I am very light-skinned. Pasty, even. My body is covered in spots of pigment, called moles, which prevent me from spending long amounts of time in the sun, and thus I cannot get a natural suntan. If I were so inclined, I could slather my skin with tanning creams on a daily basis and perhaps give off some orange illusion that I’m not almost translucent, but I’ve come to accept that this is just the way I am. My skin is not beautiful. There’s not much I can do about it, so I might as well learn to live with it.
Then again, if living in India has taught me anything, it’s that nothing is ever completely black or white. Here, white skin is not only seen as desirable, but also as a leg-up in the world. A lighter complexion opens doors - or perhaps it’s the other way round, a darker complexion closes them. And so there is a neverending debate: how are we supposed to feel about skin-lightening creams? On one side, they’re a cynical cosmetics industry cash-in on an old and unpleasant prejudice; on the other, they’re no different from tanning creams and simply another option available in the marketplace. Who’s to decide?
Well, not me. I disagree with skin-lightening in practice, but I’m in no position to say whether it’s right or wrong. What I am in a position to say is what it feels like to be a white guy living in a dark-skinned society. I’ve been here a while now, and I feel that there are two main perceptions of me that are directly related to my skin colour:
1) I have lots of money.
2) I have lots of sex.
Both are easily explained. For the first part, there’s a belief that if we have the money to come to India in the first place, we must be pretty wealthy, and that’s hard to argue against when my friends here are desperately pulling together lakhs in order to work low-paying jobs in the Middle East. It also ties into the post-colonial mentality. Still, I’m here on an Indian salary and don’t have a nest egg to call upon in times of need. This doesn’t mean anything to the rickshaw drivers who overcharge, or even to some below-poverty-line friends who come asking for help. I don’t begrudge them their opinion that I’m rich; my skin dictates that I belong to a group of outsiders who behave differently, and that behaviour usually involves shelling out more cash.
The second perception is much more difficult to stomach. The idea that Westerners - read, white folks - are ‘of loose character’, bar none, has its anecdotal evidence, but the suggestive grins of strangers when I tell them I’m single became tiresome fast. “So, you are enjoying??” *WINK WINK*. Sigh. In this regard, I am relieved not to be a woman (I’ll leave it to a female writer to go into detail).
Notice that both of these perceptions are entirely cultural, and nothing to do with the actual, physical quality of being light-skinned. They support a manufactured ideal of what white skin means, and it’s an ideal that is very appealing to a majority of Indians - men, at least. Who wouldn’t want to be rich and have complete sexual freedom with it? Unfortunately, this is some distance from the truth. I’m practically celibate, and living month-to-month on the money I earn. If there actually was some inherent physical advantage in having white skin I’d be far more understanding, but these views are artificially constructed.
Unfortunately, the same reasons tend to preclude a lot of potential in connecting with people I meet. As far as I can tell, very few judge me negatively at a glance, but the kind of idolatry I come across is perhaps more awkward than any disgust or condemnation could be. Groups of young boys on the train, so innocent and charming and filled with enthusiasm, treat me almost like a god. To them, I’m a saip with success to be looked up to. And I, for my part, assume that everyone who starts talking to me views me the same way. I expect to never be allowed to stand on the same level and talk to them, simply as one human being to another.
I don’t expect everyone to start treating me the same. I am quite different, after all, and there’s no getting away from that. Even if I were interested in tanning creams and the like, I’d always be a white guy, with different habits and different ways of thinking (though they don’t involve lots of money and fornication). All I can do is work on making myself more open, and less judgmental, so that when the potential for a long-lasting connection is there, I don’t kill it off myself before it has a chance.
When it comes to Fair being Lovely, or Fair being Handsome, however, an outsider’s perspective isn’t much use. Next time, I’ll take a look at these skin-lightening creams and how they’re advertised, and see what they’re contributing to the culture.