Why all Dating Shows are Colourist
As soon as I saw the trailer for Netflix’s show “Indian Matchmaking” I knew it would make me feel uncomfortable - and I wasn’t wrong. The premise of the show is that a variety of 20 or 30 something year old Indians are looking to settle down and get married, hoping that match maker Sima Aunty will be able to help them find love. They are seeking “arranged marriages” where the parents are heavily involved in the approval process and if everyone is happy, the couple get married shortly afterwards.
The show is problematic for a whole host of reasons, but one that surprised me the least is an obsession with light skin and an undeterred belief that fair skin is an essential requirement in a life partner. The vast majority of people showcased are light-skinned; particularly the women. One of the young Indians featured is Pradhyuman, who is described by Sima Aunty as a catch first and foremost because he’s “he’s fair, he’s tall and very handsome” before anything else actually interesting like his cookery skills or career. His light skin allows the matchmaker to feel very confident that she can easily find him a good match. This theme carries on pretty much without fail throughout the whole series - and no one is ever once challenged on it, which makes it even more uncomfortable.
The blatant colourism shown in Indian Matchmaking in some ways comes at an ideal time, as it intersects with wider conversations we’ve been having globally around anti-blackness in the wake of the death of George Floyd. In particular a greater focus has been placed on the skin lightening cream industry which is booming in India, and the fact that the majority of prominent Bollywood Stars are fair skinned. Priyanka Chopra found herself in hot water when she spoke up for Black Lives Matter issues and had to be reminded that she’s advertised skin bleaching creams in the past.
This normalised culture of colourism feels weirdly contradictory to calls of support for the Black Lives Matter movement in India. I spoke to Pragya, a young Indian woman to get her thoughts. “In the wake of the BLM protests I saw so many Indians voicing their support to the movement, the same Indians who have deep rooted racism and colourism in their own veins. The bleaching cream brand "Fair & Lovely" changed its name by dropping the term "fair" from its title to cash on this sudden wokeness of Indians. But does this change anything at all at the ground level?”. It’s clear speaking to Pragya that colorism remains deeply intertwined with Indian culture. Being both black and Indian myself, I have a family history of how ingrained colourist and anti-black attitudes can be in the Indian community- my mother’s father never accepted my black dad purely on the basis of racism and a belief the black people are inferior.
So how true to real life are the colourist attitudes displayed in the show? Pragya says that “the show reinforces the rigid beauty ideals in Indian culture especially for women. Ankita is an independent businesswoman, but is made to feel inferior because of her skin tone- her achievements and personality don’t matter.” Pragya also makes it clear that colourism is directed more at women, as “it's mostly the boy's families that generally demanded a fair skinned partner. Akshay is also a dark skinned person but his mother wants a fair skinned bride for him, reflecting the added pressure on women to look a certain way to find a match for themselves.”
Clearly colourism is endemic, but mid-way through watching the show I had to check myself. Are we really that much better here in Britain? The way in which the colourist attitudes were so blatant in Indian Matchmaking had me reeling initially. But, having shaken off my own British cultural biases, it was clear that in many ways they are actually just being less covert about their prejudices than western cultures typically are. Certainly my experience of Indian culture generally is that people tend to be quite “straightforward” and say what they mean.
On the British dating show Love Island (which when it initially aired didn’t even really feature any black or dark skinned contestants which is already a point in of itself) we see a repeat of the same pattern: dark skinned black contestants are consistently chosen last to be someone’s partner. Samira Mighty from season four was the show’s only dark skinned black woman and had to wait weeks before being chosen. She spent many weeks in “friendship couples” where there’s no romantic connection. However, white or fairer skinned women who were less attractive and frankly less interesting than her were snapped up by the male contestants much quicker.
It was made all the more uncomfortable by the fact that all the other contestants gaslit her into believing she was merely “unlucky” rather than being honest about the elephant in the room. Instead, they all feigned white innocence of the situation- but Samira deep down herself would have known the reasons why. In true-British-style no one wanted to just be honest and say it was because she was a dark skinned black woman, as that would be to shatter the (poorly constructed) illusion that racism and colourism don't happen in Britain.
Similarly, last summer the beautiful and brainy black contestant Yewande was also picked last, and in January this year the entertaining contestant Nas Majeed a brown skinned South Asian man struggled for weeks. As Brits, we’d rather create some sort of false excuse like “oh they’re just not my type” as opposed to more bluntly articulating “I want someone more fair skinned” which is displayed so brazenly in Indian Matchmaking. Ultimately the result is the same: white-centric beauty standards that exclude darker skinned people are continuously upheld.
By contrast, mixed-race contestants (who are generally likely to be lighter skinned) tend to fare better on British dating shows, with white contestants sometimes displaying a cringey preference for “mixed race” people. Again, this is covert colourism. Mixed race is a coded term that normally means something quite specific: you’re happy to have a taste of something exotic, without them being “too dark”, so to speak. Similar patterns have emerged on countless other British dating shows like Take Me Out and Survival of the Fittest - to the point where many people have said dark skinned women in particular should just not bother going on these shows any more. It’s painful seeing them disrespected and unappreciated.
This is in no way a defence of the prejudice in Indian Matchmaking, and I’m glad that South Asian culture more broadly is being critcised for colourism and anti-blackness in general - these issues deserve their own conversations. But here in Britain, we shouldn’t be getting on our high horse either. Racism and colourism are endemic in all areas of society, including in dating and relationships. Being less open and honest about it might make us feel better - but it doesn’t make our cultural attitudes to colourism any more progressive.
Written by Banseka Kayembe
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