Fair & (not so) Lovely

A conversation on white supremacy, mental colonization, and anti-Blackness in the Indian community.

The title of this podcast episode, “Fair & Lovely”, is named after a popular skin-lightening cream in India that has further perpetuated white supremacy, internalized racism, colorism, casteism, and anti-Blackness within the Indian community. Source: Mintel (TK)

KFC: Hi, everyone! Welcome to FearLESS. I’m Kay Francesca Coelho and today I’m here with Aparna. Aparna and I first met on Medium — I read an article she wrote and felt her frustration on anti-Blackness in the Indian community. We will talk about that in our interview today. First, I’d like to welcome Aparna on the show. Aparna, thanks so much for being here. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

AP: My name is Aparna, I’m 29 years old. A little background on myself: I am Indian-American, I was actually born in India in New Delhi, and my family moved here when I was just one, so I’ve lived here my whole life. We’ve moved around quite a bit. We first lived in Virginia in the deep South for five years. Then we were in Indiana for nine years. Then right before high school started, we moved to Philadelphia and we’ve been here ever since. I moved to New York City six years ago. I was working for quite a bit — I was in finance for four years, and then I transitioned to the public policy sphere.

One thing I want to mention about myself is when I was working in finance, I was like, I’m really not feeling this, this is not really doing anything for the “greater good”. I wanted to move into something that was socially impactful, and that’s where I am now. I’m working in rural development and poverty alleviation and this is where I want to be. My philosophy has developed on this over the past few years: what I’m doing in my “day” job is making sure we are creating a world in which we are “doing more good” — where we are adding more goodness into the world by reducing poverty. The organization that I work for is helping smallholder farmers — we are advancing their lives through economic opportunity. But in my writings, what I want to do is not necessarily talk about the goodness that we can contribute to the world, but how we can reduce harm. So a lot of my writings are about white supremacy, systemic racism, capitalism, and the harms of those kinds of systems. And we can definitely talk about that more throughout this. But “doing less harm” is something that I’ve really been thinking about, and I try to convey that through my writings.

KFC: Which is exactly why I reached out to you. For everybody out there, I emailed Aparna and said “Hey, I want you to be on this podcast”. I could sense the frustration and the anger in your writing, and that’s my question for you — where does that [anger] come from? How do you so eloquently put it in your writing?

AP: Thank you so much. Yeah, I do come across with this sense of anger and urgency in my pieces. And it’s not some predetermined thing, it organically comes about. I think it’d be interesting to talk about what my tone and approach to social justice was before, and how it’s evolved.

Before, anytime I would read the news about any kind of social injustice, whether it was a war that we were waging abroad, or police brutality, or seeing pictures of starving children in Yemen — really anything that runs the gamut in terms of social injustice — I would do two things: I would seize up and wallow in sadness. I would cry. I would think “This world is so terrible, I feel hopeless. I am just one person out of 8 billion people, there’s nothing I can do about this.” There was this real sense of hopelessness and sadness. That was the first thing I would do, for a really long time. The second thing I would do is approach social injustice in this “Why can’t we all just get along?” way. It would be this very ‘Kum Bah Yah’, let’s hold hands, let’s get together, let’s be civil approach. Why can’t people just work things out? “Why can’t there be rainbows in the sky?” kind of thing.

KFC: — “Why can’t we all just get along?”

AP: “Why can’t we all just get along?” I want to give the disclaimer: I very much still am this person about love, compassion, and empathy, of course. But I feel that I have rectified that approach. The reason I say “rectified” is that this idea of civility is problematic to me. It paints this picture that there are people of just equal good measure that just can’t just figure things out. There’s Black people and White people, and they just “can’t get along”. There’s men and women, and they just “can’t get along”. There’s no longer this power structure of an oppressor and an oppressed — there’s just “People are fighting!”. That’s why I’ve abandoned this “let’s just be civil” approach. It’s something that moderate politicians will preach about: civility. And my anger, in part, is a backlash to that. There’s nothing civil about locking kids in cages. There’s nothing civil about what we saw with Jacob Blake — the shooting of an unarmed Black man seven times in the back, and society being normalized to see that. There’s nothing civil about these things. Why are we asked to be civil when we attempt to end any form of oppression? A lot of my anger is responding to that “Let’s be civil, let’s hold hands” approach.

So in my anger in my writing, I want to convey a sense of urgency. I think a lot of the problem in the South Asian community, and in general, is that there’s this complacency and apathy. I think that a lot of people think “If this is not affecting me immediately, it’s not something I need to worry about”. “I’m not Black”, or “I’m not Jewish”, or “I’m not a woman” so “This is somebody else’s problem”. And it’s like, no, we should get angry about these issues. The last thing I’ll say is that I’m not wallowing in my anger. I’m channeling my anger in a positive way that I’m hoping makes an impact on people and gets them to really think about these issues.

KFC: Talk about being fearless. Thank you for channeling that, I felt that as a reader — I definitely felt anger and frustration in terms of where your stance is. That said, I want you to talk about your most recent article that you wrote on Medium, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I want you to provide the audience context on that article and a brief summary of what you wrote. I love the title — “The White Supremacist and I”.

AP: Thank you so much, I’m really glad you enjoyed it. “The White Supremacist and I” — this is a piece about an ex-boyfriend of mine. It was from the time I was 17 to 23, so it lasted quite a long time — six years. It was cathartic to write about him as a part of my own healing. Not necessarily from the relationship, I’m healed in terms of the personal qualms and tribulations I went through with him outside of racism. But it was cathartic for me to reflect on this person and the atrocious things he would say and do. It was important for me to write that, not just to tell my audience “Hey, I dated this really racist guy and here are the crazy, racist things he said”. I think the takeaway of that piece is: this is one racist person. There are ~8 billion people in the world — there are a lot of racist individuals. What we do incorrectly in America a lot of the time is focus on one person. Like, this person Ben — I call him Ben in the piece — this person is awful. If we could just get rid of these people, if we could just put them into the fringes of society, racism will be over. The problem with that is that we stop looking at things as structures and systems that are oppressive towards Black people and other minorities. We start focusing on Trump. We start focusing on Ben, my ex. And what I wanted to convey in this piece is that yes, this is an atrocious person that I unfortunately happened to cross paths with in life, but at the end of the day, he’s not really worth my time. What is worth my time in thinking about how to combat racism is thinking about the system and society that created him. So that entails thinking about his parents and the things that they believed in. It’s thinking about the movies that he would watch, that he would also have me watch — he would watch a lot of war films, for example, that glorified American hegemony and waging wars in the Middle East. What were the friends groups that he hung out with — what were their views? It’s looking at the people around him, the culture around him. Probing into that, if you will, became more interesting to me naturally as I was writing this piece than necessarily writing “Look at how awful my ex was, I’m glad I’m done with him.” That said, I am! I’m very glad I had the courage to step away from this person.

The last thing I’ll say is, when I was 17, I was not conscious about insidious racism versus overt racism. In this piece, I talk about overt racism: the things he would say that were so atrocious that anyone could understand was blatantly racist. I would very quickly call that out. But then there were other things that slipped past me, that when I think about it now, I realize, wow, this is a structure that he fed into, this is a system that he fed into that is racist. And that’s the thing that, at 17 years old, slipped passed my mind.

KFC: And you’re writing and educating people about it. Like you said, it’s not just overt racism, it’s insidious racism. That’s what I appreciated about your piece — you are asking these questions [on insidious racism] to the audience. I want you to talk about your mentioning [in the piece] of your [lack of] agency as a brown woman. You were 17 when you felt that way. I want you to tell the audience how that has evolved. Has it evolved? How do you feel now?

AP: Thank you so much. Yeah, absolutely. This is not something that I was consciously thinking of, it was very subconscious. But now in reflecting, I realize, yeah, I really didn’t have any agency as a brown girl at the time. Why? Because this entire world in which I’d grown up in America…I had not seen an image that was powerful that reflected somebody like me. In all the textbooks I grew up studying, they were all about the accomplishments, achievements, and the “greatness”, so to speak, of white men. The movies that we watched, the books that we read, the art that we consumed— it was all about this one demographic. When you don’t see yourself reflected in anything and your entire world is revolving around seeing the supposed greatness of white people, of white men, you internalize that and think, “Well I’m the exact opposite — I’m not only not a man, but I’m not white either.” I am the exact opposite. That must mean my default is that I’m inferior, I’m nothing. Who am I to say that I am of the same level? This is deeply internalized racism and internalized misogyny as well. Everything that I’ve learned — from the philosophers we’ve read, to the mathematicians, the scientists, the artists, the novelists — everything was about white people. That level of mental colonization really affects you as a person of color and as a female.

How has that evolved? I’ve been going through this deliberate process of decolonizing myself, and it’s increasing my agency. The more and more I recognize the ways in which I’ve fallen prey to the myth of white supremacy, [in reference to the piece] in thinking being told “You’re white to me” is a compliment…I mean, that’s somebody that’s deeply internally racist. There’s no way that somebody should take that as a compliment. How have I evolved? Well, first, if somebody said that to me now, I don’t know if I would lash out, I don’t know how I would react. But certainly I would understand very well that it’s not a compliment, that this person doesn’t view anyone who’s not white as equal to them. So I’ve definitely evolved. But it’s very much a conscious process of unlearning a lot of things I’ve learned through this society.

KFC: Now that you’ve mentioned it — tell us a bit more about decolonizing yourself and how you do it. What’s the process?

AP: Let me first define what I mean by decolonizing. Really what I mean by “decolonizing myself” is decentering whiteness. In America, and really, if you think about it, the entire world — everything that we consume, whether it be a film, a novel, an essay, any body of work — it’s always assumed that it’s from a white person’s perspective. A lot of things that I’ve consumed are not from somebody that looks like me or sounds like me. I’m always consuming things that are meant to be understood as a white person’s perspective. One part of “decolonizing” myself is making sure to consume things that are not created by white people. That entails, for example, watching films or reading works from people who are not white, consciously, so that I deconstruct this idea in my mind that whiteness is the norm and thereby, whiteness is beautiful, whiteness is better. There’s a lot of ways that so many of us are conditioned to think that. Even though, just in saying it out loud, it’s like no, obviously I don’t buy into white supremacy! But we do. There’s many ways we do that we don’t realize.

KFC: We do. You mention in your article in a paragraph on colorism that your community has told you that white is beautiful, and therefore you are beautiful to [your ex-boyfriend] because he sees you as white.

AP: Absolutely. You see your community trying to lighten their skin, telling you not to be out in the sun, being outraged when you’ve been outside and saying “Oh, you’ve gotten so dark”. They don’t need to [explicitly] say the words “White is prettier.” I don’t think I’ve heard those [exact] words from my community. It’s implied. When you are told that darkness is worse, the natural assumption is that lightness is better. We don’t even need to be told these things blatantly to have this internalized racism within us. It manifests naturally.

KFC: It does. This reminds me of the article that you wrote on Mississippi Masala. It reminded me of living in India and seeing commercials on this skin-lightening cream called “Fair & Lovely”. That dark is “bad”. It goes back to the caste system, where this racism started within our own community in India. Let’s talk about Mississippi Masala. Was that the first time you watched the movie?

AP: Yeah it was! It’s crazy. I just stumbled across this movie, and I was just like, this sounds silly. “Mississippi Masala”? A relationship between a Black guy and an Indian girl. It’s a “time-pass”, as we say, right? This is going to be cheesy. But no, it was really cool. Obviously it was supposed to be this niche film, I’m sure it was not supposed to be marketed to a big Western audience. But I really think a movie like that, that explores the relationship between South Asians and African-Americans and Africans, is super important. We never see these types of dynamics or the historical contexts behind them explored. For example, [the movie showed] Indians living in Uganda. Why were they brought to Uganda? I didn’t know that Indians were brought to Uganda in the late 1800’s because the British brought them to build the railroads. So even in just looking at the relationship between our community and the Black community, there’s still colonialism that has impacted it and our community’s views of Black people. The movie, though lighthearted in its tone, explores these themes.

KFC: How have you seen anti-Blackness manifest in your own personal story?

AP: In terms of colorism specifically, I was told when I was younger “Don’t go out in the sun. Don’t stay out”. Again, nobody is saying “Don’t be Black”, nobody is saying “Blackness is ugly” overtly. I’ve never heard those words. It’s just the implication. A lot of this is insidious — you put two and two together yourself. It’s very harmful. Again, a lot of “decolonizing” is working to consciously unlearn these things — that dark is absolutely beautiful, that all shades of colors are stunning. I’m so happy to see the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign. It’s so empowering and hopefully we will be able to see a material change in the culture. In [the Netflix show] Indian Matchmaking, this girl openly said “I want somebody not too dark-skinned, you know, fair-skinned.” And this is an Indian-American girl, she’s not lived in India. It’s pervasive in our own community in the U.S. Seeing that stuff…it’s scary that it’s normalized. Another way I’ve seen it is in terms of dating. I’m not speaking specifically to my parents, but just in general — you want to assume they’re progressive or liberal, but if you brought home a Black partner, there would be issues. That’s something I’ve seen, [Indian parents] still very much want to keep things, sadly, within the Indian community. And also casteism — in a way I didn’t realize. Saying things like “I want someone to come from a ‘good’ family”, for example, is coded language for “They should be of an upper-caste”. Things like that, that are not necessarily just about anti-Blackness but about a social hierarchy that is oppressive is definitely something I’ve seen and become more conscious of in talking about, and figuring out ways to combat it.

KFC: Yes. On that note, how do we combat it? How do we engage in a healthy and constructive conversation within our Indian community?

AP: It’s hard. I can’t say I have a perfect answer because it’s something I want to continue brainstorming on how to do. I’m not super new to writing about hard-hitting topics, but I would say I’m pretty new to introducing it to my community. But, for example, one way I’ve tried to do this is with the Mississippi Masala piece. I sent it to my mom, she really liked it, and I made her send it to her friends’ group. She has this groupchat of women she went to college with in India. And it can be a controversial piece in the sense that, look, it’s literally calling ourselves out for being racist, effectively. I knew some people would not respond to it well. Luckily, it was her friends’ group, so people were really receptive. It spurred a really great conversation. She was showing me the responses, and people were being pretty open. This one woman said “I’ve realized in reading this piece that there’s many ways I’ve demonstrated anti-Black behavior.” She overtly said “There’s been times that I’ve crossed the street if I’ve seen a Black man coming.” This woman really stood out to me in that she said she sees anti-Black behavior manifest in herself. It also opened up a conversation about colorism. There were two or three women in the groupchat who were talking about how they had faced colorism by their own family members telling them “Nobody’s going to want to marry you” or “Your sister got so luckily, she’s so light-skinned — what happened to you?” I saw this in my mom’s groupchat, but I’ve also seen many comments like this in reading other people’s stories about colorism. How is this something that your own family is saying to you — effectively, that you’re undesirable? It’s mindboggling and heartbreaking. It’s one thing to not have faith in humanity — people can be really awful — but it’s extra heartbreaking when it’s your own family members telling you that you’re “so undesirable” that you can’t get married. It’s disgusting.

KFC: It’s disturbing, and it’s creating this vicious cycle of traumatizing our own community. And like you said, it’s internalized racism…we don’t even know it’s happening — we’re not even aware. Thank you for educating people on this topic. Thank you for being fearless and writing about it so eloquently, sharing it with your mom and her friends, and sparking these discussions.

We all need to do our part to break these vicious cycles of oppression, colorism, and white supremacy. We want to raise our future generation of Indian women and men to be brave, bold, and beautiful and have these deeper discussions. We need more people to break cycles, to be angry, to eloquently write and heal through writing. Thank you so much for being here with me on FearLESS. Any final words?

AP: Well, thank you! Talking about being fearless — I could not put together a podcast. I don’t think I could do it. So what you’re doing is fearless to me. It’s funny, maybe in my articles I’m “fearless” in the sense that I’m speaking truth to power in a way that others feel uncomfortable doing. But that’s my space. It’s funny that I’m cool to do that, but I could not do what you’re doing…this would be terrifying to me. You just finding these awesome people to talk to and setting this all up…I don’t know how to do that. That sounds crazy intense to me. So you are doing something that I couldn’t do — I think you should be giving advice to people, more than me, on how to be fearless! I don’t think I’ve seen a podcast by an Indian-American woman or an Indian woman, so you’re breaking barriers for me right now.

A lot of the hard-hitting topics you’re bringing about, again, are not normalized. It’s all about normalization, and you are bringing to the fore these important topics that people are not engaging with, that they’re not having to deal with because they have the privilege of not having to think about them. The fact that you’re putting these topics in front of people’s faces and saying “Sorry, but you do need to think about white supremacy” or “Sorry, actually you do need to care about gender-based violence and the experiences we go through as brown women.” We need everyone to care about these things, and you’re facilitating that [dialogue], so I’m really inspired by you too. Thank you very much.

KFC: Yes! Let’s inspire each other and build solidarity.

AP: Absolutely.

Link to FearLESS podcast on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher

About Kay Francesca Coelho, host of FearLESS:

Kay Francesco Coelho is a San Francisco-based writer and a poetess who loves writing and reciting poetry. Living to love is her greater purpose. Kay has served many communities to understand the deep-seated issues they face daily. As an Indian immigrant living in the United States, she uses writing to express her thoughts on oppression. Her newly debuted podcast, FearLESS is a way to voice an opinion on how art is used as a way to heal from many traumas caused by being a member of the Indian community. She currently has published writing prompts on her website to help others create and narrate their story.

She currently works full-time for the University of California San Francisco, and has volunteered for many organizations such as the Oakland Unified School District, the San Francisco Education Fund, Fresh Lifelines for Youth, World Wildlife Fund, and many more. She believes that building a community for the underserved and marginalized populations is important for not just self-discovery, but for an understanding of global compassion.

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