
Many members of the South Asian community do not know how shadeism rooted itself in their culture. Some have suggested the British colonization and westernization of India may have contributed to the idea, while others believe that Hinduism, India’s dominant religion, has long viewed light skin as a symbol of purity and holiness in their goddesses and women. However, many students that attended the meeting agreed that the current generation of South Asian-Americans continue to be deeply affected by shadeism in their daily lives.
“I’ve been affected by shadeism my entire life,” third-year international relations major and ISA Director of Technology Avanti Baronia said. “My older relatives have judged my beauty based on a standard of darkness and have said, ‘You’re so beautiful for a dark girl.’ But why is my skin color a caveat for my beauty?”
Learning that others had bounced back from certain negative experiences with shadeism gave Baronia a feeling of empowerment. She said she felt enlightened by the opportunity to hear about her peers’ experiences with shadeism and find commonalities and differences in their stories.
The discussion, organized without any specific questions in mind, was designed to allow students to share their thoughts and stories in a safe space. Shruti Thundiyil, a fourth-year communication major, was surprised by how much having a safe and enclosed space in the SCC benefitted the discussion.
“Everyone’s honesty and openness really stood out to me,” Thundiyil said. “A lot of the time I feel that when you’re discussing culture, you can’t speak about what’s on your mind because you don’t feel comfortable, you don’t feel educated enough to contribute or you are afraid about being politically incorrect. There are other discussions on campus where I feel like people are scared to even enter the discussion. That wasn’t the case here.”
A majority of the attendees at the event were female, and many revealed that comments made by their relatives suggested that the South Asian community was unlikely to find girls with darker skin attractive or even suitable for marriage.
Fourth-year environmental science major and ISA Director of Operations, Taran Sahota, recalled being told at the young age of seven that she would never find a husband in the future because of her dark skin. Her friend, Parteek Singh, second-year biochemistry and molecular biology major and ISA Director of External Affairs, found Sahota’s anecdote particularly striking.
“For me, I think the biggest takeaway from the discussion was was realizing that South Asian females are so impacted by shadeism in so many more ways that males,” Singh said. “Little girls as young as seven are being told that they won’t get married because of their skin colors. It not only hurts their feelings in the moment, but I think it impacts them psychologically for years to come.”
According to Singh, his invites to outings at the beach or a sunny day in the park are often met with responses like “we don’t want to get any darker than we already are.” Singh even knows of family members that have quit outdoor sports or activities out of fear that their skin will turn darker.
Many of the event’s attendees agreed that the first step to eradicating the problem is to form discussions about it.
“Shadeism and sexism can be such taboo topics, like so many other topics in the South Asian community,” Thundiyil said. “I believe the first step in fixing a problem is acknowledging it. I think our South Asian community is particularly bad at addressing things and we tend to sweep it all under the rug. But these issues are affecting everybody and I think it’s important to address that.”
Thundiyil hopes that ISA will continue to host and advertise such discussions in the future and has suggested arranged marriage, dowry and South Asian pop culture as possible topics for discussions in coming quarters. Baronia and Singh said ISA is equally as interested in hosting these discussions, and hope that future discussions could involve guest speakers or a more structured format to allow for smaller and larger group conversations.
“I think the next step is to have more student groups engage in this issue,” Baronia said. “The change has to start with our generation. As frustrating it is that our socialization has come from our parents, we can’t really expect to change the older generation. I think we need to reach out to more people of all backgrounds on this campus because I don’t think shadeism is unique to the South Asian experience.”
Graphic by Jennifer Wu.