Justin Joseph, Contributing Columnist
A few weeks ago, the Indian Student Association at VCU released a flyer announcing the VCU ISA Formal being held on Saturday, October 30 in the Student Commons. In lieu of the Diwali Charity Dinner that the organization traditionally holds in the fall semester, ISA has changed the event to a Sadie Hawkin’s Dance with the theme “Suits or Saris.” According to a statement provided by the ISA Executive Board, this decision was made to improve member involvement and increase the number of attendees.
The statement also states that this is the first time ISA has put such an effort into promoting the event through social media. The event’s promotional flyer portrays a man in a suit whose skin is pitch-black. He stands alongside a woman wearing a red and grey sari with a very fair complexion. The color of her skin is emphasized by the juxtaposition of the dark-skinned man and the solid white background. Taking up the majority of the space, the female figure is the central object of the flyer.
The issue with the flyer is not the event it publicizes. The flyer is in poor taste due to its portrayal of the woman, specifically to the complexion of her skin. Her skin is far lighter than that of the average Indian woman and is an inescapable component of this flyer. Although the ISA Board has said in its statement that it does not stand for bias and discrimination based on skin color, the flyer itself conveys a message of colorism to all potential attendees.
Prejudice on the basis of skin color is not an issue that can be taken lightly. Colorism has occupied a horrible position in Indian cultures and was used to worsen the standard of living of women. Biases favoring lighter skin color helped reinforce the caste system, and manual workers whose skin was darkened through prolonged sun exposure were denied any chance of advancement. This form of discrimination was worsened under British colonial rule, and those with lighter skin color were given privilege and power. Women with darker skin were often cast as undesirable, and many were rejected by their own families since it was thought that no one would marry them.
These attitudes continue to be prevalent among the Indian American community. Many members of the Indian diaspora use skin whitening products like Fair and Lovely, which bleach the skin and pose serious health issues. This reinforcement of idealized standard of beauty is portrayed through Bollywood films that exclusively feature fair-skinned Indian actors. Populations that tend to have a darker complexion, many of which are located in the Southern part of the subcontinent, continue to face ridicule and discrimination. Even those who happened to be born with fairer skin are afflicted by this curse, because they cannot spend too much time in the sun. Even a simple summer tan can make an otherwise beautiful woman “ugly.”
According to the statement from the ISA board, “the images used were stock images pulled from a simple Google search. The two figures used seemed elegant to mold into a single logo. There was no bias whatsoever in determining skin tone.” Although I give the flyer’s creators the benefit of the doubt, it does not mean that whomever actually created the woman’s likeness and posted it on the Internet is blameless. The more important issue, however, is that many Indian American students may receive a strong message about color ranking that the ISA board had not intended to convey. To many students, seeing figures like these only strengthen attitudes women with darker skin could not possibly convey elegance and sophistication.
Unfortunately, the widespread distribution of this flyer in the last three weeks has unknowingly perpetuated attitudes of colorism. Despite the intent of the ISA board, the publicity materials may promote unrealistic standards of beauty and devalue women based on their complexion. It undermines the status of not only darker-skinned women but of all women. Actions like these portray women as commodities instead of intelligent human beings. This flyer and others like it support the gender ranking that has existed in Indian culture for generations.
The Indian Students Association has unknowingly created an unsafe place for students with darker complexions or “undesirable” physical features. Its advertising efforts are left so open to interpretation that many may feel those who are not privileged with fair skin are not welcome at its formal events or even capable of beauty in their daily lives. Even though the formal last Saturday was well-attended by VCU students and achieved its fundraising goals, this success does not negate the potential ramifications of their advertising efforts.
The role of an ethnic student organization should be to create an accepting place for students of color. Students should experience cultural familiarity and be encouraged to express their community’s practices and traditions. Creating a safe space for expression helps minority students acclimate better to predominantly white institutions and provides them with a sense of support.
To me, the ethnic student group in today’s society has a secondary role. Organizations like ISA have a responsibility to discuss and confront social issues that affect their ethnic communities on a daily basis. In a world where discrimination and racism are stronger than ever, the leaders of these groups have a responsibility to promote equality and combat mindsets that reinforce all types of prejudice and racism.
I have no doubt that the ISA board members have personally witnessed or experienced colorism at some point in their lives. After all, this is an issue that plagues Indian Americans of all ages and backgrounds. However, the board must understand that any form of media that it creates and distributes carries many meanings, even those that are unintentional. Any artistic work, no matter how well-intentioned, will resonate differently with individuals based on past experiences and other influences. For many Indian American students who have encountered colorism on a daily basis, the flyers can cause an emotionally negative response and diminish one’s feelings of self-worth.
More importantly, flyers and creative works have a greater effect than mere words. Artwork like this remains accessible for a long period of time while maintaining the strength of its message. Students viewing the flyer may still receive a variety of messages from the flyer even after the current ISA board graduates from VCU. These publicity materials may be available on the Internet for decades, and those who see these flyers without knowing the context will reach conclusions that can cast the association in a negative light.
According to their statement, the Indian Students Association does not stand for colorism or skin-based discrimination. Although I personally believe in their sincerity, this series of events should be a learning experience for the Indian American community at VCU. If the ISA board is serious in addressing this serious issue, they should seriously consider organizing events and programming that allow students to discuss such harmful attitudes and their experiences. In addition to carrying out social and philanthropic events, the Indian Students Association should also strive to end the myth that beauty is restricted to those with lighter complexions.