EVER since slavery, Jamaica has had a preoccupation with the exact shade of a person's skin. Light-skinned men and women have often been routinely regarded as more attractive. Some families have even gone so far as to favour their light-skinned children over their dark-skinned offspring.
Furthermore, light skin is often equated to superior social status. In fact, for many light-skinned persons, it was a shock to arrive in Britain and realise that white people regarded them as "black".
But Jamaica is not the only country colonised by the British to obsess about skin colour. India seems to have a similar problem.
This issue surfaced recently when Nina Davuluri, the 24-year-old New York-born daughter of immigrants from southern India, was crowned Miss America. Sadly, this triggered racism in America. In response, The Hindu newspaper, which is an English-language Indian paper selling over two million copies a day, said in an editorial:
"Racists in the United States gave free vent to their prejudice on social media networks like Twitter. Their comments ranged from garden-variety hate against foreigners to deeply Islamophobic bilge. Some called her Miss Al-Qaeda, others Miss Terrorist, and still others made offensive remarks about the colour of her skin."
However, the editorial writer went on:
"But before rushing to denounce American attitudes, it would be pertinent to ask if Ms Davuluri would have ever made it past the qualifying rounds of a beauty contest in India. In a country where a cosmetic industry thrives on promises of lightening a woman's skin colour in 10, 20 or 30 days, it is fair to say that the dark-complexioned 24-year-old would not have stood a chance."
And the writer added:
"Depressing though this may sound, the truth is that the Indian idea of beauty is not very different from the imagined ideal of 'Ms America' that those racist hate-tweeters in the US hold dear: white or nothing."
According to market research organisation Euromonitor, the skin-lightening cream market in India is booming. In 2008, Indians spent US$397 million on bleaching creams. Last year the spend almost doubled to US$638 million. Popular brands include the 40-year-old 'Fair and Lovely'. But newer entrants to the market like L'Oreal's 'White Perfect' are also doing well.
As in Jamaica, men in India are beginning to bleach as enthusiastically as women. A Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan has filmed a television ad for a bleaching cream for men 'Fair and Handsome'. The ad features the star striding through screaming fans, then pausing to give a spellbound (but dark-skinned) young male fan a pack of the bleaching product. Women then start rushing up to the star and kissing him. He winks at the male fan. The message is clear. Bleach your skin and women will throw themselves at you.
And in India, women are not just bleaching the skin on their face and hands. There is apparently a Nivea deodorant to bleach women's underarms. Some companies are marketing shower gels, which they claim will bleach the skin, and some even sell vaginal whitening creams.
Happily there is the beginning of a backlash in India against this obsession with bleaching. A petition has been launched calling for the male bleaching cream ad to be withdrawn. And an organisation called Women of Worth is also campaigning on issues of colour and beauty.
In the 21st century India has become an economic powerhouse alongside countries like China and Brazil. Indian investors have bought up much of the British car and steel industry. Expatriate Indians are regularly in the top 10 of the wealthiest people n Britain.
However, India seems to have thrown off the economic oppression caused by colonialism far more quickly than the psychological oppression that characterised the colonial experience.
Just as in Jamaica, the Indian obsession with skin colour, and the belief that the whiter you are the better you are, is testimony to deep psychic scars. But there is no doubt that former British colonies will never be truly free until they can throw off notions of white superiority that are exemplified by the worship of light skin.
— Diane Abbott is a British Labour party MP