Consistent discriminatory practices associated with dark and black skin color underpin the persistence of colorism and racism in the Indian subcontinent. To understand better how skin color ideologies occupy the mind of people with the effect of marginalizing those with dark skin color and promoting whiteness as a social capital, we will apply the paradigm of situated affectivity. The conceptual tools developed in this framework will help to see how the environmental structures that perpetuate colorism have a pervasive influence on individuals’ values and their emotional repertoire from a very young age. After having documented how the minds of individuals are invaded with discriminatory colorist positions, we will present how people indulge in processes of user-resource interactions assumed to help regulating their affect, that in turn, result in re-enforcing again colorist and racist ideologies and practices.
Incidents of racism and colorism are mainly associated with the Western world. However, deeply embedded systems of colorism and racism can also be seen in societies of the Indian subcontinent. In this paper we will examine such systems. We will first introduce briefly the notions of colorism and racism, in general, and then give a first impression of how the codes of behavior underlying skin color-based discriminatory structures are practiced and reproduced in the Indian subcontinent. We will then present ideas that were developed during the last decade in the philosophy of emotions under the heading of “situated affectivity”. The conceptual apparatus provided by this framework will allow a deeper understanding of various socio-normative and material practices through which color-based ideologies lay a foundation of colorism and incite racism from a very young age in the Indian subcontinent. In particular, they will reveal how the environmental structures that perpetuate colorism maintain pervasive influence over individuals’ values and contribute to generating particular emotional repertoires.
2 Colorism and racism
While the terms “colorism” and “racism” are sometimes used interchangeably to study prejudice, discrimination, and inequality that Black people and people of color face all over the world (Harpalani, 2015), we consider colorism to be a subtype of the broader ideology of racism, as we will outline in this section.
To understand what dimensions of racismFootnote 1 we are concerned with in this paper, it is central to clarify possible ways in which the term “race” has been and is used (Clair & Denis, 2015).Footnote 2 Before the second half of the 20th century, “race” was in general understood to refer to a biological category that subdivides members of the human species on the basis of common physical characteristics while coincidingly different cognitive abilities were attributed to these members (ibid.). This essentialist stance is scientifically and ethically untenable. Yet, as Helen Ngo (2017, xiii) poignantly puts it, rejecting this “naturalistic fallacy of ‘biological race’ (and correlating acknowledgement of its socio-historic contingency) does not diminish the fact that race has and continues to structure our lives, relationships, projects, and possibilities.” In this sense, race is something that is lived by people, that is perceived by others, shapes the character of interactions, and is also clearly manifested in social inequality – as has been demonstrated for the US (Lepold & Martinez Mateo, 2021, 12) and also holds for the Indian subcontinent, as we will point out in this paper. Race thus needs to be considered as a social construct (cf. Haslanger, 2012, ch. 10) that has motivated and still motivates political ideologies in which rights and privileges are distributed unequally.Footnote 3
Racism is the ideology according to which human beings can be divided into groups called races which are subject to superior or inferior treatment. Accordingly, racializing another person is to perceive and treat them as “other” on the basis of external characteristics or negative attributions that are exaggerated, naturalized, or stereotyped. Racism has served as a justification for racial dominance, violence, enslavement, discrimination, prejudice, and inequality in economic, political, and other social domains (ibid.). Particularly since the late 17th century, racial classification research (Stuurman, 2000) has been used by European colonial powers to fuel the doctrine of “white supremacy” in various forms,Footnote 4 i.e., alleged intellectual, moral, and cultural superiority of people with white skin color (Clair & Denis, 2015). This specific form of racism can be characterized as colorism.
The term “colorism” was first introduced in 1983 by the American author Alice Walker, as a “prejudicial preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color” (Walker, 1983, 290). Colorism assumes that a light skin tone person is preferable to a person with a darker skin tone and hence, is a form of discrimination based on skin color. According to Trina Jones (2001), colorism operates on both intra-racial and inter-racial levels, which makes colorism a rather complex phenomenon and backs the existence of color hierarchy as a social construct. Skin-color stereotypes play a significant role in the practice of color-based discrimination (ibid.). Light skin color is associated with civilization, superiority, power, beauty, rationality, intellect, good social standing, and elegance. Dark skin color, on the other hand, is associated with irrationality, unattractiveness, inferiority, and barbarism. Such prejudice and stereotypes make people believe in color-hierarchy (both consciously and unconsciously) as a parameter of the superiority-inferiority index and transform this parameter of color-hierarchy into some sort of societal norm (Hunter, 2007; Jones, 2001). Du Bois once stated that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line” (1903/2007, 13). Disturbingly, the problem of the twenty-first century still is of the color line.
There are cases of racism which are not cases of colorism. The ideology of Nazi-fascists took so-called Aryans to be superior, for instance, to Jews and Slavs who both had white skin color. In contrast, cases of colorism are not intelligible without racist classifications. When people with a lighter skin tone discriminate people with a darker skin tone although both would be regarded as “belonging to the same race” or even to the same family, this colorist practice is an instance of racism as it builds upon the assumption that humans are of different worth because of contingent features (here: their pigmentation). Also, in cases where colorism seems to address beauty standards, it still inherits racial stereotypes, as will become clearer below. We thus take racism to be the encompassing ideological order and colorism to be a subsystem within this order (cf. Auma, 2020).Footnote 5
Importantly, racism and colorism are not only observable and describable from a third-person perspective, but are sedimented in embodied and affectively experienced practices: racist and colorist practices are experienced by both those who “do” it and those who are at the “receiving end”, as Ngo (2017 xi) formulates it. Several authors provide detailed accounts and examples of the affective embodied experience of racialization and being racialized.Footnote 6 Most of them draw, in one way or other, on the phenomenological work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty on the lived (and habitual) body and on the work about “Black experience” by Audre Lorde (1984) and Frantz Fanon (1952/1967). The phenomenological perspective allows them “to consider racism on the level of bodily gesture, posture, and disposition—that is, the socially and historically situated practice of racism as it gets taken up by the body” (Ngo, 2017, 11). As Ngo clarifies, particular bodily responses such as the clutching of one’s handbag upon the approach of a Black man (2017, x) often express an underlying bodily habituation with reference to the racialized “other”. Furthermore, taking the embodied and experienced instances of racism as practices highlights – in terms of Bourdieu’s theory – that they become habitual against the background of socially and historically contingent values, norms and power relations (see also Ngo, 2017, Chap. 1).Footnote 7 Any person – adopting a racializing gaze or being racialized by it – embodies habitual schemata of sense making which are the result of continuing shared social practices. These practices sediment into the lived body, understood as the means through which humans are intentionally directed towards themselves and the world.
George Yancy (2017, 21), for example, vividly describes the experiential dimension of a racializing gaze of a white woman who shares an elevator with him: bodily expressions of her feelings, such as clammy palms and her body shifting nervously, as well as behaviors such as clutching her purse more closely to her. Such phenomenological observations show “that deepseated racist emotive responses may form part of the white bodily repertoire, which has become calcified through quotidian modes of bodily transaction in a racial and racist world” (Yancy, 2017, 21). This in turn, has its effects on the experience of the person being racialized. In a painfully vivid way, Lorde (1984, 147–148) retells a situation of herself as a child in a subway, describing the racializing gaze of a white woman looking at her as if she is dirty, something one would not want to touch and how she felt the hate of the woman, articulated through her gaze and comportment. The white woman thus brings into existence a specific “reality” not only for herself but for others as well. The affectedness of the woman rebounds on the space of affectability of young Lorde – it gets inscribed into her lived body and leaves traces in her affective biography.
An account of racism and colorism that comprises the lived experience of social practices illustrates how socialization, affectivity and embodiment merge together to ways of making sense of ourselves and others by habitual practices we all pick up. These practices comprise interpretative frameworks which we unreflectively keep alive.Footnote 8 In the next section we describe concrete colorist practices in the Indian subcontinent before applying the situated affectivity framework to these practices, in order to provide another dimension to the phenomenological and praxeological view on racism and colorism which help to shed light on why these practices are so persistent, even in the 21st century.
3 The problem of colorism and racism in the Indian subcontinent
Colorism in the Indian subcontinent has a long and complex history, influenced by intertwined factors such as the caste system, religion, and colonialism which has transformed colorism into cultural practices (Dhillon, 2015; Mishra, 2015). “The genealogy of whiteness/lightness superiority is disputed among Indian historians, as is the parable of Aryan domination. The following are among the prominent theories: Aryans introduced color hierarchy, ancient Hindu scriptures pontificate the idea; British colonization implemented colorist divisions” (Dhillon, 2015, p. 12, fn. 4). The caste system in the Indian subcontinent is a social phenomenon according to which certain groups claim a birthright to privilege and superiority. The complex hierarchical arrangement of the caste system is also heavily influenced by religious beliefs that castes who are whiter are favored more by God and hence are superior (Dhillon, 2015; Ghose, 1999). “This constructed ideology proved to be advantageous to British colonizers who recognized the existing caste system and created further divisions to enact repressive strategies” (Dhillon, 2015, p. 12). While there is consensus nowadays that the two sociological constructs “caste” and “race” cannot be equated, since there was no phenotypical resemblance between members of the same caste, descent and caste were not the same, and caste beliefs had to be understood locally (see the comments of Dipankar Gupta and Linos Sicialianos at the Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination, 2007), this does not mean that skin color did not play an important role in hierarchizing the Indian society. However, the complex hierarchical arrangement of the caste system got reduced essentially to skin color and socioeconomic privileges. British colonists used the Brahmin concept of hierarchical organization based on skin color, and rewarded wealth and status to Brahmins (ibid.). During the colonization period of the British rule in the Indian subcontinent, places like restaurants, educational establishments, and British clubs had signboards saying “Dogs & Indians Not Allowed”;Footnote 9 in particular, they prohibited dark skin color Indians from entering (Masani, 1990). These exclusion practices contributed to a lasting social impact of colonial mentality and reinforced the common man’s attitude of associating whiteness with power (ibid., see also Archer & Matheson, 2022).Footnote 10
Following the protests against racism by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement after the African-American George Floyd has been killed by white police men in the US, many people of color spoke out in the support of the BLM movement with their own stories of being a victim of racism (Dremann, 2020). Among them were many narratives of people from South Asian countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India, which mentioned racist encounters in Western countries. But South Asians from Pakistan and India were severely criticized for ignoring racism and colorism in their own countries (Alibhai-Brown, 2020). For instance, members of Sheedis, a Black community in Southern parts of Pakistan, are marginalized by other South Asians and are still treated as outcasts. Members of the Sheedis community have been fighting prejudice, harassment, isolation, bullying, name-calling, derogatory treatment, and racism since the arrival of their ancestors between the 18th and 19th centuries (Latif, 2020), or even much earlier.Footnote 11
In India, Black sportsman Darren Sammy has been called “Kalu” (which is a derogatory label for people who have dark skin) by his teammate Ishant Sharma (Bal, 2020). In South Asian societies these derogatory terms are mostly not considered as harmful but treated as jokes or harmless humor. This indicates strongly ingrained cultural roots that have led to desensitization and normalization of colorism and racism which are not even considered as “discriminatory, derogatory and dehumanizing” (ibid.).Footnote 12
Colorism is profoundly entrenched in South Asian communities in the form of the undesirability of darker skin color and the obsession with light skin color. South Asian people have a wide variety of skin color tones. They are often distinguished from White or Black people by referring to them as “Brown” although they sometimes are treated just as “Black” or “White” in Western countries depending on the proximity of their skin color to white and black (Harpalani, 2015). People with light skin color are favored and overall treated better than people with dark skin color. Light skin color has systemic benefits. In contrast, people with dark skin color face discrimination in educational institutions, disparities in marriage, and job markets. In many cases, colorism impacts women way more than men due to the fact that light skin color is regarded as a pressing beauty standard that applies much more to women than to men (Awan, 2020; Dhillon, 2015; Norwood, 2015).Footnote 13
In particular, colorism is perpetuated in the choice of partners. Marrying a partner with dark skin would subject the couple to negative stereotypes, discrimination and a distressing affective life (Ruia, 2020). Especially marrying a person who is Black could lead to serious consequences, e.g., getting disinherited from one’s family (Asian Network, 2020). People who marry or are in a relationship with Black people or people with dark skin tone usually avoid being seen together with their partner. They take quite a long time to disclose their partnership to their families because of the families’ anti-darkness and anti-blackness attitudes (Asian Network, 2020; Alibhai-Brown, 2020). Challenges that a couple might face can range from derogatory comments, insults, and stares in public, rejection, and disapproval by family and friends, isolation, and intimidation (Stritof, 2020). These racist and colorist practices indicate a motivation behind choosing a partner with light skin color to avoid discriminatory encounters that might impact on their affective lives as a couple.
In the following, we explore the affective dimension of skin color-based discriminatory structures that uphold racism and colorism in South Asian communities through the framework of situated affectivity. The conceptual tools developed in this framework will help to better understand how color-based ideologies set a foundation of colorism and instigate racism as experienced and practiced in the Indian subcontinent. In particular, they will help to see how the environmental structures that perpetuate colorism and racism have a pervasive influence on individuals’ values and their emotional repertoire from the beginning of their lives. Our analysis will also show how media “invade people’s mind” by endorsing color-based ideologies and as a result transform societal norms and attitudes.
4 Situated affectivity and affective scaffolding
The framework of situated affectivity is a rather novel paradigm within the philosophy of emotions, developed by extending approaches of situated cognition or so-called 4E-cognition (e.g., Newen at al., 2018) to affective processes (e.g., Griffiths & Scarantino, 2009; Stephan et al., 2014; Colombetti & Krueger, 2015). A central insight of situated affectivity is that affective processing is not solely a brain-bound affair, but that it can be, and often is, supported or shaped by bodily and extrabodily “scaffolds.” Initially, research on situated affectivity focused on what Jan Slaby (2016) has dubbed user-resource interactions—affective scaffolds that are used by individuals to facilitate certain affective processes through their interactions with an appropriately structured natural, technological or social environment. Examples are the listening to well-chosen music to comfort one’s mood, or taking counselling to overcome one’s despair (Stephan & Walter, 2020, § 3). In contrast to affective processes that are supported by an individual’s use of external scaffolds, we also consider the influence the social environment has on the affective life of individuals. There is no single person whose mind was not shaped from early on according to values and norms of their family and culture (Stephan & Walter, 2020, § 4, Coninx & Stephan, 2021, von Maur, 2018). In this vein, Imke von Maur (2021) demands to “take situatedness seriously”, which means to acknowledge that any concrete affective process is both the product and the producer of specific socio-cultural practices and forms of living. This intertwining of affectivity and sociality in producing what is deemed to be normal or held to be normatively demanded, needs to be addressed in order to unearth some important reasons for the existence of alarmingly bold racist and colorist practices in the 21st century. For understanding the genesis of such practices, the concept “mind invasion” (Slaby, 2016) is instructive. If mind shaping processes turn out to be detrimental to the interests of the individual, they are instances of mind invasion (2016). An example Slaby uses in order to explain this notion is to consider new employees who get used to the working conditions at their novel workplace, according to which “work has tended to spread into the homes” and “work time encroaches into what formerly were off-hours” (Slaby, 2016, 9)—developments that might go against the persons’ wishes and needs. Here, as in many other environments, continuous social interactions can be so powerful that they affect the emotional repertoire of the individuals working or living in them, modify their habits, attitudes, and may even shape their personalities in a specific and negative way.
The concept of mind invasion has already proved useful to better understand recruiting and mobilizing strategies of various extremist groups (Haq et al., 2020; Valentini, 2021) and it will also shed new light on how colorism continues to be an issue in South Asia. It should be self-evident that in the context of colorism we use the term “mind invasion” instead of the neutral term “mind shaping” (cf. Coninx & Stephan, 2021, 56 ff.), since being drawn into a colorist ideology should be treated as against one’s own best interests, even if this ideology eventually becomes part of the mindset of the affected persons.
5 Mind invasion in colorism
In South Asian communities, especially in the region of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, color-based ideologies invade the mind of people from a very young age. An individual’s enculturation materializes through a plentitude of social practices, partly lasting back over centuries, which are today reinforced by social media. These social practices structure feelings, thoughts and conduct in a tacit way (see Section 2). Together, they contribute to discriminatory structures according to which people develop and modify their attitudes and emotions towards superior-inferior parameters of color hierarchy. In the following, we track some important societal influences that impact a person from birth on.
In light of the discriminating attitude regarding skin tone, a baby born with a dark skin tone can be a huge source of disappointment for the family (Sethi, 2020; Dixit, 2019). In contrast, a baby with a light skin tone will be welcomed and admired by the family members. Particularly baby girls with darker skin are often considered and treated as a burden and with resentment, because eventually parents have to give more dowry than usual for the marriage to compensate for their daughter’s dark skin (Dixit, 2019). Siblings are often compared to one another based on skin color, and the sibling with a darker skin tone is ridiculed by taunts like “Kaali Kaluti, baigan looti (Black smeared, she robbed the color of an eggplant)” (Dixit, 2019). They are asked questions concerning their skin tone, such as “What happened to you?” and “Dhoop mai ziada phirti hou? (Do you roam in sun a lot?)” (Elgamal, 2016; Farooqui, 2022). A girl with darker skin will be bombarded with constant reminders that she does not have the right skin color and the whole family will seek remedies and tips to lighten her skin (Dixit, 2019; Basu, 2020). She will be advised to wear colors that go together with her skin color to avoid making her dark skin stand out (Bansal, 2020; Raza, 2020). In addition, outdoor activities and sports are discouraged for young girls because their skin would darken, jeopardizing their chances of marrying (Elgamal, 2016; Bansal, 2020). As a result of such discriminatory experiences, particularly girls grow up wishing to have a light skin tone, feeling less pretty, and often developing self-hatred (Patel, 2020). As sketched in Section 2, these experiences sediment into the lived bodies of the girls, structuring how they experience themselves and the world.
In educational institutions, running the gauntlet is prevalent. Students with dark skin tone, including children, adolescents, and even adults are consistently mocked, taunted, and bullied by their peers. They also face discrimination from teachers in the form of strictness and inattentiveness as compared to students with light skin who receive more leniency and attention (Lodhi, 2017; Awan, 2020; Samarajiva, 2020). This reinforces the stereotype of dark skin as being abhorrent and unwanted, and displays fair skin as the only way of getting attention and acceptance. In school, children are encouraged to use light colors to draw faces which instills the reinforcement of lightness as the standard for skin color. Using black or brown crayons is not considered nor encouraged (Lodhi, 2015). Textbooks often feature female images with fair skin labeled as “beautiful” and dark skin labeled as “ugly” (Jacob, 2016). Furthermore, fairy tales, cartoons, and toys such as “Barbie Dolls”, “Cinderella”, and “Snow White”, feature whiteness in the heroic roles. A very famous fairy tale called “The Ugly Duckling” features a gray-colored duck. All the ducks called that gray-colored duck an ugly creature and bullied the duck for its dark color. Only after a miracle has converted the gray-colored ugly duckling into a white swan, everyone starts giving love, affection, and acceptance to the duck (Geethanjali, 2017). Such a kind of education that centers on color-based discrimination plays a significant role in instilling color-centered concepts in children. A child is not born as a racist or colorist, but children exposed to this kind of education, behaviors, and group norms eventually incorporate the superior-inferior parameters of socially constructed color hierarchy. The underlying norms appear so natural to them that they are not perceived as contingent constructs but become the ways through which the involved individuals see themselves and others (see Section 2).
Later in life, in the job market, people with light skin tone are preferred for front desk jobs and managerial positions with the intent to put a nice face to the organization’s image, as darkness would indicate it being “dirty” and “less educated” (Basu, 2020). These practices contribute towards skin color prejudice but also generate economic injustice and inequality. For example, in journalism, on-air news anchors, and in the hotel and tourism industry, receptionists, hotel managers, as well as flight attendants are preferred to be of light skin color. In media industry, dark skin models and actors are considered not suitable for representing luxury brands just because of the stereotypes associated with dark skin (Awan, 2020; Dixit, 2019).
When it comes to marriage in South Asian communities, it is a common practice for parents to arrange their children’s marriages. Parents prefer to choose light skin color daughters-in-law for their sons. As a result of which matrimonial advertisements and websites are flooded with demands for light color skin brides. A matchmaking website called “shadi.com” (“shadi” means “marriage”), used a skin color scale feature ranged from “fair” to “wheatish” to “dusky”, where they ask their subscribers to indicate a skin color of their choice for their preferences in a potential life partner (Basu, 2020). It is a very common practice to reject dark skin women. They are considered highly unsuitable for marriage since they will have dark skin children, which will lead to a dark skin generation (Lodhi, 2015; Sartaj, 2015; Farooqui, 2022). The discriminatory norms behind this practice function as emotional traps – involving worries and fears concerning the child and family’s future – by letting parents focus on skin color and disregard more important credentials such as character, education or likeness. Moreover, at weddings, makeup artists “whitewash” the complexion of the bride. These makeup artists use at least three times lighter shade of makeup foundations than the bride’s original skin color with the intent to make her look beautiful (Samarajiva, 2020; Sethi, 2020). Females are often given whitening creams and are being forced to use whitening creams by boyfriends and husbands to lighten their skin tone. If they do not comply, they might face the consequences of breakup or divorce (Lewis et al., 2011). Such societal pressures enforce beauty standards on females they never should accept, strengthen negative color-based stereotypes and highlight the intertwining of colorism with sexism, namely that colorist practices impact females more than males. These ubiquitous experiences of skin color discrimination generate feelings of rejection and inadequacy in females with dark skin tones (Landor & Smith, 2019). They make people feel that their skin color does not fit the societal standard and that there is something wrong with them that needs to be fixed. The trauma associated with skin color discrimination can sometimes go so deep that suicidal or vengeful tendencies are evoked. In India one woman hanged herself because her husband was abusing her just because of her dark skin color (IANS, 2014). Another woman set herself on fire because she suffered constant humiliation from her family on her dark skin color (IANS, 2015). In another incident, a woman poisoned food at a family function, killing five people just because she was tired of consistent taunts on her dark skin color (Shantanu, 2018).
Colorist convictions are reproduced and reinforced when cosmetic companies and entertainment and social media purposefully advertise and glorify whiteness.Footnote 14 Advertisements for fairness creams, cosmetics, and medical lightening treatments depict dark skin as inferior and the root cause of all problems. Before the change of their brand name,Footnote 15 the skin lightening cream “Fair & Lovely”, a very famous brand in South Asia, portrayed scenarios of dark skin color women who were unhappy and unsuccessful in their life until someone suggests to apply “Fair & Lovely”. After putting on the whitening cream they suddenly transformed into happy, confident, and successful people who started to receive unlimited attention (Dixit, 2019). The fancy portrayal and glamorization of whiteness fuels and intensifies affective bonds to skin color hierarchy. The advertisements aim at convincing people that there are various privileges associated with whiteness that are not accessible to those who do not match the beauty standards of having a light skin tone (Hoskins, 2014; Lodhi, 2017). Furthermore, advertisements on billboards with slogans like “Gora Hoga Pakistan” (Pakistan will be White) continue to instill prejudice against people with dark skin color. They bolster the perception of whiteness as necessary for a prosperous future and reflect deeply embedded cultural norms of whiteness as an internalized prerequisite for a flourishing life (Shahid, 2015). Influential criticism against such colorist practices started only lately.
As well, entertainment media discourages color diversity by casting only light skin color actors in leading roles in movies and TV shows. Dark-skinned color artists are usually reserved for domestic help and minor roles (Lakhany, 2020). Entertainment media portray “Kaala Rang” (dark skin color) as some sort of disease and people with dark skin consistently feel forced to opt for fairness creams, whitening facials, or whitening medical treatments (Raza, 2020; Sartaj, 2015). In one of the top Pakistani TV Series “Dil Ruba,” the male protagonist Sabi with a dusky complexion was shown trying out different fairness creams to attract with his light skin tone the principle female actress Sanam (Lakhany, 2020). In comedy shows it is a common practice to make jokes centered on dark skin people (Ahmad, 2020). This fosters a widely unchallenged colorist atmosphere and normalizes whiteness as an ideal standard. In movies and songs, the whiteness of skin color is being romanticized. Most of the songs are centered on themes where the male characters lust after fair skin color women. For example, the following lines stem from three Hindi-English songs that are well known in South Asian regions: “chura kay dil mera goriya chali” (white girl is leaving after she has stolen my heart), “white white face dekhe dilwa beating fast” (my heart is beating fast after seeing white white face), “yeh kaali kaali aanken, ye gore gore gaal” (these black black eyes and these white white cheeks). Such romanticization and glorification of whiteness play a significant role in impacting people’s psyche (Marwaha, 2020).
As we have seen, people with dark skin tone are relentlessly discriminated throughout their whole life. Ubiquitous devaluations start to shape already the mind of children in their families, they continue at school, at work and at universities, they are omnipresent in media and define poor possibilities on the job market and when searching partners. There seem to be no time and no place at which people are not exposed to the damaging consequences of colorism. Since internalizing such practices is detrimental to a flourishing life for all people with darker skin color the continuous shaping of their mind towards colorism should be understood as a form of mind invasion. It is through feeling of not being good enough, constant self-doubt, self-hatred, shame, low confidence, and low self-esteem that colorism is omnipresent. In contrast to some instances of mind invasion, where mind-invaded persons may accept their living conditions bit by bit (e.g., the mingling of work time with leisure; cf. Slaby, 2016, 9) and might even be excited about their achievements, racist and colorist mind invasions are entirely detrimental and have a pernicious impact on the psychological well-being of those who are affected (Awan, 2020; Norwood, 2015). Even if to mention concrete psychological effects is not necessary for a normative ethical stance against racism (which should be self-evident), it should be stressed that the impact of continuous exposure to racist and colorist practices has severe consequences for the psychological well-being. According to a study by Landor and Smith (2019), people who experience colorism and racism are more likely to develop hypertension, psychological distress, and are prone to more health-related issues. Consistently negative messages and incidents in their environment transform their internal representations resulting in stress-related triggers that can be manifested in their cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and physical responses.
What we have seen in the case of colorism is an all-encompassing example of what von Maur presented as background against which a sedimented affective biography develops depending on a particular time and culture (von Maur, 2021, 7–10) – here: colorism in South-Asia. Children, adolescents, adults of various ages, parents, and grandparents – they develop affective repertoires that mirror their life-long experiences of discrimination. Their individual affective biographies are intertwined with the socio-cultural practices they encounter, and to which they also contribute. After having documented how the minds of individuals are invaded in South Asian countries with discriminatory colorist positions, we will now present how this ever-present mind invasion inclines people to indulge in the process of user-resource interactions assumed to help regulating their affect, that in turn, result in re-enforcing again colorist and racist ideologies and practices.
6 User-resource interactions in colorism
In general, individuals make use of a large variety of environmental resources to modulate and support their affective experiences. We know of episodic interactions of an individual with their local material environment with the goal of steering their affective experience into an intended direction, e.g., by visiting scenic places to calm their mood, or by putting on certain clothes to increase their self-confidence (e.g., wearing a suit for a job interview to feel more confident). In addition, we know of cases in which an agent uses or structures the social environment to transform their general affective repertoire. For example, an individual may, for a longer period of time, undertake therapeutic counseling to enhance their affective capacities for responding more appropriately in social conflicts (other types of examples are discussed in Coninx & Stephan, 2021, § 4.1.1 and Stephan & Walter, 2020, § 3).
What we see with regard to colorism in South Asia is a particular kind of resource usage that has rarely been considered in the relevant literature (an exception is Colombetti & Krueger, 2015, 1163). To regulate their affective lives, people of color make unidirectional use of material toolsFootnote 16 (Stephan & Walter, 2020) – not episodically, however, but continuously. In particular, they use a variety of skin whitening tools, for instance, fairness creams, skin bleaching products, chemical skin peeling, and medical lightening injections, as scaffolds for trying to match conventional beauty standards (Dixit, 2019). These fairness tools aim at whitening the face color as well as the color of the whole body, including armpits and genitals (Hoskins, 2014). Without using these tools, people of color would hesitate to participating in social life, they would not match the prevailing social norms. The skin whitening practice is conducted both on one’s own and in transient or constant social couplings (Stephan & Walter, 2020). In the latter case, when in beauty salons beauticians purposefully offer advice and pressure people with dark skin tone to opt for skin whitening facials on a regular basis (Sethi, 2020), we see a tight interplay of mind invasion by the beauticians and resource usage by persons of color. It is even a common practice in South Asian communities to propose some whitening home-made remedy (e.g., composed of turmeric and milk, and other herbs) upon seeing a stranger with dark skin tone. People with dark skin tone often deliberately use such remedies with the hope to achieve a lighter skin tone. Despite having a high level of mercury and leading to potentially hazardous health issues like skin cancer, kidney and brain damage (Counter, 2003), whitening products and practices are being devoutedly used to generate positive feelings by attaining an attractive appearance to reassure oneself and appeal other people, finding potential mates, pleasing their partners, and to avoid discrimination and harassment surrounding color stigma in various institutions. In various studies, people reported that using whitening products improves their self-esteem and boosts their confidence. Footnote 17 They believe that by having light skin color they will be able to attract better life opportunities that give them a good social standing (Dixit, 2019; Jacobs et al., 2016; Lewis et al., 2011). Importantly, it seems that there is no other way out, no other affective scaffold available to silence the vicious circle of feeling the bodily inadequacy that is set in play by colorist discriminations. Even worse, it does not suffice to use the whitening tools once or twice to have a lasting effect on one’s affective footing; they only work if used constantly. This impression is confirmed by the fact that females with dark skin tone often refuse to go outside without wearing proper makeup because otherwise they would not meet the societal skin color norms. In being mind invaded to use these products, individuals then also propagate and uphold these societal values more broadly – so we have a vicious cycle. What would be needed is a radical change in the practices and values which are mind invaded into South Asian people from birth on. Then, people of color might be able to feel well in their bodies and self-confident without making attempts to whiten their skin.
As our analysis has revealed, colorism and racism keep evolving and reproducing in the Indian subcontinent inter alia through the affective dimension of persistent discriminatory practices that have their roots in history. People in South Asian communities encounter various skin color discriminating structures from birth on and in all social settings. They “invade the minds” of anybody involved and thus structure the ways through which people affectively experience themselves and others. They work as affective scaffolds and tools that lead people to internalize norms and values that conform to superior-inferior parameters of the color hierarchy. Eventually, people develop an orientation, which prefers whiteness against their own best interests (cf. Ahmed, 2007, 151 ff.), and an emotion repertoire that operates tacitly in structuring their perception, desires and needs (von Maur, 2021). In order not to feel marginalized and unworthy, people with darker skin are drawn into a continuous usage of whitening tools whereby they perpetuate the detrimental and disastrous racist and colorist system. These practices, in which mind invasion and user resource interactions harmfully reciprocate, indicate the deeply implanted toxic roots of anti-darkness and anti-blackness in the Indian subcontinent. It will be a long and troublesome journey to revise this deep-seated way of life and to establish other social orientations, embodied habits, and emotion repertoires that would enable mutual respect and acceptance among people whatever skin color they have.
An early and influential work on racism stems from 1903 by W.E.B. Du Bois, who was concerned with the injustice Black people and people of color faced in America (Du Bois, 1903/2007). It should be mentioned though that before Du Bois already others have written about the phenomenon of racism. Influential has been, for instance, the book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845/2006); see Yancy, (2017, Chap. 5) for a detailed discussion of Douglass in the context of his own phenomenological account in Black Bodies, White Gazes.
While the biologistic and racist implications are dominant for the German term “Rasse” (see Erbach et al., 2023), and thus the term should only be used to critically engage with its legacy, the English term “race” is ambiguous and refers, among other things, to its own tradition of critical appropriations and social constructivist reinterpretations (Lepold & Martinez Mateo, 2021, 7). “Race” has also to be distinguished from “ethnicity”. The term “ethnicity” is considered to denote a set of common attributes such as ancestry, history, language, and cultural practices shared by a group of people (Cornell & Hartmann, 2006).
This premise is the core of what is now known as “Critical Philosophy of Race”: A field that investigates the concept of race “with a historical consciousness about its function in legitimating domination and colonialism” (Alcoff, 2021). Accounts in this field have “a distinctive philosophical methodology primarily drawing from critical theory, Marxism, pragmatism, phenomenology, post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, and hermeneutics” (ibid.); see Taylor et al. (2018) and Alcoff (2021) for an overview.
Importantly, the term “white supremacy” is not only or primarily about “the self-conscious racism of white supremacist hate groups”, as pointed out famously by legal scholar Frances Lee Ansley (cited after Mills 2003, 37). It rather addresses “a political, economic, and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, [where] conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings” (ibid.).
See for instance the encompassing works of Sara Ahmed, Linda Martín Alcoff, Alia Al-Saji, Helen Ngo, Shannon Sullivan and George Yancy, among others.
Referring to habitualization here addresses the intertemporal and the tacit dimension of experienced racism and racialization. The concept of “habitus” by Bourdieu focuses on the sociological dimension of habitualized embodied comportments against the background of distinctions between humans of different class, gender, age or else. Thus, the incorporation and display of specific ways of seeing, feeling, thinking and behaving can be considered as the “product and producer” of contingent social norms and shared practices (see Bourdieu, 1977). For a comparison between and synthesis of Merleau-Ponty and Bourdieu on habits and habitus see Crossley (2013).
See von Maur (2018, 2021, 2022) for a detailed development of these concepts, where she inter alia develops the concept of habitual affective intentionality by combining the works of the authors mentioned here. Also note that highlighting the pre-reflective level on which racism and colorism operate does not take away responsibility (see for instance Al-Saji (2014) who considers hesitation – a mode of pausing that can be cultivated – as an interruption of racializing vision and affectivity, and Ngo for taking habit not only as passive sedimentation but also as something “taken up, activated, and held” (2017, 11)).
Whiteness is a complex phenomenon comprising power dynamics originally shaped by colonialism. For understanding whiteness critically from a phenomenological perspective, see, for instance, Ahmed (2007) and Sullivan (2006, 2019) for an approach of habits of whiteness from a psychoanalytic and pragmatist perspective.
Scholars disagree upon, when the first Sheedis came to India. They might be descendants of African slaves, sailors and servants, and merchants who remained in India after arriving through the sea trade with East Africa and the Gulf in the 12th century or before, an exchange that continued until the late 19th century (Saif, 2020).
Washington (1990) calls the type of racism that Black people face from people of color as “Brown Racism”.
The discriminations women of color experience might therefore be treated as a case of intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1989). In colorism, gender and skin color combine to the worse for women.
For a discussion of social media and affective scaffolding see Valentini (2022).
“Fair & Lovely” rebranded in 2020 as “Glow and Lovely” as a response to international criticism of racism within the BLM movement (cf. Sethi, 2020).
The usage is unidirectional in the sense that the usage does not modify the tool. In contrast, e.g., the interaction with audio streaming services such as Spotify is bi-directional, since the service modifies the playlists it offers to users according to their earlier choices.
Users only feel better, of course, if the tools in fact render their skin tone complexion lighter. If there is no change perceptible, they will switch to different products for visible results.
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This research began within the study project “Situated Affectivity and its Applications” supervised by Saad Shaheed and Daniele Valentini, and directed by Achim Stephan and Sven Walter. On earlier versions of the article we received very helpful feedback from members of the reading club “Affectivity”, in particular from Ana Lorena Dominguez Rojas, Hina Haq, Gregor Hörzer, Kirill Leshchinskii, Louis Loock, Rainer Mühlhoff, Lucy Osler, Paul Schütze, Saad Shaheed, Daniele Valentini, Sven Walter, and Rebecca Watzlawek. Funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation)—project number GRK 2185/2 (DFG Research Training Group Situated Cognition).
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Bajwa, M.J., von Maur, I. & Stephan, A. Colorism in the Indian subcontinent—insights through situated affectivity. Phenom Cogn Sci (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-023-09901-6
- Situated affectivity
- Mind invasion
- Affective scaffolding