This past week marked the 515th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Western Hemisphere. Columbus is a historically divisive figure. Some view him as a great explorer, searching for new routes to India and bringing riches to the Old World. Others hold him responsible for the destruction of societies by introducing racially based systems where skin color determined everything. With memories of Columbus long gone from my mind, it was not until a news story about an Indian skin-lightening cream that I was inspired to write about him.
A few weeks back, I saw a news story about Indian Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan selling a skin-lightening cream called Fair and Handsome. The commercial revolves around a young man with dark skin who's having difficulty attracting girls. After some coaxing, the young man agrees to the skin-lightening treatment. Upon completing the treatment, the actor becomes lighter and suddenly attracts girls. The commercial ends with everyone smiling.
After watching the commercial, I was shocked, in disbelief and overall dismayed. It reminded me of the Twilight Zone episode where aliens arrived on earth and had a book called "To Serve Man". Except it wasn't a book to help humans, it was a cook book. The Bollywood commercial was well made and probably did a good job of selling its product. However, it did so at the expense of an Indian society that lived under British dominance for 500 years and only recently became independent.
While nations in years past could act independently and with little outside scrutiny of how they treated their populations, that era is over. India can not consider itself part of the modern world and want a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and allow products such as Fair and Handsome to flourish. The irony is that the Indian government should not exercise its powers to take this commercial and product from the shelves of New Delhi supermarkets. Indian civil society has the responsibility to police itself and send the message that this sort of product is not acceptable.
While the British colonized India, not Spain, the results are the same. Former British and Spanish colonies for hundreds of years suffered under systems where skin color determined your fate. Weird names such as Zambo and Mulato defined racial mixtures with the ultimate akin color being pure European white. The Indian Fair and Handsome skin-lightening cream plays on Indian historical racial fears and reminds us of our own pre-Civil Rights era that with every passing day becomes a long ago, sometimes forgotten memory.
So why do we care about an Indian skin-lightening cream? After centuries of our own racially divisive systems, the Indian product reminds us that while the world economy has become efficient and indeed flat, our world social systems are still centuries behind and outdated. The sad reality in America and societies throughout the world is that skin color still matters significantly. While the subject is taboo and no one will admit it, the news article about an Indian skin-lightening cream is a good opportunity for each of us to contemplate our own hypocrisies and indoctrinated racism. Columbus would probably not believe his birthday would be used as a day to reflect on our biases in the hopes of reigning in centuries of racial intolerance.
Gabriel Buelna, Ph.D., MSW is Executive Director of Plaza Community Services in East Los Angeles and a faculty member in the Chicana/o Studies Department at Cal State Northridge. You can visit his blog at http://gabrielbuelna.blogspot.com