Is Raymond Williams speaking to me? To you? What is the nature we seek to conserve?

To the conservationist, the naturalist, the nature enthusiast, who embraces conservation as a defensive strategy against the intervention and interference of man on supposedly external nature, of capitalism on the land and sea…

Some people in this defence are those who understand nature best, and who insist on making very full connections and relationships. But a signficant number of others are in the plainest sense hypocrites. Established at powerful points in the process which is creating the disorder, they change their clothes at week-ends, or when they can get down to the country; join appeals and campaigns to keep on last bit of England green and unspoilt; and then go back, spiritually refreshed, to invest in the smoke and the spoil.

— Raymond Williams, “Ideas of Nature,” p. 81 in Problems in Materialism and Culture: Selected Essays (1980).

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India loves its fairness; now you can get “gore” white, down there, too…

Note: I’m not saying anything here that hasn’t been said by others. I know that.

I made it roughly two-thirds of the way through this video — laughing all the while — before realizing that it was actually a parody. That’s because many segments of India have a post-colonial fixation on “fairness,” as we call whiteness here. Even otherwise reasonable people consciously or subconsciously signal their belief that it is preferable to be light-skinned; so many people “prefer” fairness that I really would not have been surprised if this — whitening cream for your testicles — were a real product advertisement.

The faux Shahrukh Khan in the video is worth noting, as the real SRK has actually advertised “fair and handsome” creams for men even in the recent past. Shahrukh Khan, of course, makes for a big target but other Bollywood stars and cricketers have done likewise. We can be thankful that those who endorse such products are taking more flak for it these days and some are beginning to recant. Katrina Kaif, one of Bollywood’s latest leading ladies, has backtracked or double-spoke, saying she doesn’t support fairness creams even though she has endorsed them previously. Predictably, Aamir Khan, sitting next to her, comes out strongly against.

One might dismiss this as just the theater of the absurd, mass-marketing or ajeeb consumption and little else. And celebrities hawk everything in this country, so why should they make political causes out of every ad.

But the industry is big business. One estimate says that Indians spend more on fairness cream annually — hundreds of millions of dollars — than they do on Coca-Cola (not that Coke should necessarily be the barometer of reasonable consumption).

Meanwhile, the messages behind real advertisements help fuel conversations about skin color in homes across India. Parents tell their daughters to stay out of the sun lest they become “kali” or “black.” Marriage ads pronounce boys and girls as fair or actively seek a partner with a light complexion. And the obsession with fairness is not purely fashion; some overt ads actively promote the idea that you are simply less valuable with dark skin. Just take a gander at late night TV.

(I realize this is not an India-exclusive critique, but this is where I can comment from experience. And with 1.2 billion people in a nation that continues to struggle with class, caste and color, this discussion needs to take place again and again.)

Many people — myself included — have suggested this is a historical legacy of a time when skin color was a proxy for class; someone with darker skin was more likely to have a life of hard labor and drudgery in the sun. This is still a common experience much of the world, where the poor working class spends large portions of its days out of doors. But even in the upper economic strata, where skin color today is clearly not a proxy for wealth, fair skin remains prized.

Perhaps more charitably, we can think of this as an adaptation or coping mechanism for a society that is so clearly stratified on social and economic lines. In present day India, if you are poor or marginalized or discriminated against, you likely have many barriers to full social and economic participation in your community. If skin color is a barrier that can be partially surmounted with a cream available at any corner store (dubious claim but I’m sidestepping the efficacy question for such creams), wouldn’t it be tempting to purchase?

But the enduring power of “whiteness” MUST also be seen in the context of lingering post-colonial discourse and attitudes. Think that sounds like scholars making up stuff to talk about? Here’s some good reading on the subject. When we continue to buy into the idea that dark skin = less value, we also buy into a false colonial logic that reinforced the idea of a lighter=enlightened class of people dominating, subjugating and ruling the dark, black, teeming masses.

If Indians thought of fairness cream as a specifically colonial legacy, I bet fewer would be interested.

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