To be honest, I didn’t start reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye with the noblest of intentions. More than immersing myself in Pecola’s grievances, or navigating the crippling consequences of institutional racism, I hoped to get talking points so that I could flash around my half bit knowledge.
I don’t know at what point in the book, I realised there was an uncanny semblance between virtually all the characters in the book and me. To compare the institutional racism which existed in America in the 1940s and the subtle, nuanced and deliberately ignored colourism (defined by Alice Walker as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their colour”) which exists in India wold not be a ‘fair’ valuation.
But try convincing a child, who believes she is ugly because the complexion of her favourite actress is shades lighter than her own, that she is beautiful, then you’ll see where the difference ends and the similarity begins. To a child, abstract notions of beauty are hard to grasp so naturally she looks at the society around her in a fallacious attempt to objectify and consolidate a concept which at its heart is purely subjective. When what she sees around her is so far removed from who she is, it starts hacking at her own self worth. In the words of Morrison, “the death of self esteem can occur quickly, easily in children, before their ego has ‘legs’, so to speak.”
Pecola’s obsession with ‘blue eyes’ resonates with Anglophile tendencies that I grapple with. These Anglophile tendencies manifest in ways other than a mere adulation for fair skin, for instance, it also manifests as a strong desire to emulate the western culture and clothing, their mannerisms, and their accent. This leads to ‘Geraldine’sque behaviour on my part, embittered, unauthentic and resentful of my ‘Indian-ess’. And like them, my Anglophilia was a learned behaviour; when my classmates called me ‘pretty’ it was almost always immediately followed by ‘too bad you are dark’. I realised through this backhanded compliment that the colour of my skin is something undesirable, something that tarnishes ‘my beauty’.
And when a classmate asked me to mask my Indian accent with an English one, I realised that society attaches more importance to the way I speak rather than what I say.Its easy to say ‘Why don’t you just ignore it?’ Or in the context of the story, ‘Why did Pecola and the Breedloves believe they were ugly?’
Well, Morrison puts it brilliantly when she says, “It was as though some mysterious all- knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, “You are ugly people.” They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. “Yes,” they had said. “You are right.”
To put it simply, when the media, the advertisements (we all remember the dreaded fair and lovely ads and according to a 2015 study by Neha Mishra almost 90% of all advertisements show lighter skinned models.), the unsolicited advice on how to lighten the colour of my skin by well – meaning aunties and uncles (“use haldi and drink saffron milk”), all strengthen the conviction that brown is ugly. Its possible to repress the insecurities and anaesthetise the hurt, but its hard to be indifferent, to not care.
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And for quite some time, I was successful in carrying out the masquerade of being a faux intellectual and a practiced hypocrite who scoffs and ridicules those who place too much importance on physical beauty or the colour of their skin. However The Bluest Eye tore down all my defences and left me as naked and vulnerable as that little girl who didn’t think she was pretty. Who was filled with resentment and self contempt. Deeply relatable, it dug out all my unresolved issues.
Why do we need to address colourism? And how do we resolve this? When asked “What is the most important thing young girls need to be taught today?”, Miss Universe 2019 Zozibini Tunzi replied without missing a beat, “Leadership”. She added further, “We need to teach young girls to take up space in society”. A number of studies link experiences of colourism with low self-esteem, depression and other psychiatric and psychological difficulties . Therefore colourism becomes an inhibiting factor that prevents a young girl from reaching her true potential. Though boys also face stigmatisation on the lines of skin colour, studies have shown that colourism is gendered, with most of the stigma directed towards the ‘fairer sex’ (pardon the pun). There are also studies which show that colourism impacts job opportunities.
In my opinion, any comprehensive solution begins with dialogue. Campaigns like “Unfair and Lovely,” where women post photos that celebrate their dusky complexion are certainly progressive and welcome change. Moreover, professionals need to acknowledge the reality of colourism, and not just offer condescending remarks like, “change your attitude, because society is not going to change theirs.” And most importantly, representation is the most crucial and important step towards ending colourism.
A friend of mine once told me about a boy in her class who she disliked. On further inquiry as to why, she casually admitted with an indifferent shrug, “He is black.” I don’t know what’s worse, her casual admission of such blatant colourism or the fact that I, though uncomfortable and deeply shocked, laughed it off. I stayed up all night that day, thinking about why I didn’t say anything to change her mind and a tiny voice in the back of my head said, “Maybe that’s how they think of me as well.”
Today, looking back at that incident, I have an inkling as to why I didn’t say anything; maybe its because I knew, deep inside, that if I was in her place I wouldn’t have made much of an effort to talk to him either.
Because this colourism is deeply rooted in each and every one of us. We fall prey to senseless stereotypes and prejudices. And for this very reason, I don’t think that anything I could’ve said that would’ve changed her mind, but one thing I will do if I see her again would be to recommend this book to her. Because Toni Morrison puts into words better than I ever could the damaging consequences of this demonisation, this pointless and meaningless contempt over something people have no control over. And if this book does not change her mind, then I don’t know what will!
And as for me? Well, I’m still pondering the depth and potency of the statement, “Beauty is not simply something to behold, it is something one could do.”
Thejalakshmi is a law student, bookworm and a conscientious member of society who is deeply interested in politics and debates.
Featured image credit: Unsplash