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Fair enough?

  • 20 October 2020
A strange phenomenon was prevalent in my childhood. Women walking under umbrellas when there was not a raincloud in sight. Women in the glorious Malaysian sunshine, finding shade wherever possible — on the beach, in parks, at school sports days. As a young child, I thought it was odd. By the age of 10, I understood, for the conditioning had already taken effect.

Stay out of the sun was the solution. The problem? Getting too dark. This had nothing to do with protecting your skin from the damaging effects of UVA/UVB rays, nothing to do with skin cancer, nothing to do with not wanting your skin to burn, blister or peel. It had everything to do with the undesirable darkening of your skin.

The story of colourism has roots that go back many generations; it has trickled relentlessly through time and is still evident in many ways today. In many countries with a colonial history, light skin was perceived, for a long time, as belonging to the upper classes, constituting power and wealth.

I believe my story began in kindergarten, when we had to pick a crayon to colour in our self-portraits. Everyone picked the beige crayon. It was called flesh, after all, and was often referred to as skin colour. No one noticed that beige wasn’t everyone’s skin colour. No one asked to use the light brown or the dark brown crayon. A classroom full of five-year-olds, ranging in skin tone from ivory to ebony, blissfully coloured in representations of ourselves with the same beige crayon. Including me. It was only years later that I realised I was subconsciously reaching for a colour that did not match my reflection.

Having Indian skin and growing up in a country with tropical weather meant just 20 minutes under the afternoon sun would turn my skin a darker shade of brown. But everywhere I looked, the message was clear — light-skinned was the ideal. Television commercials and billboards advertising everything from sanitary pads to local tourism rarely featured dark-skinned models, despite the make-up of the population. Skin lightening creams were all the rage. Every cosmetic brand had a whitening range. Only a few had lipsticks, blush and foundation that were suitable for brown skin. Rather than helping me flatter my skin tone with the right shades of make-up, the beauty industry was telling me to fix a problem I didn’t know I had.

When I moved to