In the comments below there’s a lot of discussion on colorism among brown subcontinentals as well as a fixation on particular facial features. Since I’m an American coconut I don’t really understand many of the nuances, though I’m curious from an anthropological perspective. Much of it obviously seems ludicrous for American browns. What’s the point in commenting on whether one sibling is lighter-skinned than another when you live in America and most of the population is far whiter than even “light-skinned” Indians could aspire to? (ironically, or not, the ‘black-fishing’ swarthy Kardashians look like a lot of light-skinned Indian celebrities to Americans)
But about half of the readership of this weblog now readers from India. Cultural values differ, and so does offense. For example, for Americans asking how much money you make is a very offensive question. For people in other societies, it is not. Why is it so offensive to Americans? Because money is really all we care about! The trigger tells you something deep about our values.
Recently I’ve been meeting many more Indians (from India) on Clubhouse, and I’ve been trying to interrogate differences in values. And one thing that I’ve encountered is a strong aversion to being called “kaala.” Even the most well-off and Westernized Indians seem to wince at the term, and will privately tell me to stop using it the way I am (addressed to people). I ask what the problem is, and they won’t want to get explicit, sometimes saying the connotation is negative. That’s obvious literally true, but how are you going to ever change the connotation unless you change practice?
This is obviously a form of cultural imperialism. Though blackness is not always positively connoted in the US, as a term it doesn’t have the same strongly negative valence as it does in Asia. During the summers I get very kaala in my exposed body parts because I don’t avoid the sun. When my mother asks how I’m doing I say I’m fine, but also I tell her next time she’ll see me I’m “kalo” (Bengali). She gets mad but is used to me talking in this way because being kalo is not really bad substantively (it isn’t). Americans care about whether you are fat or not. Though I don’t condome being mean to fat people, being fat is associated with lots of health ill-effects, and just the way you move is often unnatural (those of us who gain and lose weight can attest to the biomechanical variation). In contrast, being dark or light doesn’t matter too much now since most people don’t need to work outside.
Even in India (and Pakistan and Bangladesh) there will come to be a time when the generation of aunties who grew up in the 20th century will pass on. At that point, the generations who grew up when kaala was a term of opprobrium used by older generations should perhaps rethink their conditioning. I’m not judging, but it’s not really “natural,” it’s conditioning.