It looks to me that society has always had a fascination for fairness. I will discuss this specifically in the context of India.
My experience has been interesting here in America as I was pretty tanned relative to other members of my family when I lived in India. It was never an issue as such, except that it was mentioned all the time, though mostly in a tongue-in-cheek way. Did it ever go beyond a humorous mention? No, the reason being I was a boy.
For girls it was a different matter. I remember matrimonial ads of those days and “fair complexion” being a necessary part of those ads. It used to be extremely tough for girls of slightly darker skin color to get married. It was even tougher for such girls from poor families since rich folks could throw money to compensate.
Where there is a challenge, there is an opportunity. And a product called “Fair and Lovely” made a fortune out of it. Indians knew about it only too well. It was a fairness cream. The company would buy the most expensive slots during prime time television for their ads. The craze was so huge that even my brother–who was already pretty fair-skinned–would use it to become even fairer.
Coming back to boys, especially those in our community, there was another product rescue, and it came in the form of divine help (sort of). Lord Krishna was pretty tanned, and he was from our community, as well. So whenever somebody mentioned my tanned skin, the conversation would go like this: “It’s surprising that Bablu is tanned, but so was Lord Krishna. Who cares!”
Unfortunately for some girls, divine help did not ever come. Both Krishna’s wife Rukmini and his beloved Radha were fair-skinned.
Everything has a cause in history, and so did this bias. Brahmins and other upper cast people were lotus eaters and would dwell in luxury equivalent to living in today’s air conditioned housing. Lower cast folks did not have this luxury and had to work hard in open air and scorching heat. This trend carried over thousands of years led to different skin tones and the association of skin color with class.
A similar argument held true for the warrior class in that they often had the added benefit of being taller. This, perhaps because they had access to high protein meat. Brahmins, however, were forced out of eating meat at the time of Buddha (which is a topic for another blog post later on!).
Climate also played a role, for people in the cold Kashmir region were more fair-skinned than people from the deep south. Surprisingly you’ll find Brahmins even in the southern part of India much whiter. So it’s the class which was the predominant factor, not the climate.
Did it lead to discrimination? I am not sure about that. I was not at the receiving end of it. So someone at the receiving end can answer this question better. Indian society in general had so many biases that this particular bias looked very small.
When race become a topic of discussion again in the U.S. (due to the George Zimmerman trial and acquittal) it refreshed my memory about all this.
Both American and Indian society have come a long way from the days of slavery and oppression, and things are definitely getting better with time. Within a few decades all these biases, I believe, will become a thing of the past. Perhaps some new ones will pop up. Like maybe reverse racism, as some people like to call it.
Humans just love to be biased.