Like seemingly EVERYONE else, I’ve gotten hooked on #IndianMatchmaking, the wild new Netflix reality show that sees “Sima Aunty”, our intrepid matchmaker, cross the globe to connect Indians with a suitable match.
It’s audacious in how unapologetic it is about a world where families can list the requisite physical attributes for their beloved child’s future spouse, and that’s part of the fun. Like everyone else I’ve howled with laughter at Sima’s pursed lip and priceless, silent reactions to her most trying clients, cringed at pretty much everything Aparna had to say in the beginning and fell in love with Nadia and Viyasar.
For many of us watching with a kind of entertained horror it’s too easy to imagine ourselves being reduced to one of Sima Aunty’s “biodata” sheets, to be glanced at and dismissed by a snobbish Indian mother for being too short, too far, too simple or too “inflexible”.
But one thing you won’t see a girl being dismissed for is being too… dark. Because we’d never make it out the gate in this world.
For a dark skinned South African of Indian descent like myself, watching the show is sort of a creepy glimpse into a world that could have been but thankfully isn’t.
As I’ve written previously, among my various work on colourism, while I have struggled with the particular sort of racism that black South Africans in general have to deal with in this country, the actual shade of my skin has brought me no grief or affected my perception of myself.
If my ancestors had not left India however, my life would have been markedly different.
I would have been told by every advert, skin product and discussion about marriage that my skin colour was wrong, reprehensible and in need of fixing.
Africa has experienced its own share of colourism and the horrors of skin bleaching. Phrases like “yellowbone” to describe fairer skin black women don’t help. But the writings of Steve Biko and a growing sense of black pride make it easier to embrace darker skin in South Africa – despite the persistent legacy of Africa’s own issues with colourism and skin bleaching.
But someone who looks like me wouldn’t have been considered beautiful in my own race community until recently – and in many cases still wouldn’t. As a child I had to go to Indian-only primary schools (thanks apartheid 🙄) and was bullied and harrassed on several occasions over my dark skin. Indian boys literally never asked me out or even flirted with me. It’s like I was invisible to them.
I wasn’t too badly bothered as my life opened up dramatically after, in a South Africa where the writings of Steve Biko and a growing sense of black pride make it easier to embrace darker skin.
It was only when I visited India for the first time in 2008 that I realised how uncommon this was.
I once browsed a make-up aisle looking for a concealer and was offered a shade at least three shades too light. I tried to say as much to the assistant only to be met with: “But you’re too dark, you must use this.”
Suffice to say, my sisters, who were on the trip with me, had to intervene and drag me out of the shop, so apoplectic was I. “You can’t make them understand all at once!” chastened one.
Things are changing, ever so slowly.
Last month consumer giant Unilever made the long overdue announcement that it will rebrand its bestselling skin lightening cream Fair and Lovely in India and drop the word “fair” from its name. This came after sustained pressure from activists but WOW. It only took them till 2020.
A few years ago a trending hashtag #UnfairAndLovely took aim at this damaging obsession among Indians in India and the diaspora, showcasing drop dead gorgeous dark-skinned Indian women – many of South Indian descent like me. Women from Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where my ancestors hail from, with their glossy skin, exquisite bone structure and almond-shaped eyes.
It’s been great fun to watch #IndianMatchmaking in the time of social media, because I can see my horror and entertainment, in equal measure, reflected in others like me.
It’s also been wonderful because of threads like this one, highlighting even more gorgeous dark skinned women.
And so, once again, I celebrate my dark skin, and give thanks that I’ve never had cause to be ashamed of it.
Others haven’t been so lucky – even in South Africa, I have heard terrible stories from Indian women who have been made to feel ugly and unworthy their entire lives because they weren’t “light” enough. Often these women are several shades lighter than I am which makes me all the happier that I don’t know the people they know!
When I adopted my gorgeous baby girl from the Eastern Cape last year, I gave her the name her people, the amaXhosa, sometimes give to those who look like her: Zimkhitha – meaning dark beauty. Because those two things have never been mutually exclusive.