When Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America earlier this week, racists in the United States gave free vent to their prejudice on social media networks like Twitter. Their comments ranged from garden-variety hate against foreigners to deeply Islamophobic bilge. Some called her Miss Al Qaeda, others Miss Terrorist, and still others made offensive remarks about the colour of her skin. Back in India, where few things are more celebrated than an Indian’s success in the United States, whether that’s in San Jose, the spelling bee or a beauty pageant, people are shaking with outrage that Americans should react in this manner to the achievement of a Person of Indian Origin. But before rushing to denounce American attitudes, it would be pertinent to ask if Ms Davuluri would have ever made it past the qualifying rounds of a beauty contest in India. In a country where a multi-crore rupee cosmetic industry thrives on promises of lightening a woman’s skin colour in 10, 20 or 30 days, it is fair to say that the dark complexioned 24-year-old would not have stood a chance. At least multiculturalism is held up enough in the U.S. for the jury to have given her the title, and full marks to America for that. Had she been in India, far from entering a beauty contest, it is more likely that Ms Davuluri would have grown up hearing mostly disparaging remarks about the colour of her skin; she would have been — going by the storyline of most “fairness” cream advertisements — a person with low self-esteem and few friends.
If this sounds like an exaggeration, think back on when was the last time anyone with Ms Davuluri’s skin tone won a beauty crown in India; or the last time anyone saw a matrimonial advertisement seeking “a dark girl” for a handsome boy. Rather, Indians have felt the need to create a new word, ‘wheatish’, to euphemistically describe the melanin in their skin, and this word litters the rows of matrimonial columns apologetically. In the film industry, which also goes by the same beauty standard, the number of dark actors, female or male, can be counted on two hands with fingers to spare. If anything, the situation is getting worse, with the fairness fascists expanding their territory to include men who, like the women victims of such advertising, are promised promotions, social success, and more, as soon as their skin tone becomes a few degrees lighter. Depressing though this may sound, the truth is that the Indian idea of beauty is not very different from the imagined ideal of ‘Ms America’ that those racist hate-tweeters in the U.S hold dear: white or nothing.