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January 04, 2004

A real lighter shade of "brown"

I have alluded to color-consciousness among South Asians before. Well, a day ago I had an IM chat with an Indian and I brought up this issue, and he pointed me to this actress as a token dark-skinned female in Bollywood. Follow the link, because the woman in question is actually probably lighter than the median South Asian (more pictures here). You can see the normal phenotype in Indian film here.

Interestingly, Al Jazeera has an article on the issue, and here is a choice quote from the leader of a low caste political party:

I am very dark, almost black, but my wife is as fair as an English woman and I must say that although ours was a love marriage in which her intrinsic qualities mattered more than looks, I found her fair skin very attractive, says Udit Raj.

This isn't of course limited to just India. I had a friend of Japanese origin who had spent most of her formative years in southeast Asia, and when she went back to Japan everyone would always note, "You have such dark skin!" (it was a dusky brown).

One thing to note though, most South Asian extended families have members with dark and light skin. My paternal grandmother had near black skin while my maternal grandmother has a fair complexion. When I was a small child I would refer to them as "black grandmother" and "red grandmother," not knowing any better of course, and attaching little value in any case, being only appropriate descriptors. So a major point is that though there are strong value judgements on ideal physiques, because of thousands of years of intermarriage with people of varied phenotypes, the implications are only partially racial. So Eric Margolis describing the "light" vs. "dark" dichotomy in India as "racial" is probably conflating North American conceptions of the assocation of phenotype and race with the variety of South Asian types, which may exhibit themselves throughout an extended family!

Rather than South African apartheid, a better analogy for the South Asian situation is Brazil, where hundreds of years of intermarriage have reassorted the genes to some extent where phenotype and ancestry are no longer as congruent as they once might have been (linkage disequilibrium to linkage equilibrium).

Posted by razib at 07:48 PM