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My Beautiful White Skin (Part 1: Rich & Debauched)

My Beautiful White Skin (Part 1: Rich & Debauched)

January 27, 2011

Skin-lightening creams are everywhere in India, but here's a quick look at how it feels to be naturally white.

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. 


  • reader
    11.04.12 10:14 AM
    The word 'dark' has a negative aspect to it, across cultures.. doesn't it?

    The Albino theory is nonsense because Albinos look different from Caucasians, and our villagers are exposed enough to recognise that. Caucasians are a novelty that is why they get stared at with a smile. Not like us who get stared at in Western Nation with a frown or a scorn
  • Anuj
    31.01.12 12:18 PM
    The secret about indian obsession with skin colour is that they do not want to be black or white. The perfect complexion is somewhere in the middle.

    There is a caste undertone to skin colour. If you do too much manual labour, you're spending too much time under the sun. It means you are not educated to get a white color job. It gives a brief detail about your family background.
  • Anuj
    31.01.12 12:07 PM
    Barns, the indians think you are an "albino". I'm sorry but it's true. Sadly, I used to think that too a very very long time ago. I found it hard to imagine that it was normal.

    You see, most indians do not come across caucasian races in their whole lives. Their only source is the TV which shows caucasian people but with unreal colour. So when a caucasian shows up in front of them in real life, it becomes a typical WTF? moment.

    The shock truly is very intense which makes indian eyes fixated at a white person regardless if you are a male or a female.

    The other shocking part is the size of the caucasian race which is a whole another point for indians to stare at white people in disbelief and making theories that they probably eat beef at least 5 times a week.
  • dia
    20.04.11 09:18 AM
    fair is beautiful as opposed to muddy brown,even girls sought in marriage should be fair-it makes them adorable.
    Dark skin was also the reason for "white's man burden" of the colonizers who ruled India of yore.

    And yes,India has a sexual restaint and modesty,unlike Europeans Americans who have high divorced rates and are sex obsessed.
  • Rajiv
    07.02.11 03:13 PM
    v well said; one of your comments which i specially admired, 'understanding self is easier path to break the stereotypes'. could I agree more.
    I watched a movie called 'phans gaye re obama' about an american nri who is visiting india to raise some money by selling his indian property in order to rescue his american house about to be repossessed. he gets kidnapped being a 'big fish' to get lotsa ransom.
    anyway, enjoy your stay. / rajiv
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    05.02.11 09:45 AM
    Thanks, Annie. I didn't realise it wasn't too widely spoken about - is that simply because it's an old, controversial issue that very few people are willing to acknowledge?

    Yeah, my defining characteristic in my everyday life is that I am a saip. It's a blessing and a curse.
  • Annie Paul
    Annie Paul
    03.02.11 07:21 AM
    Hey Barnaby, glad you decided to write about this, thought no one was ever going to, what disturbs me more even than the skin-lightening and the white skin fetish is the refusal to talk about it let alone do anything about it...i remember our twitter exchanges on the subject of being the resident 'saip' and all that came with it...
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    31.01.11 09:19 AM
    Thanks for all your feedback - there's a fine balance to be struck in every aspect of life I think, and most of us do our part to further certain stereotypes in some way.

    Like with most things, I feel like a knowledge and understanding of the self is the best path to breaking down the barriers erected by stereotypes and preconceptions such those surrounding white skin. As in, the more comfortable with and understanding of myself I become, the less these sorts of things are an issue.
  • Rukhsana
    30.01.11 11:34 AM
    Lol! Though I am laughing I am compelled to think of what I would have thought if I saw you in my neighborhood...
  • A Singh
    A Singh
    29.01.11 10:32 PM
    An NRI friend of mine has been a regular visitor to India over the last 20 years. Recently he visited with a white business associate and said that it was like nothing he had ever experienced. Any visit to a commercial area involved being constantly mobbed and harassed by hawkers, touts and retailers. Whenever my friend attempted to shoo away the would be vendors, it was immediately interpreted as a hint for them to offer an appropriate commission if they could have a free "crack" at the white man!
  • Erin
    29.01.11 08:44 PM
    Glad to see you finally wrote this one. As a white woman in India, I hide behind sunglasses and completely ignore anyone who falls into the category of 'young Indian male without a legitimate reason to speak to me'. Needless to say, you've adapted far better than me.
  • zephyr
    29.01.11 09:25 AM
    Great post giving an insight into the 'other half' of the colour bar. the sum of it is that being different is an invitation for being singled out for special attention :)
  • Mohan
    28.01.11 02:21 PM
    Whenever I saw those ads of 'Fair & Lovely' or 'Fair & Handsom', felt it was too much to handle. But now, I get the bigger picture! no wonder they are cashing in on those 2 special things you have mentioned :D
  • Aditya
    27.01.11 03:17 PM
    haha. Classic Indian experience.

    Nicely written post

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