Embracing Darkness in a Colorist World

8 min read

“No one let me forget that I was dark-skinned growing up. My grandma was very light-skinned. Whenever we’d go around in India, they’d always say, ‘Oh, you’d be pretty if you had your grandmother’s coloring.’ ‘Shame about the color of her skin.’ ‘She’s pretty for being dark-skinned.’ All of these comments, all the time.” —Charitra Chandan, actor, in a Vogue interview.

When Simone Ashley and Charitra Chandan joined the cast of the Netflix series Bridgerton, it was undoubtedly an exciting moment for the South Asian community in the U.S. It was refreshing to see darker complexioned South Asian women represented in starring roles. They were not only seen as attractive but they were also not exoticized. While this can be seen as a “win” toward opening doors to more dark-skinned SA artists and actors, the path was not an easy one, as British actress Charitra Chandan points out. The shaming and the abuse that these individuals often have endured is traumatic and psychologically damaging.

In South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia, darker skin is still seen as “unattractive” and “undesirable.” These ideas are passed down into the diaspora and are often peppered into casual conversation or much worse, used as weapons of abuse and harassment.

Seema Hari/Harsh Jani

Seema Hari is a non-binary engineer, multihyphenate artist, producer and activist focused on annihilating colorism, casteism and queerphobia through their work. They co-produced the internationally acclaimed short film ‘Sheer Qorma’ with director Faraz Arif Ansari, which has won awards at the BAFTA-Qualifying FRAMELINE Film Festival (San Francisco) and the Academy Award-qualifying Out on Film (Atlanta).

Source: Seema Hari/Harsh Jani

Colorism as Abuse

“I think I was designated an outcast because of my skin color since the day I was born. All my childhood memories are tainted with the discrimination, bullying, and harassment I faced from the world.” —Seema Hari, non-binary engineer, multihyphenate artist, producer, and activist

For Seema Hari, growing up in India, colorism was so engrained and accepted in society that even her teachers and other adults would make “derogatory comments” about her skin color. Seema shares how they were called “ugly” all their life” “I was called ‘kali kaluti,’ ‘kalmuhi’ (very black woman; black face) and likened to monsters, buffaloes, gorillas, chimpanzees, etc. I was spat on and harassed on my way to school, inside school premises, on the playground, in public transport. It was relentless.” Seems spoke of how in India, mainstream ads, and TV shows with derogatory songs about ridiculing darker skinned people, would entitle people to dehumanize them and that this normalized discriminatory behavior.

But the most painful part for Seema was how others would tell them they were unworthy of love and would be a burden to their parents. Seema endured such bullying and harassment that as a teen they saw no point in living. “Those ideas made me extremely suicidal in my teenage years and I almost didn’t survive it.” They add, “Colorism almost killed me. It robbed me of my childhood and teenage years and stole my ability to dream or have any ambition, because I could never imagine surviving it.”

Casteism and Colonialism

“The more questions I asked, the more I realized that the idea that dark skin is inferior is a perception enforced on us by the caste system, colonizers, white supremacists, capitalists and people from upper classes to create hierarchies that benefit them and allow them to exploit people for profits for thousands of years.” — Seema Hari

So where did it all begin? Over the years, I have often found it highly ironic that in certain religions, particularly Hinduism, the various aspects, or “avatars,” of God, are found to be of darker skin. In fact, depictions of several revered Hindu gods and goddesses are painted in dark blue or black hues with names such as Krishna (dark or black skin), Shyam, or Kali, which mean “dark blue like a rain cloud” or “black as coal,” and characters in epic texts such as Draupadi, a princess, and Rama, a prince, are said to be of dark complexion, indicating a possible reverence at some point for darker skin. Yet it is unclear whether this type of reverence was ever translated into daily life.

Research also indicates that casteism (in India) and colonialism are two factors that can be attributed to the genesis of this ideology. The caste system is a Hindu hierarchical stratification system of society, inherited on the patrilineal side. It refers to social class and has been established as a form of socioeconomic division in South Asian cultures (Sen, Iyer, & George, 2002). The jury is out as to whether colorist belief systems were already prevalent via the caste system before colonialism. However, researchers claim that in the 16th century, when British colonists arrived in India, they showed preferential treatment for lighter-skinned individuals (Mishra, 2015), bolstering class systems that were already in place and conflating the idea that the so-called lower classes were also of darker skin color. It appears that somewhere between the caste system and colonialism, the fire of deep disdain for darker-skinned individuals was ignited.

Healing From Colorism

“I always found other dark- skinned people beautiful, but never thought I was because the world had called me ugly since the time I can remember.” — Seema Hari

Step 1: Unpacking negative self-perceptions and embracing self-love. The impact on the mental health of individuals who are victims of colorism can be devastating, as Seema and many others can attest. Core beliefs about oneself are often skewed by messages received in one’s environment. Seema’s journey of healing began with embracing their own outer beauty. Within the SA diaspora, where colorism is emphasized through comparison, this is often a difficult and lengthy process, especially for young people. However, bringing awareness to deeply engrained negative self-perceptions is an essential step toward healing.

Step 2: Power in knowledge. Seema shares that educating themself about melanin was an empowering second step. Educating individuals on what melanin does and its pertinence to the body can help them reframe maladaptive thoughts around dark complexion. As Seema emphatically states, how could something so important and vital to our bodies be demonized so much? “We have to understand the gravity of the damage colorism can do to a soul, and work on dismantling the ways in which we perpetuate white supremacy and unlearn our need to create hierarchies so that there is no room for the binaries of superior/inferior.”

Step 3: Let’s call it what it is. Finding a way to frame trauma is an important precursor for healing. Seema shares how they learned the word “colorism” as a description for the discrimination they had faced. Having language to access trauma is key as often words are lost and only feelings are present. It helped them to not only process their trauma but also recognize how deeply systemic the problem is.

Seema adds, “The biggest hurdle in fighting colorism is that people think that it is only a beauty issue. It is actually a deeply systemic human rights issue. Colorism negatively impacts self-esteem, mental health, access to job opportunities, and access to justice.”

Seema Hari/ Palash Verma

Seema Hari is a non-binary artist and activist who co-created and acted in “Closer” in a musical short film made with musician Khanvict and director Anjali Nayar which won the ‘Prism Prize’ Audience award from the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television. Seema is also an ambassador for ‘Dark is Beautiful’ using their platform to spread awareness on the harmful effects of colorism and redefining the possibilities for dark skinned people in creative fields.

Source: Seema Hari/ Palash Verma

Turning Pain Into activism

“Our pain brought us together in our cause to fight against colorism so that we don’t carry it into our future, and generations after us could live more equitable lives.” — Seema Hari

Given how deep the prevalence of colorism has been for South Asians, there has been an upsurge among newer generations to fight back against such toxic perspectives and dialogue. Seema emphatically states, “because it is a perception, it can be changed through transformative action.” They stated that once their own mind changed, they grew more confident and began to share about their own journey with others about the abuse they endured in person and online. Through speaking on platforms and writing, they engaged with individuals about the preference for lighter skin and the impact of conscious and unconscious bias. Seema began to receive responses from so many about their experiences with colorism. Individuals who felt seen and connected about acknowledging and processing their traumas created a real sense of community.

“We (dark skinned people) are beautiful, artistic, magical beings. We have the right to dream. We have the right to be creative. And we deserve to have empowering and multifaceted stories created about us.” — Seema Hari

Not only does Seema use their voice to help others, but they use art to communicate empowerment as well. For them, art is a vehicle for self-understanding and self- introspection. “My life’s purpose is exploring my multidimensional self through art and love.”

As a model and actor, Seema focuses on creating art with dark skin, with the hope that it will inspire dark-complexioned individuals to feel seen and to “manifest their own creative dreams.” In that vein, their passion is to “continue creating art in all possible mediums, collaborating with all kinds of people.” To that end, they emphatically declare, “I hope no one is ever able to define me and I am never ‘the dark skinned’ anything!”

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