Different Shades of White

Christie Davies

When staying in a hotel at Bhopal I found in the bathroom, nestling next to the shampoo and the shower gel, a third little jar marked “Ayurvedic Skin Lightening Lotion”.  As a pale skinned Welshman designed for a gloomy climate, it was the last thing I needed.  After a day of walking in the fierce sunlight of India, I was only too conscious of the problems encountered by people with Celtic skins.  I knew of course that it was not intended for me, or indeed my English wife, but for the many Indian ladies striving to become a slightly lighter, comely shade of brown.  My Indian readers will know the matrimonial advertisements – filling entire pages of Indian newspapers and magazines – where parents try to stress how fair skinned the would-be bride is.  The phrase “wheat-coloured” is particularly popular.

Fair & Lovely

In the 21st century, as the advertisers of skin lighteners make extravagant promises that fair skin is the road not only to matrimony but to occupational success, thoughtful Indians have come to realize how very unfair the cult of fairness is to those who happen to be born kala.  There is even a campaign, ‘dark is beautiful’, backed by attractive Bollywood actresses fed up with being forced to wear heavy skin lightening makeup on screen and seeing their publicity photographs touched up to make them look much whiter than they really are.

Not surprisingly, India’s noisy leftists have attacked the usual target – capitalism.  They blame the big corporations who have manufactured, for the Indian market, new, safe and superior skin lighteners, even though Indian women had for centuries been using traditional and natural nostrums for this purpose.  Other leftists blame the British, claiming that their former rulers, whose faces were reddened by sun and whisky and had to protect their heads with a sola topi, imposed their own high evaluation of fair skin on their Indian subordinates who were forced to imitate them.  Complete nonsense!  The obsession with light skin is as strong in China, Korea, Thailand and Japan and as ancient as in India.  An ancient Japanese proverb says “A fair complexion hides seven flaws” meaning that a fair skin is so important a component of beauty that any other defects in a woman’s appearance are insignificant by comparison.

Suntan – Natural and Artificial

A key reason for the traditionally high valuation of fair skins throughout Asia is that it proves that its possessors are not peasants, not one of the majorities of the population forced to toil in the fields exposed to various elements.  At one time this was also the case in Britain.  Upper class women wore big hats and carried parasols so as to protect their faces. Some female agricultural workers even wore veils when working in the sun. No one wanted to become brown.  Everything changed once most of the British went to work in factories and offices and, as a consequence, remained permanently pallid.  At this point the suntan became a fashionable way of showing that you belonged to the leisured classes.  For those who could not afford to lounge in the sun, little tanning shops for the poor soon sprung up; most of their customers being women.

The aim of those who seek a suntan is not to meet our Indian cousins half way.  Their ideal might be described as a ‘blonde-tan’, and those who tan their skins are also apt to change their hair colour to blonde with tints, dyes and bleaches.  A third of the British women have fair hair – but very few are natural – even though they were blonde as children.  In Europe and North America, 5% women have naturally fair hair but there are blondes everywhere.  It helps their image. Women who describe themselves as blonde on American dating sites get far more email replies than those who do not. Blonde hair signals youth, just as grey hair is a mark of age.

The Unfairness of it All

It is unfair to women that the tyranny of appearance weighs heavier on them than on men, but the latter are by no means exempt as any short, bald man can tell you. Look at the many advertisements that falsely claim they can make a bald man’s hair grow again or the preference by most women for a husband who is several inches taller. In America for each added inch in height men earn an extra $800 annually. It doesn’t pay to be short. And you thought skin colour was unfair?

What is odd about the perception of skin colour in Europe compared to Asia is that it is dichotomous.  Either you are white or you are not, which is even more unfair, and sometimes very odd.  In 1886, Dadabhai Naoroji, a light skinned Parsee, stood as a Liberal candidate for Holborn, a strongly Conservative seat, and lost. Two years later the British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, speaking colloquially, said of Naoroji’s defeat that “I doubt if we have yet got to the point where a British constituency will elect a black man to represent them.” However, in 1892 Naoroji was elected to the House of Commons by the people of Central Finsbury and the Conservatives decided to have a Parsee candidate of their own – Sir Macherjee Bhownagree, who was elected for Bethnal Green in 1895.

The Colour of Yore

The dichotomous perception of skin colour in Europe was not present during the time of the Roman Empire, when the Mediterranean Sea bound people together.  Everything changed with the Muslim invasions – a calamity that also struck India.  The Mediterranean world became divided into a light-skinned Christian Europe to the north as against the dark skinned Muslim world of the Middle East and North Africa.

The Muslim armies also invaded Christian Spain and in the 8th century became the ruling colonial power.  Over the centuries that followed, the Spaniards slowly regained their independence and expelled the alien Muslim settlers.  Some settlers converted to Christianity, or appeared to convert, in order to be allowed to remain, but these darker skinned Moriscos were regarded with suspicion and many were later forced to leave.  They were seen as lacking the sangre azul, the blue blood of the Spanish aristocrats and gentry, the hidalgos, whose skin was sufficiently white that their blue veins were visible in their wrists.  Having blue blood meant that you were not a peasant, tanned by outdoor work in the fierce Spanish sun.  It was at this time that limpieza de sangre, purity of blood, not having Moorish or Sephardic ancestry, became a Spanish obsession.  A line had been drawn between the white and the brown that marked the incompatibility of and hostility between Christians and Muslims.

It was also at this time that the Christians first broke free from the Muslim encirclement of Europe from the Balkans to Morocco because they had developed ocean-going ships and sophisticated navigational instruments.  They took their dichotomous views of skin colour with them to other continents.  In Latin America, the dichotomy soon collapsed because many Spaniards acquired local mistresses and begot children of an intermediate colour.  In the later days of British India, the strength of caste on the Indian side and the power of upper middle-class British wives, the memsahibs, to see off any rivals meant that this did not happen.  The treatment of the Anglo-Indians does no credit to the British, but the Indians do not come out of it very well either.

My ‘White’ Experience

The absurdity of the importance given to whiteness as a super-category was brought home to me forcibly when, as a student, I visited Japan in 1966 and was given lunch by a British expatriate, a businessman, who had been there for nearly twenty years and had a Japanese wife. He had learnt to speak Japanese with such skill, including the niceties of ‘respect’ language, those various levels of respectful, humble, and polite Japanese speech, that he was able to enjoy a lucrative second career as an actor for Japanese television playing all manner of Europeans including much younger men. He had little competition since he was one of the very few foreigners with total proficiency in Japanese. After lunch he asked me what I thought of the Japanese. I mentioned their hospitality, courtesy and intelligence. But then he suddenly asked me, “they are white aren’t they?” I was amazed at this very peculiar question but I knew the answer he wanted and reassured him that of course they were. I could sense that he could not bear to see the nation he had joined by marriage and by culture as being anything else.

In fact, the Japanese range in colour from being utterly white to being very brown. But you have only to look at their traditional paintings to see how much whiteness in Japanese women is prized and it has nothing to do with the Europeans; when the latter, the henna gaijin (funny foreigners)  did appear in Japanese art they were often made to look ridiculous. The Japanese were particularly amused by their varied colour of hair, something unknown in Japan. The earliest Japanese term for Europeans was “many-different-colour-hair-Chinese”. The Japanese ideal colour for a woman was the flat and pure white that one sees in Japanese paintings not the freckled flawed white of the Dutch. They considered the Dutch ugly, burly, hairy and smelly. An early poem about the Dutch traders in Japan reads – “The red-haired Dutch come up the road, Flies follow them ….”

Not a Western Import

Even where darker people have held power, they still find lighter skinned women more desirable.  In the Muslim slave markets of the Middle East, Polish and Ukrainian women fetched a particularly good price.  According to the sociologist Stanislav Andreski, this led to the whitening of the Turkish élite as fathers favoured the light-skinned children of their East European slave concubines.  Curiously, it may have happened in Hyderabad as successive Nizams chose to marry Turkish women, Turks being the lightest Muslims they knew. Pimps from rich Arab countries are still recruiting blonde women from the much troubled Ukraine to work as prostitutes.  The high evaluation of light skin colour is thus not a Western invention.

Attempts by white groups to retain supremacy over ethnically different darker people have, in the long run, tended to be unstable because the latter organise themselves to undermine a system they see as unfair. However, the contemporary Indian situation is different, since the colour spectrum is continuous, much as height is, and does not coincide precisely with any crucial boundaries between social groups. Colour is, therefore, unlikely to become a focus for militancy in India. The purveyors of lightening potions will be forced to tone down their more offensive advertising but the general Indian prejudice against those who are dark will remain strong.


Dr. Christie Davies is Welsh, coming from England’s first colony, conquered in 1283. He has been a visiting scholar at several Indian universities and often wrote for Quest, a literary quarterly of ICCF (Indian Committee for Cultural Freedom).

2 thoughts on “Different Shades of White

  1. very interesting compilation of white/dark prejudices down history across the continents. so India is not the only color prejudiced country in the world. that is brought home very graphically.


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