Skin Colour, Gender and Marriage in India

by Isabel Cabaña Rojas


When the moment comes to look for reasons of why Indians conceive beauty as they do, it seems that nobody can come up with a clear explanation. Many argue that the ideal of fairness has existed since ancient times, manifested in the stories and myths from Indian gods and spirits, where darkness and light were in battle for the primacy of the world. Whereas some others state that, more than that, the presence on history of British colonizers, and the socio-economic structure they established in India, pervaded all the cultural spheres, including the ideals of beauty. But, regardless of the origins of this particular and powerful feature of Indian culture, is interesting to notice how deeply rooted is in the daily life of Indian, especially women, who define their life according to this value, the value of being ‘fair’. As Philips (2004) points out, fairness has become a ‘symbolic capital’ that is ‘disempowering’ women, particularly in their freedom and election to marry someone. The fact that in India marriages are arranged emphasises more the power of skin colour on their lives, because both are things, at the end, women cannot choose.

For men the things are not much different either. For them, white skin is also a value and an attribute worth to fight for, but the responsibility of achieve this colour is less strong than in women. A dark-skinned man can still have chances to marry a fair-skinned woman… the other way around, no way! So when thinking on the relevance of race in the contemporary Indian culture, and its linkage with marriage (and all the industry surrounding it) one should necessarily connect it with gender. And somehow with social class. Inasmuch as I wonder how strong this really is in the general culture in India: is this situation in all the regions of this country? Are people living in rural areas really concerned about their skin colour? Is it a middle/high class issue? As, supposedly, a post-colonial heritage, fairness is at some point linked with belonging to a certain social level, that of the ruling class in opposition to the darker working class of Indians.

But, what seems very important here is the role that new generations, especially those of Indian descent abroad (as Indian Americans, for example) will have in the perpetuation of this custom. There are people already criticizing what this perception of colour is doing to the culture, especially to women (and not only in the social sense, but also in health, considering the massive use of bleaching creams). According to Vaid (2009), in the Indian Diaspora, at least in the United States, there are no signs that this is something to be left behind.


Gosai, A. (2010, July 19th). India’s myth of fair-skinned beauty. The Guardian online.

Guha, S. (2010, March 23th). India’s unbearable lightness of being. BBC News.

Philips, A. (2004). Gendering Colour: Identity, Feminity and Marriage in Kerala. Anthropologica, 46(2), 253-272.

Vaid, J. (2009). Fair Enough? Color and the Commodification of Self in Indian Matrimonials. In E. Nakano Glenn (Ed.), Shades of Difference. Why Skin Color Matters (pp. 148-165). Stanford University Press.

Vaidyanathan, R. (2012, June 5th). Has skin whitening in India gone too far? BBC News-Magazine.

Filipinos and Asian Beauty

by Hsinmin Wang

Compared to other Asian countries, Philippines might be the most multi-colonial country. Successively occupied by China, Arabia, Spain, the U.S., and Japan, constructing the special attitude toward Asian aesthetic and global market. According to a report made by UNEP, in 2004 nearly 40% of women surveyed in the Philippines used skin lighteners. Compare to 61% in India, 77% in Nigeria, the figure seems nothing to be surprised at. But when we started to investigate the reason behind Filipinos using skin lighteners, we will discover the role of Asian beauty in Philippines beauty market. Not just pursuing for Eurocentric phenotype, but more likely to follow the step of East Asian countries, and trying to emerge in immigrant society. But how is these beauty standard constructed?

Joanne Rodilla discusses the use of Michele Reis’s racially ambiguous face in L’oreal advertisements. In fact, the endorser of L’oreal  changed to Fan Bingbing in 2010. Once you look at her picture, you can easily discover that she has the typical face Rondilla describes: glowing white skin, jet-black, and large, double-lidded, almond-shaped eyes. Though I can’t jump to conclusions that the fashion style inclines to Chinese aesthetic, but it does reflect more or less the changing marketing strategy.

There is a wide-spread saying, “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.” This reflects the idea that once you are away from the sun, you won’t get dark; and with this kind of slogan “high technology to repair, illuminate and brighten your skin,” women with darker skin become a symbol of lacking of self-control, self-discipline and will power. Thus, skin color becomes a reflection on job prospects, earning potential, and social status.

In skin lightener advertisements, we are continually watching Asian girls get skin color discrimination in their life, jobs, and family circles; then it all magically disappears after she uses the product. Sometimes we feel ridiculous, sometimes we feel unbelievable, sometimes we feel overstated; but what if these stories truly happened in your daily life? I think while these advertisements are trying to affect people’s aesthetic, somehow it reflects the real life situation.

All that you can be

by Hsinmin Wang

As a woman, what do you want? The eternal desire of beauty, to satisfy self-esteem, getting better occupations and a happy marriage? Believe it or not, you can get all of these as long as you have a light skin tone. Just spending several pennies buying a bottle of skin lightener, woman can achieve whatever you want. “Because you’re worth it.”

It is the message we get from our daily life, a image constructed by beauty merchandisers.

In Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters, Evelyn Nakano Glenn discusses three questions: 1) “How is skin lightening interwoven into the world?” 2) “What are the media and messages, cultural themes, and symbols used to create the desire for skin-lightening products among particular groups?” 3) “How do consumers learn about, test and compare these products and what they seek to achieve?”

I’d like to categorize the attitudes toward global trade of lighteness into three discourses: beauty discourse, public health discourse and global marketing discourse. Assuming you have already read this chapter, this article composes of criticism of the book.

Shall we regard there is an invisible manipulation of people’s aesthetic?

Beauty discourse

The main idea of aesthetic comes from each country’s culture and ideology. “White is right” is comprised of culture and ideology, though nowadays scholars tend to assert that people’s preference on lighter skin is the outcome of colonial racial ideology, but I want to highlight the importance of culture influence here. In fact, we can also discover the highly valued “white is good” culture in history. White means noble, purity, innocence and intellect whereas black means lazy, evil, and ignorant, isn’t it just like the image of angel and satan? Angel can give anything you want and ask nothing in return but Satan will take away one’s soul.

Public health discourse

Obviously frights over mercury, hydroquinone, corticosteroid and peroxide couldn’t beat up the eagerness on demolishing black pigment and melanin. When authority severely banned the toxic in skin lighteners, it neglect the reason behind the demand on these products—color discrimination.

Yes, I swear I know the importance of healthy skin., but what if I can only get what I want from lighter skin color? I admit that I don’t like when scholars talk about skin lightener always trying to emphasis the toxic chemical ingredients in cosmetics and skin care products. It made me feel that they view woman trying to lightening their skin as a ridiculous behavior. In my personal opinion, toxic skin productions are not only a public health but connoting social hierarchy problems.

Global marketing discourse

It’s impossible not to mention the role of mass media and internet in global markets. Especially with the rising of social media, in one hand it enhances the influence of mass media, on the other it spreads the concept of western aesthetics to the world and changes people’s outlook. Under marketing strategy, audiences believe we can control our own body, the body is changeable. Look at those celebrities, they must have done something to make their skin tone so different. I recognize the beauty industry’s marking strategy is not only to change the aesthetic but to provoke a concept that one’s body is one’s property which can accumulate social capital. In a way encouraging people to chase the “improvement” of body.

To summarize the pursuit of skin lightening, I regard these behaviors more likely to fulfill Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. For safety (employment); belonging (sexual intimacy) and esteem (confidence), and unfortunately the beauty merchandizer penetrates it.

The appeal of skin lighteners in South Africa: a racial and gender issue

by Joana Ito

In 1991, most skin lighteners were banned from the South Africa’s market, as a result of the Black movements’ criticism against the structural racism, allied to the arguments of health concerns. However, as a report of UNEP showed in 2008, the racial and medical arguments were not sufficient to erase the appeal of the skin lighteners: 35% of the women in South Africa were still regular users of skin lightener products.

The racial/color discrimination element regarding the use of skin lighteners can be clearly identified, as the lighter skin is valued more, while the darker skin is considered less desirable. For that reason, consumers of skin lighteners in South Africa are in many occasions described as “sellouts”, who act against the interests of black as a whole, by denying their own “blackness”; and often accused of committing “racial betrayal”. It is relevant to note however that, as the consumption of skin lighteners is concentrated in the female population, the discussion around the use of these products cannot be limited to the issue of political awareness of race, nor in terms of racial pride and shame.

The behavioral change regarding the use of skin lighteners faces many obstacles, as the appeal of these products is based on multiple factors. According to Thomas (2009), the use of skin lighteners is mostly related to utilitarian motivations (such as for better social position, job and marriage opportunities) and to abstract perceptions of beauty, influenced by both traditional pre-colonial values, and the values rooted in the historical past of colonization, segregation and apartheid. Consequently, when the question of the use of skin lighteners is presented in narrow terms of white-black discrimination, it may exclude the consideration of constraints and limitations that many of those women could face, if they were not to confirm to the socially constructed ideals of beauty. According to Glenn (2008), while men are more likely to be considered valuable when they have wealth, education and other forms of human capital, women are considered valuable when they are physically attractive, even if they lack other capital. For that reason, the relative cost to “not betray the race” and not use skin lighteners, in this case, can be considered higher for black women, as their life opportunities may be more affected by the beauty standards of their society.

To modify the individual perceptions of self-esteem and pride regarding their own race is a first step to tackle the remaining racial discrimination challenges in South Africa. Nevertheless, when the parameters of physical attractiveness and beauty defined by the society can strongly influence the life opportunities of the women, the problem is not only about race, but also about gender. If the aesthetic parameter (determined by a male dominated society) were less relevant to determine the social position and value of these women, wouldn’t they feel less compelled to use skin lighteners and have more incentive to become more “loyal” towards their own race?


Glenn, E. N. (2008). Yearning for lightness: Transnational circuits in the marketing and consumption of skin lighteners. Gender & Society, 22(3), 281-302.

Thomas, L. (2009). Skin Lighteners in South Africa: Transnational Commodities and Technologies of the Self.” In Evelyn Nakano Glenn, ed., Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters. Palo Alto: Stanford University of Press, 188-209.

UNEP (2008). Mercury in products and wastes. Geneva, United Nations Environment Programme, Division of Technology, Industry and Economics, Chemicals Branch.

Skin tone, achievement, and self-esteem

by Hanh Le

The chapter explores the linkages between skin tone, socioeconomic achievement and self-esteem among African American women.

Self-esteem is defined as a confidence and satisfaction in oneself, a person’s overall evaluation or appraisal of his or her own worth. We are living in a color struck world where distinctions based on skin tone have historically intersected with racism, sexism and class to influence how African American and other women of color evaluate themselves. As a dark-skinned woman, the message is often that everything seems to be wrong with her because she is so different. She looks different. Her hair is different. Her facial features are different.

Complexion, along with other Eurocentric physical features – blue, gray or green eyes, straight hair texture, thin lips, and a narrow nose – has been accorded higher status both within and outside the African American community. Conversely, dark complexion and Afrocentric features – broad nose, kinky hair, full lips and brown eyes – has been devalued.

Then are Black women truly proud and comfortable with who they are and what they look like?

For nearly three quarters of a century, researchers have documented many ways that colorism affects the African American community. Since whiteness of skin is a highly esteemed dimension of idealized beauty, women with darker skin and Afrocentric features are at a disadvantage. As a marker of beauty, skin tone is also a form of social capital that grants access to resources of many different types, including marriage to higher status men, higher self-esteem and access to visible occupations.

Regarding the relationship between complexion and achievement, Keith introduced some analyses by NSBA indicating that lighter skin tone is associated with higher socioeconomic status. The author used those data by NSBA to assess whether the effects of skin tone on women’s achievement and self-esteem were conditioned by age or not, and it shows that complexion continued to matter for African American women’s educational attainment, occupational standing, and family income net of family background and other characteristics. However no interaction effects by age were found.

Skin tone and Self – Concept

African American, despite their status as being a racialized minority, has higher or equivalent levels of global self-esteem when compared with whites, except during preschool years and extreme old age.

Because appearance matters more for women, self-esteem is generally lower for females than males. But interestingly, the gender difference is less pronounced or nonexistent among blacks. One explanation by the author is that African American females are more satisfied with their  body image than white females. Anyway, by using data from the original 1979 – 1980 NSBA, it is concluded that skin tone was a more important predictor for women than for men.

According to the Thompson and Keith studies, skin tone interacted with both personal income and attractiveness to influence self-esteem (fig.2.4). But a recent study by Harvey and his associates points to a reversal in the relationship between skin tone, self-concept and racial consonance, from which Keith concluded that black adolescent females rated as light brown and white had slightly lower self-esteem than medium and darker girls (fig.2.5).

A plausible explanation for this reversal is that the racial activism in the 1960s and 1970s instilled pride in African American culture and history, but that the full force of these changes as they pertain to complexion are only just now being reflected in young cohorts.

In conclusion, there is still controversy among scholars whether complexion is still relevant for status achievement and self-esteem or not. It takes long time to research but we still know very little how complexion differences actually come to matter. Are little dark-skinned girls still told to “try to get a light-skinned husband” to compensate for their “devalued, stigmatized features”? Or should they be told that how important, smart and beautiful they are, in order to build up their self-esteem and to stop those burdens which this color struck society is putting on them until their adulthood? To understand fully the impact of colorism on the lives of African American women, we need both survey and ethnographic studies that integrate questions concerning achievement and personal psychology.

Many Shades of Beauty

by Hanh Le

The chapter looks at how skin tone matters with Miss Bronze, a black beauty contest that took place between 1961 and 1968 and began in Southern California. “Bronze” suggests both a color and a valuable metal associated with statues. However, this “bronze” did not signify a specific skin color, because during 1960s, black women of a range of shades entered the Miss bronze and won the title.

Color mattered in the Miss Bronze contests, but not the same as it did in earlier black contests in first half of 20th century. In many past contests, winners were chosen on a basis of beauty criteria that excluded dark women. The winners usually had light skin tones, and women with dark skin tones had little or no chance of winning. The Miss Bronze, in contrast, allowed women of a range of shades to enter. During its existence, light -skinned women, browned-skinned women and dark-skinned women wore the Miss Bronze crown.

However, it avoided those women who are too Caucasian in feature. And although skin color varies, it seemed that the fairer she is, the less chance she seems to have of winning. The winner should look like a Negro.

The Miss Bronze judges’ selecting dark-skinned girl to be the winner in 1961 seemed to end the colorist regime.  However, after this beginning, the contest returned to the long-established pattern of crowning light-skinned winners in black beauty contests as we could see from the light-skinned winners of 1962, 1963 and 1964.

So what is the right color to represent Miss Bronze?

By the mid 1960s, beauty’s definition had expanded to include a range of skin tones. Light-skinned women continued to be identified as beauties but “especially light” women were unlikely to be chosen as black beauty queens. Color was still one element of signifier in a system of representing race, gender and class.

Recent beauty contests for black women somewhat showed changes in significance of skin color. Miss Black USA Pageant which began in 1987 was an example. Miss Black USA Pageant was founded to celebrate the talent, beauty and intellect of young women who were often overlooked by mainstream pageants, created opportunities that wouldn’t be available to them before. As Miss Black USA 2012, Watkins said: “The pageant isn’t just a pageant, it’s a movement.”

Throughout the centuries, beauty has so often been linked to “the fair”, automatically implying that there is something foul about being dark. It was only around the decade that Negro girls began winning beauty white-sponsored contests. The trend has changed and Negro girls of all hues are at last, being honored. Such beauty contest as Miss Cannes Film Festival, Miss Universe Contest, Miss Bronze, Miss Black USA…etc to a certain extent, succeeded in penetrating the color curtain. Let me conclude by citing Miss Bronze 1963 – Stephani Swanigan’s answer when asked about her hope for social change: “she hoped for a day when there would not have to be a separate contest for black women”.

For the sake of a society without color–based discrimination, I think that beauty contests should act as pioneers, honoring both black and white women with true beauty of inside and outside, regardless of their skin color.

Mestizaje, Racism and Blackness in Veracruz, Mexico

by Isabel Cabañas Rojas

“Latin America is a region of mixture”. Many cultures, religions and races are gathered; all condensed in one major community, unified under one idea: we are mestizos. Every country has their own particular characteristics though, but despite historical or regional small differences, we are all mestizos, latinos, sons of a common history and memory derived from the presence of Spaniards and Native Americans. At least this is what we are told since childhood.

This assumption is probably one of the most powerful discourses still present nowadays, that defines our identities, nationally and as Americanos, even transcending internal boundaries within the region. A very powerful and, yet, dangerous discourse, for it hides a latent reality that has enabled discrimination and the suffering of many, a big ‘minority’, who does not enter in this category, as are the descendants of African slaves.

This has happened in many countries of Latin America; however, the case of Mexico is very emblematic: its historical trajectory of mixture has only accepted the presence of Spaniards and Indigenous populations, and has denied and silenced a whole history of sub-Saharan African migration and its role on the Mexican society. Because of Mestizaje, and its strong presence as a national ideology since the nineteenth century, the presence of Africans started to blur, for economic and social reasons. Until today being ‘black’ escapes the limits of being Mexican, and Mestizaje has come to hidden the phenotypic features that is better to erase, by a process of whitening, in order to belong.

As Sue (2009) explains, Mestizaje has become a national ideology category, dynamic and diverse, which makes really hard the analysis of color in the Mexican society, as almost everybody can be included on it (Sue, 2009, pp. 114-115). Thus, in a practical level, Mestizaje is a denial and elimination of any difference, as “we are all mestizos”.

Veracruz–along with the localities of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Tabasco–is one of the historical settlements of African people in Mexico, since the fifteenth century. Therefore, their descendants today, even though very mixed with the local population of Indigenous and Spaniards, have a skin and background of African features, which they try to hide so as to be part of a society that also has segregated them socially and economically (Velásquez & Iturralde Nieto, 2012, pp. 110-113). In a Survey made by the National Council to Prevent Discrimination (2011) around 15% of the interviewees think that their rights have not been respected because of skin color (National Council to Prevent Discrimination, 2011, p. 41).

This case of Afro-Mexicans in Veracruz, and the outcomes of their skin-colors for their daily life, challenges the notion of mestizaje, which not only has shaped the history and culture of Mexico, but of all the countries of Ibero-America; and sheds new light on other issues, such as Racism and Discrimination. Any discussion on Race and discrimination is, in paper, not pertinent, because Mexico became a race-blind country. How, then, can we address racial minority needs if they theoretically do not exist?


Martínez-Echazabal, L. (1998). Mestizaje and the Discourse of National/Cultural Identity in Latin America, 1845-1959. Latin American Perspectives, 25 (3), 21-42.

National Council to Prevent Discrimination. (2011). National Survey on Discrimination in Mexico, Overall Results [ENADIS, 2010]. Mexico.

Sue, C. (2009). The Dynamics of Color. Mestizaje, Racism, and Blackness in Veracruz, Mexico. In E. Nakano Glenn (Ed.), Shades of Difference. Why Skin Color Matters (pp. 114-128). Stanford University Press.

Velásquez, M. E., & Iturralde Nieto, G. (2012). Afrodescendientes en México. Una historia de silencio y discriminación [Afrodescendants in Mexico. A history of silence and discrimination]. Consejo Nacional para Prevenir la Discriminación.

The Social Consequences of Skin Color in Brazil

by Joana Ito

Cultural diversity and racial miscegenation is now an image that Brazil is pride to export. However, the ideal of racial democracy in Brazil is still a dream. Although the ideology of miscegenation is widely spread, the mixing of races and colors did not result in physical nor socioeconomic homogeneity.

The problem of racial discrimination against blacks in Brazil is largely attributed to the historical past. The racial inequality that remains in Brazilian society is regarded as a consequence of the long history of enslavement, an inheritance of a dirty past of exclusion and discrimination. However, in a society where the general perception of “being black equals being poor” remains, and where most would be truly surprised if they met a black lawyer, doctor or businessman, the discussion of race and color cannot be limited to matters of correcting a “historical debt”.

Black African slavery did, undeniably, impose social economic exclusion for black people and was cause and consequence for the establishment of racist values of white superiority. Amazingly though, the question of white privilege is often disregarded in the discussion of racial inequality in Brazil. In its discussion, the focus is not on the income concentration of white elites, but on the poverty of the black. It is more about the fact that the black cannot benefit from the free public higher education, rather than about the fact that richer white portion of the population enjoyed for decades a “free” education in public universities, subsidized by taxes of the whole population and with high costs for the public budget.

In August this year, Brazil government enacted an affirmative action law requiring federal universities to reserve half of their admission spots for students from public secondary schools, with racial quotas prioritizing the blacks, pardos and indigenous. Additionally, a plan for the adoption of quotas for blacks in the federal bureaucracy should be announced in late November, representing important gains for the Black Movement. Nevertheless, it is relevant to point that the protection of white privilege is an issue that is not limited to the problem of access to quality education and job opportunities. The historically very high concentration of land ownership inherited by white elites and also the regressive tax system that largely lifts the burden from the higher income class are not only issues that protect an economic elite, but mostly a white economic elite.

The plurality and differences of the Brazilian society are not only in the color of the population, but also reinforced by a socioeconomic stratification in which the majority of the black and pardos remain in the lower class, while the white enjoys the effects of white privilege. To believe that Brazil is a racial paradise, in essence, is to deny the relevance of these issues of inequality and dominance.

An Effort to Pay Racial Costs: Explanation of Latin Americanization Process and Race Relation in US

by Bhakti Eko Nugroho

International migration is an impact and, at the same time, the part of continuously globalization process. Canales (2007), in one of his publication, mentions that Latin America has become a region of emigration contributing to the south to north population movement that is a major characteristic of this era of globalization. Besides Europe, Australia, and Japan, United States was became a most popular destination for Latin American migrant. Then, the number of Latin American migrant had increased year by year. Canales (2007) said that in 1970 there were fewer than 1.7 million Latin American immigrants in the United States, representing only 18 percent of the total number of immigrants in the country and less than 0.8 percent of the total U.S. population. Surprisingly, today there are more than 17 million Latin American immigrants in US.

Phenomenon of Latin American arrival in US, definitively, has influence the social order and then creates the new social order of US society. Silva and Dietrich  explain this process by using “Latin Americanization” as a terminology. In the simple way, Latin Americanization is the process which migrant people from region Latin America have been socialized their own unique culture and race in the US. There are some costs of being certain race when people lived in US. Patrions (1996) said that in many country of the world there is a “cost” to being an ethnic or racial minority. So, Latin Americanization also can be seen as the process of how Latin American or Latinos survive in US society by tried to achieve top position in social hierarchy of US society. Silva and Dietrich said that Latin Americanization as attempting to classify where everyone will fit in the racial order.

Biracial system in the US, where people distinguished as black and white – had left. Social type in the United States had evolved into a complex racial stratification system. Silva and Dietrich said that United States is developing a triracial system with whites at the top: an intermediary group of honorary whites, similar to colored’s in South Africa during formal apartheid: and nonwhite group or the collective black at the bottom. These three racial strata, where the Latinos stayed in middle position of strata, had not shaped in rapid time. Latinos had conducted many efforts to mobilize their position in social hierarchy structure. Their fundamental attempt was constructed “shared value” about strengthened Latinos identity. Using Silva and Dietrich words, most Latin Americans, even those obviously black or Indian, refuse to tab them self in racial terms because they are all Latin Americans.

The strengthening salience of Latinos in United States had become an important step in the term of process Latin Americanization. Whether in banks or universities, in stores or housing markets, “smiling discrimination” tends to be the order of the day. However, this situation was empowered the ties of Latinos. When Latinos collective more solid, it make Latinos more confidence in doing their job in social life. During post-civil Rights era, racial discrimination had occurred in its various forms. Result of all Latinos effort is the change of US national demography. Racial minorities have increased to 30 percent of the population today and, as population projection suggest, may become a numerical majority in the year 2050.

Interestingly, although their ties identity of Latinos becomes thick, differentiation among Latinos based on the gradation of skin light still occur. Most “white Latinos” in US – Latin American immigrant from Argentines, Chileans, Costa Ricans, and Cubans – had worked at the top jobs of economy. On the other hand, “the dark Latino groups” such as Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Central Americans, usually works in the lower position of business. This situation show that the successful of Latinos effort in achieving their social – life goal had determined by their skin color. Latin Americanization process has been exclusive. In this process, only “white Latinos” had been participated in that social mobility process. “The dark Latino” groups had faced some obstacles when they tried to get life-social goal. Triracial system in US show us that racial discrimination have been occurred and Latin Americanization could not paid the “Racial Costs“. We might say that overcome the racial inequality/ discrimination in US was implausible. However, Latin Americanization is an effort.