A darker shade of brown

Sharon Muthu

On the individual level who you find attractive and what you find attractive is your own deal. I’m not one to go exhorting anyone to anything. To be frank I find “campaigns” to make x more attractive a bit cringe. It’s like the joke about having to explain to someone that actually you are very attractive!

That being said, it’s interesting to observe cultural patterns, differences, and trends. I do not, for example, perceive women with natural epicanthic folds to be less attractive in any deep sense. But the surgery to create folded over eyelids is a “coming of age” practice in much of Northeast Asia, especially South Korea because it is seen as more aesthetically pleasing. This is a new trend triggered by Western norms, as prior to the past century the more common Asian look with epicanthic folds was considered more beautiful.

This brings me to South Asians, and beliefs, attitudes, and opinions about skin color. Years ago I read that Indian (Tamil) American actress Sharon Muthu was lost a part where she would be playing an Indian character “because she didn’t look Indian.” The director, in this case, was a white American. He admitted she nailed the audition, but optically he didn’t think she’d be plausible as Indian to the audience.

This goes to show that the Bollywood aesthetic has come to define what “Indian” looks like even in the West! Muthu is on the darker side, but not anymore atypical than may lighter-skinned Bollywood celebs.

Sendhil Ramamurthy

I am very jaundiced about many aspects of South Asian (which means mostly Indian American really) American culture, but one thing that is striking in contrast to the culture of their parents is that there is little attention to skin color. In fact, there are multiple instances where I’ve heard people say that the parents thought someone they were dating was too dark.  This is probably a function of the fact that in an environment where all brown people of various shades are bracketed together, it’s a little ridiculous to make the sort of distinctions that are common in the Indian subcontinent.

Speaking as an outsider to brown culture (my wife is white, most of my close friends are not brown, my children are mixed, etc.) and community, so often when I see an Indian or Pakistani actor or actress they look like older versions of Zayn Malik, the half-Pakistani and half-English teen idol, or an Italian actress with a bigger nose. In general, I laugh, and a lot of American-born/raised brown people I know laugh too.

On the other hand, American South Asians are among the most privileged in the world. The people consuming Bollywood, and Tollywood and all the other woods, are the broad middle and lower classes of India, and their choices do shape what gets put on the screen.

When I was visiting Bangladesh in 2004 many of the posters of actresses I saw were notable for two things:

  • They were fairer than the average young Bangladeshi woman
  • They were plumper than the average young Bangladeshi woman

My prediction is as Indian audiences get more affluent, and self-confident in themselves, the actors and actressse will start looking more and more like better look versions of the average Indian, rather than cut-rate Jaggus and Jagginas.

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31 Replies to “A darker shade of brown”

  1. I don’t understand why skin colour ideal should be either northwestern Punjabi beauties or Deep South Tamil ones.

    Despite the complaining of North Indian downloads to Tollywood, most star actresses are southern ones with representative skin colour of middle classes ( who are the most avid movie watchers and top contributors for movie collections).
    Forget about Sridevi or Older ones. The last three top actresses ruling Telugu movies were Soundarya (Karnataka), Samantha (Kerala) and now Sai Pallavi (Kerala) or Rashmika (Karnataka)!
    For their reference skin colour in real life, compare pictures of Lakshmi Manchu (cast as AfAm in American TV) with her Telugu movie posters or TV talk show.

    Watch Samantha Akkineni instagram with her (non-movie) family and friends attending a wedding. She doesn’t stand out at all with respect to skin colour (although a brilliant actress).

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  2. “In fact, there are multiple instances where I’ve heard people say that the parents thought someone they were dating was too dark. This is probably a function of the fact that in an environment where all brown people of various shades are bracketed together, it’s a little ridiculous to make the sort of distinctions that are common in the Indian subcontinent.”

    – I agree that they are more comfortable with darker shades of skin, but I think it’s more to do with Indo-Canadians/Americans conforming with Canadian/American social norms in terms of talking about skin color. It’s more taboo to talk about someone’s skin color in the US/Canada than it is in India.

    – I have more experience with Indo-Canadians, and I think they still discriminate on the basis of skin color. I remember just in my high school in Canada, which was ~40% South Asian… South Asians who could would boast about claiming ancestry outside of the subcontinent; Punjabis would make fun of South Indians for “looking like Sri Lankans”; the guys would talk about how they wouldn’t date Tamil girls; Afghans would take offense if they were considered South Asian; Tamil guys dating Punjabi girls would stir some feelings among Punjabi guys; and there seemed to be a dating hierarchy among the groups based on average attractiveness (basically a proxy for skin color).

    With Indo-Canadians, I feel like it’s more about conforming with and being influenced by norms about how to express yourself, rather than actually changing what one finds attractive.

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    1. indo-canadians are more FOBy even if born & raised. especially the punjabi sikh community. so yeah, i’m talking mostly about *indian americans* it is, as you note, a function of strong assimilation into american society, especially upper middle class white amerian society.

      Punjabis would make fun of South Indians for “looking like Sri Lankans”;

      i think this is partly/class milieu. the only punjabis in the USA i have heard talk like this were the kids of farmers etc. in the central valley. they had a strong ethnic identity and sense of superiority which kids from professional backgrounds did not (or did not show).

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      1. Is there a distinct Central Valley Punjabi community? I thought they’d have assimilated into the general population by now. From what I’ve read, the immigrants were all men, so they married local women (white or Hispanic). Dalip Singh Saund being one example.

        Do you know any articles talking about this community?

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          1. As someone dating a girl from the central valley (I am Gujarati) and she is Punjabi, I wholeheartedly agree with Razib Khan. Her cousins in Canada are similar to his descriptions.

            Another part of it is that a lot of Indo Canadians ran to Canada, when the separatist movement culminated with 1984. They were more likely to be aligned with Khalistan ethnoreligious nationalistic sentiments. Even outside of Canada, at some of their rallies in the US, they still burn pictures of Gandhi and the Indian flag. Jagmeet Singh, their most prominent politician, refused to denounce the Air India bomber.

            They are fed a version of Indian history that talks about how Sikhs were “cheated” and there are subtle commentaries about the mongrelization of their Aryaness by surrounding cowardly Hindus. They are taught they were solely responsible for “saving” Indian from Muslims and are of inherently superior stock. They still display casteist tendencies, despite vowing, when in debate situations or largely non-Indian social circles, that Sikhism admonishes casteism. I notice this is especially true among members descended from the Jatt community.

            The more educated ones don’t think this way. But this type of propaganda is eaten up, on average, by the less educated crowd.

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          2. “They are taught they were solely responsible for “saving” Indian from Muslims and are of inherently superior stock.”

            Its strange considering the ones who i have met (Khalistani leanings) try to downplay the whole “saving” Indian from Muslims thing (considering that’s a pet theme of hindu right) and rather portray it as injustice vs justice fight . They subtly also add that hindu kings were mughal lackeys so the sikhs weren’t necessarily fighting to save hindus.

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  3. . I notice this is especially true among members descended from the Jatt community.

    yeah. it does seem to be a jatt thing in particular.

    and to be fair to these sudras, they ARE more aryan than most other communities around them 😉

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  4. What look is demanded by entertainment and media doesn’t completely circumscribe on the ground preferences. Excessive plastic surgery and makeup works on screen but looks ghastly in person. Beautiful dark skinned women are not unappreciated in India. If so, a lot of goofy dudes would be rolling with Sharon Muthu types! That would be amazing, but I can report back with experience that its no mean feat to successfully court these women. If anything, i think social class trumps skin tone in India, even when assessing female beauty. Previously, light skin tone might have been a proxy for class, within populations. But now, with national integration and migration, you have elites who are darker than the migrant working class in some situations. Another impression, from a south indian perspective, is that before large scale north to south migration, impressions of northerners were based on media representation and pockets of elite urban families. Now with familiarity, the idealization of the northwestern type has eroded greatly if not reversed, as it is no longer prestigious. Furthermore, in Bangalore/ Chennai, among a chic set of women, aspiring to a filmi bollywood look would be declasse. Excessively lightened skin and hair and ersatz mughal wedding couture is mocked.

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  5. I’d once talked to an Iranian girl who was a huge Bollywood fan.

    She told me that one of the reasons she was so into it was because she had softer features by Iranian standards and was often considered looking ‘Indian’ by folks around her.

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    1. I know a guy who is half iranian half kashmiri. His iranian side of the family never accepted him as much as his whiter skinned sister. He now completely disowns the indic side of his heritage and proudly calls himself a persian (compensating for his insecurity no doubt).

      Looking ‘Indian’ by the folks around her is probably not a good thing in their eyes.

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        1. I know. I found it pathetic his stance. But it clearly arises from an insecurity from childhood. He clearly wants to feel accepted by his persian side of the family.

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          1. TBH dissociating from your Indian side if you are a Kashmiri (or half Kashmiri) is NOT that big of a deal.

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      1. Even people like Kamala Harris identify as black instead of Indian or mixed. lol any chance Indians get to identify as non-Indian, we’ll take it.

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        1. this is an ignorant comment. not about indians, about america. in america, black+anything else => black. also, harris’ path is going to be getting the black vote in SC, so she has to play that up.

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        2. Don’t know about Kamala Harris but in India, “you don’t look Indian” is usually a compliment.

          Similarly, if you come across a clean street or a beautiful landscape, a common exclaimation is “this place doesn’t look like India!”

          Indians have extreme self-loathing in a lot of cases except maybe food. Don’t know if it will go away with economic growth. Might even get exacerbated.

          Most rich Indians in big cities after all aspire to live in cut-rate Gothic or Roman styled gated apartment complexes with names like ‘Yvonne’ or ‘Carlton Estate’.
          (actual names from Bombay and Gurgaon respectively)

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          1. i don’t think it’s meant as a compliment to northeastern indians 😉

            your point is taken, but it’s not a generality, but envy and lionization of a particular west asian/european look.

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          2. Chinese have also western craze. They have built whole replicas – smaller versions- of Eiffel Tower, Big Ben , Trevis Fountains, Versailles and WHY . If they can´t goto Eiffel Tower, ET will come to them. And whole townships resembling English countryside , etc. In the case of Indians it is colonial hangover. In Chinese case , it is more self confident imitation

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    1. Lulzz bandits ain’t no persians. Persian is like the off-white to Turk pure white. Bandit is charcoal. I roast bandit’s mommy cow on charcoal…

      #BanditClownsAreBlackOrBrownz
      #KuffarKineTastesDivine

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    2. Few years back there was an Iranian origin police officer in the London force. He started a Black Police officers assn. He was eventually prosecuted for assaulting an Iraqi guy in a shop and jailed I think. Rest of the force heaved a sigh of relief.

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  6. @thewarlord “Another part of it is that a lot of Indo Canadians ran to Canada, when the separatist movement culminated with 1984. They were more likely to be aligned with Khalistan ethnoreligious nationalistic sentiments. Even outside of Canada, at some of their rallies in the US, they still burn pictures of Gandhi and the Indian flag. Jagmeet Singh, their most prominent politician, refused to denounce the Air India bomber.”

    They’re crazy. I remember going to a gurudwara in Brampton and there was a huge poster saying “Khalistan Zindabad, Hindustan Murdabad”. Noped the fuck out of there.

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