Story by Sheela Jaywant | Art by Triparna Maiti
The biology of skin colour
There have over time been many different theories as to why different people have different skin colour. Current scientific thought has it that it is due to a process of evolution related to where on the surface of the earth one lives. As you move northwards or southwards away from the equator, the amount of sunlight received – in particular its ultraviolet (UV) component – reduces. Our bodies need UV rays to help produce Vitamin D, a key element for bone growth that also plays a role in several other bodily processes, such as reduction of inflammation, modulation of cell growth, neuromuscular and immune function, and glucose metabolism. But too much Vitamin D, and indeed too much UV light, can have toxic outcomes.
The balance of allowing just the right amount of UV light to be absorbed and the right amount of Vitamin D to be generated is governed in human bodies by two types of cells called keratinocytes and melanocytes that make up the epidermis, the outermost layer of our skin, and regulate the melanin pigment that determines skin colour. The correlation is quite clear and simple – where the amount of UV radiation reaching the skin is meagre (in the temperate zones of the earth, that is) the amount of melanin generated is low, due to which the skin is lighter; and vice versa. This has been an evolutionary process that has taken millennia to develop.
About the biology of skin colour:
Watch this excellent lecture on evolution and human skin colour:
The ugly reality of racism
It seems unbelievably absurd that people should discriminate against others based on the arrangement of some cells in their epidermis, but it has been one of the most widely prevalent sources of bigoted behaviour among humans for millennia. To give this nonsensical attitude a semblance of relevance, some ‘thinkers’ even came up with the notion that humanity can be divided into biological entities called ‘races’; that these races display distinct traits of personality, intellect, morality, and other cultural and behavioural features; and that some races are innately superior to others. This system of beliefs is known as racism.
What is racism?:
A first-person view of an interracial marriage:
Though all people display some form of racism or another, the most widespread occurrence of such beliefs historically – particularly emerging among white European colonialist powers in the ‘Age of Exploration’ and its aftermath – is that those with fairer skin are somehow more intellectually and morally gifted than others. So much injustice, violence and discrimination have been perpetrated in the context of this belief, that there is perhaps no less devastating a phenomenon that has plagued human society throughout history.
Among the worst excesses of racist thought have been the scourge of slavery that made non-humans of slaves in the western world, particularly the United States of America, and the policy of apartheid that made it official to discriminate between white-skinned people and others, particularly native Africans, in South Africa. Though most countries have, over the past 50-60 years, started taking the official stand that such discrimination is itself illegal and immoral, those who have benefitted from this system over the centuries have remained unchanged at some levels.
Indians are racist too!
In India as well, ‘fair’ has been associated with ‘lovely’ since Vedic times, which were marked by fair-skinned ‘Aryans’ establishing their dominance over the darker-skinned original inhabitants of the land. This anthropological history continues to be a hotly contested one, but that attitude is clearly reflected in the value we attach to facial fairness in so many aspects of our societal dealings, most visibly in matters of matrimony. The experience of tribal populations in India, or African students here, or even those from the north-eastern states in other parts of the country, is often one of consistent harassment and discrimination.
Indian cinema and the propagation of discrimination
One of the most visible reflections of racist attitudes in Indian, particularly north Indian, society is the tendency in Bollywood movies of favouring fair-skinned heroes and heroines over those with more representative dusky complexions. For the most part of Indian cinematic history, that has absolutely been the norm, and those with darker skin have been reduced to playing minor roles, or villainous or comedic parts. Rare songs such as Mehmood singing “Hum kale hain toh kya hua dilwale hain” in ‘Gumnaam’ are reserved for humourous interludes, while heroes and heroines dance to the tunes of “Gore gore mukhde pe kaala kaala chashma”.
Given how much Indians tend to idolise Bollywood actors, it’s hardly surprising that these values get under the skin of the average Indian as well.