Is it real or is it satire?
In Thailand, a dark-skinned actress laments, “If I was white, I would win.”
In India, a movie director says, “I can’t have any dark people on my set” and hands a skin-lightening product to two dusky actors.
The Thai scene comes from a real ad for a real skin-whitening pill called Snowz. After a public outcry last week, the ad was pulled and the company apologized.
The Indian scene is from a music video that satirizes the desire of many Indians to lighten their hue. So it’s not really real … but the man behind the video believes it tells the truth about attitudes in his country. He’s Wilbur Sargunaraj, who has made videos for our blog about village life in his native India. His newest project is the music video for his original song “Mirror Mirror on the Wall (Dark is Beautiful).”
We spoke with Sargunaraj, 38, about his new effort.
Why did you do this video now?
I would have done this when I was crawling, was a toddler, if I had the ability and YouTube existed. This is something I am so passionate about.
Because you have dark skin?
I’m very dark and proud of it.
And you got flack for that?
From a young age. I have really amazing parents and my parents won’t say it directly. It will come from my relatives. They will say, “Oh Wilbur you should not play out in the sun because the sun makes you dark and dark is not good because when you grow up you’ll want to marry someone fair. And if someone fair looks at you they’ll not want to marry you because you’re dark.”
I should note … you are not married.
I believe no mother in India will allow their daughter to run with a crazy nomad like me. I don’t think it has anything with skin color.
Where does this skin color bias come from?
I don’t know. I really wonder if this has something to do with people trying to emulate power, [if] colonization laid the foundations of white to be superior, and over time that got internalized into the mindset of the people.
In southern India [where I grew up] they equate being dark to people who are living in poverty, doing a lot of field work.
Give me some examples of how the prejudice plays out.
Mothers look at a baby and say, “Oh my goodness that baby is so dark, what happened?” And if the baby is fair they’ll go, “Oh, what a beautiful color.”
We have been told over and over again in our communities and media that being fair is a prerequisite to being successful, will give you a good job, a good marriage partner. Open up the classifieds in the newspaper in India and you will see, “Educated engineer looking for a fair bride.”
In entertainment, the film industry in India is always trying to cast white Europeans or Western people to dress up in saris and dance. It’s the same thing with modeling. People will bypass even a fair Indian girl and get foreigners.
Does Indian society acknowledge this prejudice?
Time and time again I’m hearing people say that skin color bias doesn’t exist in India. They refuse to admit it. They live in this kind of utopian world. So I needed to draw attention to this. In India, we need to celebrate beauty and diversity.
How do you respond when someone makes a cutting comment to you about skin shade?
I confront people now. I basically will tell that person: Can you tell me what is wrong with being dark? Don’t you think it’s beautiful that we’re all different shades?
How do they respond?
A lot of times they don’t have an answer. When someone calls them on it, they get embarrassed. That’s why I made this video. Michael Jackson [had the same message] in a video in the ’90s: It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.
But it seems it did matter to him, seeing how his skin tone lightened over the years.
If he would have stayed just the way he was, that would have empowered so many people to be proud to be dark.
But you’re still a fan?
Barring all the other drama of Michael Jackson, I love his talent. I am really sad that there’s such controversy around [his skin tone]. Michael Jackson, why, why, why?
In the video you made, a woman who’s your “aunty” tells you your skin will be like “burnt toast” if you stand out in the sun. Did that really happen?
Bluntly to the face. That lyric is so right from the mouth of my aunty.
Your music video shows various skin-lightening products – creams, powders. Were you ever tempted to put powder on your face to lighten it?
I use powder for my armpits. I don’t have any issues with using prickly heat powder. But when you start using powder on your face to make yourself white — oh no.
You show a product called “White Face” in the video — a skin lightener. Is that a real product?
It’s something I invented so I wouldn’t get sued by actual corporations. But there are products called “Fair and Lovely.”
And that director in the video – the one named I.S. Ray Seest – is he a real director? Oh, wait, now that I pronounced his name … never mind!
He represents casting directors in the film industry. They will tell you a dark actor is going to be a risk for them. They want a fair actor.
You end the video by asking people to visit the Advertising Standards Council of India website to report biased ads.
That’s 100 percent real. The council has cracked down on the way some of the fairness creams have been marketing their products.
Just curious — in some Western countries white people go to tanning salons. Is that a thing in India?
I wouldn’t know about tanning salons in India. Maybe there’s a market but I have not heard about it. Sir, that would be kind of crazy!