We went to an Indian wedding on the weekend, a Gujurati one to be exact. I wore a simple purple lengha suit. As I didn’t know the bride and groom that well, I felt comfortable with the idea of a low-key outfit that would enable me to blend into the throng of guests you expect to see at an Indian function. But after an hour or so of being there, it became apparent that I was wearing the ‘wrong outfit’. All the other ladies were wearing sarees, and a certain design of sari at that. I stuck out like a sore thumb and spent a lot of the day enduring sideways glances from other female guests who were obviously thinking “who’s she?” and “she’s not one of us”.
Well its ironic that in a room full of other British Asians you can be made to feel like you don’t belong, when really, where else would I belong? If I went to an English wedding wearing a lengha, I would be ooh-ed and aah-ed at for my ‘exotic outfit’ but I certainly wouldn’t fit in amongst the crowds of fascinators and Coast dresses. So its funny and sad to me that amongst my own community I can made to feel like an outsider.
This made me think about other types of discrimination within our community. The South Asian community is large and diverse, encompassing different religions, countries of origin, languages, cultures,preferred dress styles, even food. While this lends to the richness of our community, if we are not careful, it can also become tribal, as I experienced wearing the ‘wrong outfit’.
While I was mulling this over, I stumbled across another, more serious type of enemy within. In India a campaign called “Dark Is Beautiful” seeks to highlight the stigma surrounding dark skin tones. Run by an NGO called Women of Worth, it’s founder works to normalise the idea that darker skin is beautiful. She highlights instances where women of darker skin are made to feel inferior and discriminated against, like in the film and modelling industry; where they miss out on jobs and get turned down for marriage proposals- all because of the hue of their skin.
Back in 2007, there was a stir in the UK beauty industry as ‘skin-whitening’ products from India and other parts of South East Asia were filtering into our shops, particular the independent Indian food shops. Now it emerges that there are even skin whitening products for genitals and underarms. If you dig around enough, you can also get hold of ‘fairness shade cards’ to measure one’s own skin tone on, against a kind of ‘skin tone range’.It all seems ludicrous, but the skin whitening industry is big business. But even bigger is the mindset that informs that industry: that dark is ugly, inferior and unworthy. If we conform to this idea, that fair-skin is the image of Asian beauty, then surely we are no better than racists ourselves?
We need to call this what it is, a kind of racism. Inter-community racism. It’s not a new concept. Whether its based on a skin-tone discrimination or the tribal mentality of dress codes it is rife in our community. It is discriminating against others who are different to us. I don’t mean just within the British Asian community, but within the global community of South Asians that we belong to. And I think we can only deal with the racism without by dealing first with the enemy within- our own prejudices against difference.