Culture

The Indian Hatred for Dark Skin Comes From Caste Bias

Actor Tannishtha Chatterjee talks about India’s obsession with fair skin and how her skin tone was made fun of on a television show in the name of comedy.

Tannishta Chatterjee in a file photo. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tannishta Chatterjee in a file photo. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This is the text of a Facebook post by the actor Tannishtha Chatterjee.

Colour

Something has shocked me out of my wits yesterday. I was invited as a guest to a popular comedy show called comedy night ‘Bachao’ to promote my latest release, Parched, with my director Leena Yadav and my co-actor Radhika Apte. I was told that the flavour of the show is COMEDY and the purpose is to roast, humour and offend. My perception of a roast was formed by all the SNLs [Saturday Night Live] I watched over the years, and the commonly held perception that a roast is  celebratory humour at someone’s expense. It is a mock counter to a toast.

I was actually looking forward to be roasted.

And then this show began. And this was an entirely novel understanding of roast that equates itself with bullying. And to my utmost horror, I soon realised that the only quality they found worth roasting about in me was my skin tone. It began with “aap ko jamun bahut pasand hoga zaroor… kitna jamun khaya aapne bachpan se?” [Tr: You must really like jamuns… How many of them did you eat as a child] And went on in that direction… the only thing they could roast about a dark-skinned actress was of course her dark skin. They could identify me only with that. I could not believe I was sitting in a nationally televised comedy show in 2016 in Mumbai amid such regressive (I cant call it humour), and blatantly racist content.

Though I was feeling suffocated, I decided to give it another chance, and sat through another equally offensive segment. Nothing changed. I could not sit there anymore. I had to leave. When I told the organisers what I felt, they said , “But we told you it is a roast!” I explained to them the common perception of a roast and how it is different from bullying. That there is no humour value in a joke about someone’s physical attributes – especially one that stems from deep prejudices. I don’t think they got it.

Some friends also told me don’t take it so seriously, it’s just a comedy. I think that’s what the show also thinks. It’s all fun and games! Except there is nothing funny about this. Precisely because, in a country where we still sell Fair n Lovely/Handsome and show adverts where people don’t get jobs because of their complexion, where every matrimonial advert demands a fair bride or groom and the colour bias is so strong, in a society which has a deep-seated problem with dark skin, which also has deep roots in our caste system, in a country where dark skin is marginalised, making fun of it is not roast. Even considering that dark skin is a joke comes from that very deep prejudice. And I tried to explain why this is not personal and it is a larger issue about what our mindset is. And why cracking jokes about deep biases in our society is irresponsible. And that it is not a question about apologising to me, but propagating this idea and continuing with this mindset in the name of comedy is what is hugely problematic, especially because it is a popular show on a nationalised channel. It has nothing to do with the show at a personal level. But it leads to a larger debate.

Why does skin tone still lend itself to jokes? How is it funny to call someone dark? I don’t get it. In the India of 2016, I still have to be apologetic about my skin tone? What is this white-skin hangover? Where does all our pride as a nation go away when it comes to the acceptance that most of us have a darker skin tone? Once I was asked, “ Your surname is Chatterjee? Oh you are Brahmin… What is your mothers surname? Maitra! Oh…. She is Brahmin too…” And then indirectly he hinted how is my skin tone still dark?

This is so deep rooted and linked to our perceptions of caste, class and skin tone. Upper caste =Fair skin =touchable. Lower caste=dark skin=untouchable. Yes I have pronounced it. Probably most of us will not admit that our hatred for dark skin also comes from our caste bias. I made a film called Parched. Why I am saying “I made” is because all of us who are a part of this film feel that this was not just a film for us. That its MY FILM. We wanted to express a lot of things about gender, body, skin, sexuality, caste etc through our stories. It has been a revelation that the journey just begins here as we realise through our promotional process that we are constantly subjected to exactly those issues from which this film was engendered. The list is long long and the biases are deep deep….The privilege that allows these are what we had hoped to challenge.


As the controversy spread, Colors TV replied on Chatterjee’s Twitter timeline.

This is what they said:

To which Tannishtha Chatterjee replied:

tc-response


The text titled ‘Color’ first appeared as a Facebook post by the actor Tannishtha Chatterjee and has been republished with her permission.

Note: The headline and blurb have been supplied by The Wire and the post has been lightly edited for style.

Note: This article was updated at 1745 on September 27 to incorporate the response by Colors channel, and Tannishtha Chatterjee’s reply

  • Thrive thrive

    This lady’s experience is no different from the one that the infamous AIB did last year.
    The most shocking thing for me in that ridiculous excuse for AIB ‘comedy’ was the ‘joke’ or ‘roast’ about one of the participants – whose name I don’t know.
    all I remember is that he was dark skinned, and what did they roast him with?** ” You are so dark, your mother had to test you for ebola'” ** – I have paraphrased from memory but the message was about his dark skin, how he looks african and it was linked to what was at that time a scary and dangerous health crisis leading to hundreds of African deaths – Ebola.
    Not only that, they went on jovially to make cracks about Karan Johar’s supposed sexual orientation towards gayness.
    So, racism and homophobia being bundled under the umbrella of comedy. Tasteless, crass and utterly disgusting

    tanmay Bhat has had his share of homophobic, racist and dangerously pedophilic ‘comedy’. He then went on to publicly use age as a discriminatory tool to target Lata.M….ageism is is uncool as racism.
    Such ‘comedy’ must be called out as it is nothing but bullying of another form – a form sanctioned by the public.
    Thank you, Tanishta for coming out strongly against this. I know I did in my own personal way..I have boycotted AIB since then.

  • RationalRun

    Dear Tannishta,
    I am sorry that you have had to experience this disgusting bias. I am also sorry that you had to deal with some idiot indicating that higher caste people must be fair.
    But I have to disagree with you – casteism is not at the root of this color bias, I think it was because any time we were invaded (Mughals/British) the invader was fairer and the defeated group was darker. So fairness has become ingrained in our minds as a correlation to power, even to this day. It is unfortunate, but at least people like you are coming forward and bringing awareness about the issue.
    Thank you,
    R.

  • RationalRun

    Dear Tannishta,
    I am sorry that you have had to experience this disgusting bias. I am also sorry that you had to deal with some idiot indicating that higher caste people must be fair.
    But I have to disagree with you – casteism is not at the root of this color bias, I think it was because any time we were invaded (Mughals/British) the invader was fairer and the defeated group was darker. So fairness has become ingrained in our minds as a correlation to power, even to this day. It is unfortunate, but at least people like you are coming forward and bringing awareness about the issue.
    Thank you,
    R.