Color Complex in the South Asian and African Diasporas

Tariq Nelson makes an interesting hypothesis about creating an American Muslim culture through inter-marriage between all the various ethnic groups in his blog He writes:

I am of the controversial opinion that increased interracial/intercultural marriage is one of the ways that will lead to a meshing of a singular American Muslim identity. This would eventually lead to more of a blending in this country, culturally and genetically, of the many Muslim cultures as well as the American one. Intermarriage is one of the ways people that were once even somewhat hostile can become one group.

We are seeing native born Americans, of all religions, intermarrying in ever rising numbers, but when one looks at the numbers, the proportion of overall interracial births is still not growing at the rate one would think. Why is this? It is (at least partially) because of mass immigration. Immigrants are much more likely to marry someone from back home, or arrive already married, and it hinders the continuing merging of America’s ethnicities.

Read the rest of the article here.

African Americans have been dealing with these issues. We’ve worked to debunk the myth of the talented 10th for years, did away with the brown paper bag test, celebrate dark skinned men like Denzel Washinton and Wesley Snipes. Yet there are no female counterparts to Wesley or Denzel. Instead, we have Halle Berry, Beyonce, etc. and studies that show how light skinned Black women have higher rates of marraiage than their darker skinned counterparts. Muslims have not really risen above these trends. It get complex as every ethnic group brings to the table their own cultural baggage and project their desires, insecurities, and resentments on the “Others.”

I found a interesting article “Color Complex In The South Asian Diaspora” by Francis Assisi which seems to point to the cultural norms that preclude African Americans, and especially AA women, from finding willing partners in the great Muslim melting pot:

Jennifer Hochschild, a Harvard professor of government and Afro-American studies believes that skin color, rather than race, may be a better indicator of status in the United States.

In a talk May 6th 2003 at Stanford University entitled “The Politics and Morality of a Skin Tone Ordering,” Hochschild’s “strong” hypothesis was, in her words, that across races “the darker a person’s skin color, the lower he or she is likely to be on any scale of whatever is broadly perceived to be desirable in the United States.”

In other words, in America, one is still better off as a dark-skinned Hispanic than as an African American. And within these minority groups the less dark-skinned you are, the better off you are socially.

Now, according to three different studies conducted by Indian Americans in the U.S., skin color appears to have similar impact.

The Three Studies

Roksana Badruddoja Rahman of Rutgers University has completed an unusually interesting research study: The role of skin color among Hindu Indian women in New Jersey and how it affects their marriage choice. Sarita Sahay has looked into self-esteem and ethnic identity including attitude towards color among South Asian Canadian female students. And Zareena Grewal at the University of Michigan has studied the impact of color in spouse selection among the South Asian American Muslim community.

Rahman has examined the role of skin color in the Indian women’s concept of beauty and what it signifies as a status marker in the marriage market. Her hypothesis: that a larger proportion of lighter skinned women than darker skinned women feel beautiful and attractive. The study is one of the first to attempt to focus explicitly on the relationships between skin color and feelings of attractiveness and skin color and marriage marketability in the immigrant American Hindu Indian context.

Rahman’s conclusion is that “feelings related to beauty and attractiveness and marriage marketability are partially determined by the lightness of their skin.” And though her subjects are “Hindu Indian women” one can imagine that her findings are applicable to all women of Indian or South Asian origin.

The study assumes, first, that beauty and attractiveness are defined by skin color and, second, there is a link between beauty and attractiveness, and thus skin color, to marriage marketability. Rahman observes the wide popularity of hair and complexion lighteners among South Asians (living in and outside of South Asia), predominantly among women, which she says is symbolic of the high value placed on light skin tone.

Rahman cites South Asian magazine advertisements for cosmetics and bleaching creams, such as Fair & Lovely Cream and Vicco Ayurvedic Cream, that are similar to advertisements targeted towards black American women.
[…]
In her study, Rahman draws upon literature about the role of skin color in the lives of Hindu Indian women in India and black women in the United States to develop a framework for understanding skin color and its impact on U.S. first generation immigrant Indian American women in the marriage market. She then goes on to conduct extensive interviews with Indian American women in New Jersey – that area being chosen because it has one of the fastest growing South Asian populations.

Rahman argues that the politics and implications of skin color in Indian community and among black Americans are extraordinarily similar, and the strict juxtaposition of black and white works well in understanding the implications of skin color and the definition of beauty among black Americans, Indians in India, and Indians living in the U.S.

Rahman points out in her study: “I find three major commonalties between Indians and black Americans in general. First, both race and caste are systems of social closure. Second, black women in America and Indian women’s bodies are sexualized and racialized in a similar manner. And third, skin color and other facial features play a significant role.”

Thus the message relayed to the women of both cultures is that light skin is more attractive (especially to men) than dark skin, and both, internalizing the “ivory skin model”, go to great lengths to alter their phenotypic features.

Zareen Grewal’s study in Michigan shows that many South Asian Muslim immigrants covet whiteness.
[…]
Grewal has noted in her study that ‘particular physical qualities are always fetishized in constructions of beauty. However, in these communities, the stigma attached to dark color intersects with broader racial discourses in the U.S. That’s why a Desi mother of three daughters in their twenties, explicitly refers to dark coloring as a physical abnormality and deficiency.’
[…]

In the final study by Sarita Sahay and Niva Piran, authors of Skin-color preferences and body satisfaction among the South Asian-Canadian and European-Canadian female university students, they find that second generation South Asian women (in Canada), like their counterparts in South Asia, equate light skin with beauty.

Skin color is a trait germane to the experience of racism by all minorities. However, in the case of South Asians in America, they are simultaneously victims and perpetrators. As perpetrators, their racism is contingent upon a light skin ideal.

True, light skin has implications for social status among both men and women, but nowhere is it of more consequence than in the commodification of female attractiveness. This celebration of fairness as a feminine virtue is not new in South Asia’s patriarchal history, but what is shocking is the extent to which it continues today even in the diaspora.

As many Desis leave their home countries for the US, their intra-racist ideologies emigrate with them and are reinforced and transformed by the racial climate in the U.S. Sultana, an immigrant from India, explains how ideologies of color are reformulated in a society with a white majority: “Most [Desis] are samla, neither dark nor fair. So what is fair over there might be samla over here. Like, in India, you would be very fair, but here you won’t because of the white Americans. So it depends on the comparison.”

Sultana explicitly refers to white Americans as the standard to be measured against. Interestingly, although most Muslim immigrants in these communities construct whites as racially different from them, for some, like Sultana, whites remain the point of reference. For others, the ability to “pass” as white informs their color preferences.

The stigma of dark skin and the preference for light coloring are coded racially as immigrants assess their status as minorities in the U.S. and the benefits of “passing” as whites. The fetishizing of light skin is related to the broader racial climate of the U.S., where minorities from South Asia regularly experience discrimination. In other words, color-coded intra-racism is simultaneously a self-destructive internalization of white supremacy and a strategy for surviving it.

As scholars such as Grewal, Rahman and Sahay do research on their own cultures, it is important not to overlook the role played by color in current power relationships. That’s one way to combat racism from without, and within.

I found another article about the South Asian marriage market, From “Wheatish to Dark”: Globalization, Marriage & Skin Color Commodification” by Maryum Saifee.

I think these articles are fascinating because they describe some of the underlying factors that shape the contours of relations between immigrant Muslims and African Americans. For 14 years, I have heard African American brothers complain about not being able to marry other Muslim ethnicities. Recently, more African American sisters in integrated Muslim communities have begun to talk about how invisible they feel. One could be Muslim for a year or two without a single serious prospect for marriage. This is the case for several African and African American Muslim women that I know. It is striking because American society is fairly open to interracial marriage, but American Muslims seem to maintain clear ethnic lines (except when it comes to marrying White American converts).

Likewise, I have wondered about the this desire for intermarriage on the part of some African American brothers. We have own color complexes and they run deep. One of my North African friends stated, “I know why Black men like us, we look like light skinned Black women.” Some black men desiring South Asian women because they to may look mixed or racially ambiguous. Some look like mixed women who have “Caucasian” features and long straight hair (two measures of beauty within the Black community) in combination with brown skin. I remember reading Zareena Grewal’s paper on “Marriage in Color,” and her study showed how immigrant women and white women had many more advantages when it came to choosing a marriage partner. It is clear that dark skinned African American women face more challenges than their lighter sisters, in both job discrimination and in how this society perceives them. Being in the community is not about competition, but it is frustrating to see women dismissed so easily because of the amount of melanin in their skin. But then again, anyone who cannot see that these sisters are truly beautiful is really beneath those amazing sisters.

African American scholars and intellectuals have been wrestling with colorism and racism for generations. You’d think these issues would get old and that we could move past it. But as Muslims we find out that these issues resurface in very different, but no less complex and troubling ways. As one of my favorite instructors said about racism, “Racism does not just hurt Black people, but it victimizes White people too.” We’re living in a multi-cultural, stratified society; so the victims are not just Black and White. Tribalism, nationalism, cultural chauvanism, classism, and colorism are tools that really undermine our communities and prevents us from moving forward.

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37 thoughts on “Color Complex in the South Asian and African Diasporas

  1. “I am of the controversial opinion that increased interracial/intercultural marriage is one of the ways that will lead to a meshing of a singular American Muslim identity. This would eventually lead to more of a blending in this country, culturally and genetically, of the many Muslim cultures as well as the American one. Intermarriage is one of the ways people that were once even somewhat hostile can become one group.”
    The hardest thing in addressing the race problem is dealing with “absolutes.” I can’t say I fully agree with Tariq’s assessment that encouraging increased interracial marriages would solve the problem. During the civil rights movement the initial protest was that facilities, education and employment were separate and unequal. Then as the integration notion gain momentum our identity became even more diluted. Black owned-businesses, destroyed and over time there became a discouragement that HBCU’s just weren’t good enough.
    Here I see the same possible problem. It’s as if to say, I give up and capitulate to what is perceived as a dominating society within the Muslim community. Thus what identified our strength in overcoming and creating a sub-culture within American society could very well dissipate. I don’t say that to say I don’t recognize that ethnically American blacks aren’t already a mixture of races. I read from a 19th century politician that he recognized that the state of black people is that they will only be identified as a race with blended features because of our history. This exists even though we keep accepting the term “black.” In the Holy Qur’an it says that Allah divided us into tribes and families that we may get to know one another and not fight one another. Allah recognizes the beauty of all of His creation and made beautiful distinctions in each one. Our singular identity should be based on our acts of worship, our building of spiritually strong communities and our encouragement to follow directives in the Holy Qu’ran, not to look, smell, dress and act exactly the same way. If that was the case look how easily we could lose the room in dialogue in fiqh. It would be so easy for outsiders to promote essentialism in every respect of Islamic culture and the groupings that make up the ummah.
    Now if you were to say two Muslims from different ethnic backgrounds love each other because of who they are, fine. But to say let’s amplify the encouragement for an Islamic-politico move because blacks have it so bad is to say blacks should “surrender” in a sense who they are and succumb to being accepted, our priority is our intent and our favour with Allah. One of the reasons why I love the X-Men movies (other than Wolverine and the claws) was because I would easily substitute the mutants for blacks, or any minority that suffered from dominant society a form of Xenophobia. There is a scene in X-Men II in which the blue lady who can take on other’s appearance and was questioned by the vampire, like why don’t you just stay in another form all the time and you know fit in, her response was because…”I shouldn’t have to.” So if the suggestion is based on another form of “passing” or “fitting in” I don’t think it’s a wise decision. the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said “The best of you is not the blackest of you or the whitest of you…”
    And because we have the gambit of dark to light in most brown ethnicities it’s hard to say there will be some new form of color blending. I’ve seen Egyptian Arabs darker then dark-skinned black Americans as well as very dark-Asian Indians, so inter-mixing will not necessarily blend color because we have similar racial blends/tones anyway–so genetically I don’t see how it would make a real difference; nor cultural blending for that matter. In undergrad I took a humanities course and my Professor was a light-skinned Indian woman, our class was discussing racism and we watched the film Missippi Massala. She stated in her culture that northern Indians think they’re better than southern Indians because they’re lighter and therefore closer to white. The southern Indians thought they were better because they tend to excel in fields of math and engineering and therefore smarter. I met Pakistanis who have told me that Kashmirians think they’re better than Indians because they’re mixed with French and thus lighter, this is regardless of actual attractiveness, just the fact that they’re lighter-skinned to them equaled attractiveness. I met black women who were light-skinned and were average or unattractive but would discuss their skin tone as the deciding factor for beauty. Astaghfri’Allah. So where’s the cultural blend if all the brown and black suffer from similar diseases of the heart. Granted cultural blend of music, art and clothing, but the racial-cultural blend wouldn’t make a distinction. We need the culture of true Islam…
    Brown paper bag test. I don’t believe this has dissipated or we wouldn’t even have a thread about inner and external racism–it just takes another form. Like I saw a black young lady on the Tyra show say people approach her and say you’re attractive “for a dark girl.” Lawrence Otis Graham in ‘Our Kind of People’ discusses the black elite of TODAY who still use this test for lightness…”…celebrate dark skinned men like Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes. Yet there are no female counterparts to Wesley or Denzel.” I think Wesley is that deep chocolate dark and Denzel is like dark brown so they really don’t have the same complexion; I do believe that people like Emaan (the supermodel who is African-is that her name) and Naomi Campbell are celebrated around the world, although neither one is black american, but Tyra is and she’s a brown and not a dark-skinned woman. I wonder how much of it is really our problem as a burden or the projection of what we get from society. My dad was very dark and my mom is very fair but I remember looking at my dad’s skin as a child and it had no blemishes, he had wavy hair and had black Native American mother. We daughters used to comb his and my mom’s hair for fun…When I was in Cairo I remember I met a tall Black Sudanese brother (maybe from West Sudan) this man was like two levels before blue-black. I thought he had the most beautiful skin and I told him on the yard, “I must say this has anyone ever told you you have the most beautiful skin?” He was actually very humble bowed his head and smiled and said yes that it was mostly Americans who told him this. Then I just left his presence and went my way. From another angle during that same time period I went to Jordan I spoke with the innkeeper where I was booking a room for my stay in Aqaba during Eid-al-Adha and he told me he lived in California for two years. He was an older gentleman and seemed to want to return to the states, he said” I love black women, I don’t care if their Arab, African or American…as long as they’re black.” Which I assumed he meant dark-skinned. I guess my point is that a physical genetic assimilation will not solve the problem unless we deal with the reality of why the problem of racism exists, the nuances and that not everyone hates black people generally, and that some people do value a black woman’s worth. Forgive me for any inaccuracies.

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  2. Halimah said, “We need the culture of true Islam”

    ‘Nuff said! This is what’s lacking and the true source our (Muslims in general) dysfunction and shameful condition.

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  3. Salaam alaikum ladies,
    Thank you for your honest contributions. Muslim space is too much like myspace for me to even want to participate in that forum. But if you would like to link my article there, it is all good.

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  4. wa alaikum as salaam,

    I no longer contribute to Muslim Space – don’t have time for those who do not appreciate honest feedback/conversations. I’m at the point in my life where I can no longer pretend we (Muslims) are not the source of the hatred/distrust nonMuslims have for us.

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  5. Salaam alaikum Bint Will,
    Yeah, that’s what Tariq Nelson calls “The culture of denial and pretense.” I don’t have time for that either. That’s why I appreciate this forum. I have got a sense from a sister who resented my honest commentary on race in America. Sorry if truth or an attempt at understanding truth bursts that bubble of bliss that derives from ignorance. Unfortunately they don’t seem blissful, more like confused and lost.

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  6. Being married to an Indo-Caribbean woman, I can attest to the fact that African and Indian communities in the Caribbean suffer from the same color complex regarless of religious affiliation.
    I no longer count the number of times, I have heard expressions such as:
    I have to put milk in my coffee (i.e I have to find a white or light-skinned spouse),
    Don’t stay out in the sun too long you will get dark and ugly,
    look at how fair this girl is,
    he/she is a nice and smart person but too dark etc…
    Believe it or not, some people have told me that “your daughter is nice with good hair but she would be a real queen if she was lighter”. What can you do when you hear such stupid and ignorant comments other than walk away?
    I believe that people are free to marry whoever they choose but if it is done only to “lighten the kids” all it will do is perpetuate the notion that lighter is better.

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  7. “I can attest to the fact that African and Indian communities in the Caribbean suffer from the same color complex regarless of religious affiliation.” I remember when I used to get my hair braided all the time and one hair shop in Maryland was owned/operated by Africans, dark Africans. The mother (I guess, an older lady) pulled out a framed portrait of herself in which she had all this almost white looking make-up and from her neck and arms she was dark. She kept talking about how good she looked. It looked atrocious, astaghfri’Allah but it did and it looked stupid, it reminded me of a clown. When one of my N. African friends wed in Egypt she said she didn’t want all that extra make-up but her mom made her do it to make her face look two shades brighter than the light brown she already was. I remember at the grocery store with a fellow student in Cairo I was looking at skin care products and their was Arabic everywhere. I picked up a boxed tube trying to figure out if it was sunscreen/block and the side of it displayed a side profile of a woman with a ponytail and it was like a spectrum showing her progressively getting lighter. Initially I thought it was acne medication but realized it was skin bleaching cream. I called a fellow student over who was also American and he was like in Africa? and we just left the aisle. I also remember from the hostel you could order groceries or fast food and I needed bleach for laundry. When I called the nearest grocer I just remember her responding gild ouw hoodum, like for skin or for clothes? I almost sighed out loud. I told people I knew and we were like skin-bleaching is that prevalent here, even among the lighter N. Africans? Just bearing witness.

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  8. A few years ago I visited Kenya. I was the first person in the family to ever visit Africa. My mother and a few family members asked me to buy make up and hair products for them. They thought that in Africa I would easily find product for “black skin and black hair”. I was also under the same impression. Once I was in Nairobi, I had a wake up call. To my amazement, the vast majority of the cosmetics sold were the same one that could be bought in Canada and also noticed A LOT OF skin lighteners. Needless to say that I was very disappointed. What shocked me even more was the high number of young women in Nairobi using the lighteners. It was quite obvious because their faces would be unusually pale but their arms would be significantly darker. While in Kenya, I also visited Mombasa (majority muslim population) and observed the same prevalence of skin lighening products. I decided to ask one of the store owners if these products were popular and if so, why? The brother was very honest and told me that women think that if their skin is lighter that will make them more attractive and give them a better chance of getting a nice husband or keeping their husband (for the ones who were already married). He also said that most men prefer lighter women. That answer made me realize despite more than fifty years after the independence movements started in Africa, colonization of the mind is still omnipresent.

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  9. Yes, halimah I will email you, insha Allah.

    Margari – I posted this on my myspace blog, this is what brother Frank had to say…

    http://blog.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&blogID=245755684&Mytoken=38EECDB5-1F1C-4833-88B2C3C6E09C56674052197

    In case the link doesn’t work – He wrote:

    Asalaamu alaikum

    Ithink we have to be aware of the historical origin of the racism. The first racist system was introduced by the Aryans after they invaded India in 1000 B.C. and conquered the dark skinned Indians, the descendents of the modern day Dravidians. To establish and preserve their domination they introduced the shaitanic caste system or Varna in which all those with dark skin would be considered inferior to people of pale complexion. In fact the word Varna means color.

    The Aryans and people of Indo Aryan Teutonic descent have used this system whenever they have encountered an indigenous people with the intention of expoliting them.

    Shaitan has allowed people of paler complexions to be decieved into thinking that they are somehow superior to darker skinned people. He has even tied this deception to shirk, depicting Isa (AS) as a caucasion for all the world to bow to.

    There is no spiritual or physiological basis for this deception.

    And if people marry in accordance with this deception then Shaitan is the dictator of their actions.

    And true muslims will be attracted to piety and devotion when looking for a potential spouse.

    On the day of judgement I doubt complexion will play a role in admittance into paradise.

    The saddest part of all this is that people in general have no idea why black people are black. If they only knew maybe they would change their minds.

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  10. “It is striking because American society is fairly open to interracial marriage, but American Muslims seem to maintain clear ethnic lines (except when it comes to marrying White American converts).”

    I couldn’t agree more. I’m one of those Black women who have felt ignored in the largely Pakistani and Arab communities I’ve had the misfortune of beening in. (I also saw the color issues in the predominately Indo-Caribbean community I was in as well). People used to make comments like “oh, she’s not as dark as YOU” or “…someone YOUR complexion”. The funny part is I’m more of a golden brown and would never be considered “dark-skinned” in the African-American community. In Jamaica I’m considered a “browning”. For years I watched as my two homegirls who are fair-skinned Latinas received marriage proposals left and right. Apparently I was their “dark-skinned” friend and as a result occupied a lower status. In South Florida fair-skinned Latina sisters are all the rage. Oh and let’s not forget how hair texture factors into all of this. One of my Latina friends was engaged to an Indian guy and his family members actually lifted her hijab to see what her hair texture was like. I suppose if her hair wasn’t straight she wouldn’t have made the cut…

    Anyhow, I’ve really washed my hands of the Muslim community and their color complexes. After enduring years of discrimination, colorism and prejudice I finally got the strength to stand up and be boldly and unapologetically BLACK. No longer being silent in the face of ignorant comments. And calling people on their b.s. Of course that makes me unpopular but oh well…

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  11. I am glad that Allah shielded me from this issue until I became somewhat established in my deen. Alhamdulillah. I entered Islam because it is the solution to racism. That was the gateway for me.

    In Egypt, there is a “beauty product” called Fair & Lovely which is designed to lighten skin. On the commercial, a young girl talks into her hair brush, pretending to be a TV announcer. Then her mother hands her a bottle of Fair & Lovely. The message: “If you really want to be on television, you will have to lighten up.” Then the commercial shows her gradual lightening process, and in the end, she is on television with her family looking on in pride. I know an older African-American brother in Egypt who used to buy his daughters black fashion magazines from America so they would have some means to see themselves as beautiful. I’ve heard stories of black students being passed over for academic honors because they wanted to give it to a “light girl.” Actually, they probably just said “pretty girl.” Honestly, for me, this single issue is sufficient to explain the lowly position of Arab societies.

    But don’t worry Aziza…there’s plenty to gain from Egypt, though it may feel like the “twilight zone” at time (a quote from the aforementioned brother.)

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  12. Fair & Lovely was all over the place in Morocco too. Yeah, I was bemoaning the fact that I live in a twilight zone in Palo Alto and will be in a Egypt for a year. It would be nice to be in place where Black is normalized. I woke up this morning to a rude awakening of gendered racial abuse. Gotta love it.

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  13. Don’t you guys think the color issue is alot more complex and nuanced than implied in the original post. I mean there are lots of dark Indians who are way darker than a lot of African Americans yet they are higher status because of the immigrant,income, education reasons. And even within the desi community which is notorious for colorism south indians have very different preferences than north indians.

    Personally I have tried to get over color issue. It exists, its not going any where. Just like men like thin women with large chests men like lighter women, and we can’t blame it on colonialism because it exists everywhere china, Africa, India, Middle east. Even then it varies depending on culture, most African Americans are not going to be attracted to very pale Scandinavian types but love latin or Mediterranean. Oh, well. You just have to accept who you are and what Allah made you. Every day, average women get married and have happy lives because not all men are just looking for eye candy. Personally I think not being trophy wife type is better because you know that you are married for more than the external, what happens if the light wife has an accident or gets fat, does she just get dumped. A lot of times yes.

    Anyway, I think it futile to get riled up over something that seems coded into human nature.

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  14. “Anyway, I think it futile to get riled up over something that seems coded into human nature.”

    I strongly disagree with that statement. Should I just accept the fact that some people will be undervalued and marginalized while others will be revered because of their skin tone? Colorism is learned behavior through family, education, media and society.
    What message do “fair and lovely” commercials give to young dark skinned women and men? To young girls, it says in order to be valued in society, you have to become lighter. To young boys it says, light skin defines beauty. When such a message is repeated time and time again from a young age, it will no doubt have an effect on many people’s perception of beauty and their perception of different people.

    This is a passage from an article on Marco Polo’s travels to Southern india.

    “In 1288 and again in 1293 the Venetian traveler Marco Polo visited the Pandyan kingdom and left a vivid description of the land and its people. Polo exclaimed that:

    The darkest man is here the most highly esteemed and considered better than the others who are not so dark. Let me add that in very truth these people portray and depict their gods and their idols black and their devils white as snow. For they say that God and all the saints are black and the devils are all white. That is why they portray them as I have described.”

    Why do you think that South-Indians have gone from almost one extreme to another in their color preferences? My answer is Aryan invasions from the north and colonialism.

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  15. Salaam alaikum,

    Actually, I wouldn’t base colorism on Aryans and colonialism. I have read racist writings about Black Africans from early Islamic writers and medieval Arabs. Early Islamic writers wrote about Black Africans because of there was both a viable slave trade with East Africa and the Abysinnian invasion of the Arabian Peninsula (i.e. Ashab al-Fil, the possesors of the Elephants). Early Islamic writers did not assume that Abyssinians were inferior, but they were an “other.” Blackness marked outsider status, meaning that one was not noble. Medieval Arabs picked up racial notions from the Greeks. It got more complicated over time. And race became associated with disbelief and blackness became associated with slave in Muslim societies as the other slave markets dried up in the 19th century. The interesting thing is that there was a time when Lebanese business preferred taking a second wife from Africa and many men from Yemen and the Hijaz went to Ethiopia to take wives and concubines.
    French travellers and British travellers noted that multi-racial households of many of Muslim noble men.

    “Don’t you guys think the color issue is alot more complex and nuanced than implied in the original post. I mean there are lots of dark Indians who are way darker than a lot of African Americans yet they are higher status because of the immigrant,income, education reasons.”
    It is nuanced and and complex, that is what makes it all the more worthwhile talking about. Still, many Indians would rather die than be considered “Blacker” than me. Like in Latin America, in the Muslim world, a whole complex of things goes into making someone Black features, hair texture, skin color, and lineage. I don’t think that it is encoded in our DNA to value whiteness and devalue blackness. Scholars have shown how ethnic boundaries are formed and the ways we perceive difference is a very complicated process.

    “Just like men like thin women with large chests men like lighter women, and we can’t blame it on colonialism because it exists everywhere china, Africa, India, Middle east.”
    Beauty is subjective and based upon cultural values. It changes over time, and thinness was not always the standard. Now, American society has a prediliction for women who look like adolescent boys with breasts. But if you look at Greek, Renaissance, Baroque, and Romantic portraits of women, they are all full figured women with a decent waist-hip ratio. Further, Black men have traditionally been drawn to curvier, “thick,” women who are bottom heavy. Thickness is stilll highly valued in the Black community, while thinness is still a mainstream value which leads to the prevalence of anorexia among young white women. This does not mean that Black women are immune to Western beauty standards, now more Black women are developing anorexia but I am not sure of the correlation between anorexia and assimilation into maintstream society.

    Unfortunately, many societies judge a woman’s worth by her beauty and when we judge beauty by lack of melanin, just like thinness, that devalues so many. It is not just about preferences, it is about attacking racism and colorism. There are women who are systematically marginalized, suffer racial abuses, and work discrimination because of the color of their skin. In a similar way, this society systematically discriminates against overweight people. We need to be reminded how wrong that is. I find value in the Prophet’s Last Speech about race: “A white is not better than a Black, a Black is not better than a White.” That goes for all the shades in between, we cannot judge a person’s worth based on their melanin.

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  16. Hmmm, I’m not going to address the color issue in depth. I’m a brown girl and I’m completely biased as to our beauty. I happen to think nothing’s prettier. Nothing.

    Anyway, I disagree with Tariq on the basis that Allah ta’Allah specifically made us into different tribes to show His creativity. Why would we consider something as absurd as meshing what He’s intentionally done and intentionally stated that He’s done? From what I know, during the Prophet’s (saaws) time the different tribes each had different banners. Maintaing cultural and national identity is one of the ways to stay balanced, as opposed to simply identifying with a Muslim identity. That causes imbalance according to Zaid Shaikr. More so, colorism exists just as racism. We wouldn’t all become one culture anyway. If we gave up our different cultural identities then people would begin to identify by neighborhood and family and caste systems would still be formed. More so, we would never be of the same color gradient unless we intentionally bred dark out. So Tariq’s argument is weak and disturbing. Way disturbing. I like my culture way too much to ever consider some nonsense like he mentioned. I’d venture to say that Tariq’s “controversial opinion” is unIslamic in it’s scope. I know that the Prophet (saaws) backed individual mixed marriages to promote understanding but he (saaws) in no way endorsed the elimination of what Allah ta’Allah explicitly created.

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  17. The only way this issue can be addressed (and TACKLED) is if we stand up and speak against it vociferously. It’s SOOO true that there’s comments here and there – sometimes muttered, sometimes proclaimed aloud – like Ismael stated; I know I’ve heard it and seen it in my south Asian community. But I can also say that once you get the reputation for not tolerating it and in fact, facing it head-on with guts, people quiet down, change their tune for your benefit and then, miracle of miracles, (I’ve seen this) suddenly start actually seeing things in a different way. And truthfully, I don’t see colorism amongst the religiously inclined young Western Muslims I know; As for culturally-religious young Western Muslims – unfortunately, it’s there – though not overtly. sad.

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  18. Pingback: The Color Complex « The Blog and the Bullet

  19. Pingback: The Color Complex « The Blog and the Bullet

  20. I don’t think Chocolatemilk Sheika understood me. I was only calling for a meshing of AMERICAN Muslims not of all people all around the world (which would be impossible even if it were tried)

    People should marry who they want to marry, but speaking in the context of the American Muslim Community, there will be division and “mini-communities” if we consider a segment of it to be not good enough to marry into. That is not community.

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  21. I wonder if “meshing” is realistic, even within the Muslim community.

    I never realized how racist and color conscious Muslims (and the world-at large) could be until I was an adult and ironically enough spent extensive amounts of time outside the country.

    I feel like even if we all become “mutts” there will still be systems of classification that place certain types of mixtures above others. Indeed, I have seen this happen with my mixed friends (granted none of them is Muslim). The part-Indian one is always approached first, followed by the latina, then the mixed (black and white, apparently that’s not exotic enough) and so on and so forth.

    I guess old habits die hard. I wish I could give real suggestions for a solution instead of scoffing at other people’s 😦

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  22. To throw another thought into the mix (if it’s not too late to comment on this!): I’ve noticed that some here have made comments along the lines that light-skin is automatically considered attractive before dark-skin, regardless of actual attractiveness. I have to say that I disagree. I’m a very attractive, “light”-skinned woman, (not mutually constitutive) and I also happen to be a larger-sized woman, which means that when I go through the Muslim matrimonial ads on-line, one might assume that I would have so many options because of my “light” skin (and yes, many, if not most, of the ads specify a “preference” for light skin), but, for me, that is immediately trumped by the co-occurring (if not MORE common) preference for thin women.

    I think, and I may be controversial and/or bitter here, that thinness trumps color. I’ve had people come up to me in my family (I’m half Pakistani, half white; I’m talking here about the Pakistani relatives) and say things like, “oh, you’re light skin is so beautiful; it’s too bad that you’re fat”. I am not exaggerating here.

    The irony, of course, is that while I may be “light” in the Pakistani/Muslim community, I’m still a woman of color in the US, and that is a key dimension of my life experiences. Also, while I may be fuller-figured, I’m not exactly bed-ridden or crippled by my weight!

    Also, I want to make the point that whether I’m considered “light”, as I am in the Pakstani/Muslim communities, or “exotic” (if one more white boy approaches me with that line…blech), I’m hardly interested in being fetishized by anybody. I also want to be clear that I’m not saying that colorism isn’t a major issue in the Muslim and various ethnic communities that we are discussing here (I know that it is), but that color does often intersect with other status characteristics (here I focus on weight, but we could add facial features, hair texture, etc., which I would argue are status characteristics when talking about female beauty).

    I’m at a place right now where I am really despairing of getting married, and I am defined as “light-skinned” in this community. I’m highly educated, have a beautiful face (and actually think the rest of myself is beautiful when I get away from other people’s willingness to judge me), and am very charming, yet my size 18 body has been a major barrier in seeking a marital partner. Frankly, my “light skin” does me no good (not that I especially want it to; as I said, that kind of fetishization is, well, ewwww, to be momentarily non-academic 😉

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  23. I think you made some good points about weight and beauty standards. Color does intersect with various status symbols. I focused on color, as opposed to attacking beauty standards, but you did open up the discussion to weight. Do not take this as an attack, because I think weight and color can warrant comparative studies.

    The weight issue is also culturally specific, where in nomadic societies larger women are a sign of wealth and prestige. Also, the obsession with thinness seems to me to be a relatively new phenomena, while the obsession with skin color dates back ages and affects people in many societies. It seems as if each epoch in each society defines beauty standards. But one darkness is hardly ever in, unless you are white and tanning. I have a unique perspective because I live with two standards of weight: The American thinness and African American thickness. I could never be comfortable in my skin because I received conflicting messages about what my ideal weight should be and my ideal body type. In one community I was lacking, but likewise in the other. A brother will overlook me for a light skinned larger framed woman anyday.On the other hand, I fit into the mainstream society’s standard of ideal body type because I was thin and top heavy. That meant, I was attractive to white men who rarely were seriously interested in me as a person. I see my sisters in immigrant communities struggling too. And they have their complexes, which I can’t claim to fully understand. But I know of a lot of Black, Arab, Central Asian, and South Asian men who are married to large white women, Latina women, and women in their own ethnicity, but few who are married to women who are darker than them than them (let alone phenotypically African). Weight can be a barrier, but I don’t know if it outdoes the race and color factor.

    In the Muslim community, the marriage market for women who have brains (and cultivate them) is slim. But I wouldn’t despair or settle for less. Who’d want to answer those ads where the man is asking for “white of skin” or “fair” anyways? They sound like creeps to me.

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  24. This is an excellent post. Inter-marriage between desis and blacks in america is an absolutely taboo topic. We both have color complexes, yup. But when a desi wants to marry a black girl – All HELL breaks loose! That type of marriage is not even a question to desi parents, meanwhile although they would hate it if their son(daughter more so) married a non-desi, white convert, they would discuss it. Sad world huh?

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  25. Yeah, this topic is common in the Carribean where there are many South Asians. There are practicing Muslim families would rather marry their children off to Hindus as opposed to Afro-Carribean Muslims. Says a lot about their priorities.

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  26. Well Margari, from reading your posts and seeing a couple of your pics I would conclude that there’s nothing wrong with your “body” type at all. The problem that I see being and AA male, is the fact that most professional and educated black American muslims brothers typically opt for non-black women…and ti quite unfortunately on both sides. Being and educated and hard working brother myself…it was indeed quite difficult to find sisters who were either not married or not divorced with MULTIPLE children by some convict.

    For someone as yourself, it will be difficult to find a good black American muslim brother on the same educational level as yourself =( , because unfortunately many in the AA convert community have brought most of thier “niggerisms” with them into islam. Many AA brothas are just gettin out of jail, have long rap sheets and have to hustle inscence, oils, and books. While the educated and blue collar brothers with stable jobs and no rap sheets will usually either marry non-black or go out of the country to marry. This is the current trend that I’ve noticed.

    In Morocco, I notice that the men LOVE caucasian women, even if she’s fattest one that the most white men wouldn’t want anyway. I don’t really know how Moroccan men react to African-American women though….

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  27. I will have to agree with Yahya on this as well. When I was looking for a wife, I could not get any AA sisters in the New England area that were interested in me because I was not “athletic” enough or sexy or something. The two AA women I was introduced to had multiple children already (I was 25 at the time). I was told it would be near impossible to find a AA woman my age without children. Not to mentioned, I wanted a someone with some college education. I was a great catch for non-Muslim AA women but could not find one to save my life. Similar to many of the AA brothers I knew at that time (late ’90s). My friend married a Moroccan woman and I was introduced and eventually married her sister. I was too dark for Desi women (the family was not having that) and I could not get any time with immigrant Arab women. I went to numerous masjids looking for a wife with no luck. Mind you I had a BS in Physics and was working on my Masters in EE. My friend’s sister-in-law was the only viable option for me at the time that matched my requirements and I did not think about lighten up. Really until now, I was not aware that Muslims actually think this way – I thought this was a non-Islamic African-American phenomena. Lastly, when I went to Morocco to get married, I met a brother from New Jersey whose wife had connected 22 AA brothers with Moroccan women from his masjid alone! He told me of his marriage to a AA sister and it sounded nightmarish – but that is one man’s story. Anyway, I have heard that AA Muslims have a good reputation in Morocco as being nice to their wives. I have heard this from more than one person.

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  28. Bilal,

    That is a rosy picture for why AA men have a good reputation for being good husbands in Morocco. In a developing nation with 25% unemployment, where there are mail order brides, where so many men cannot afford to get married because they are paid far below their worth or cannot get a job at all, a man from America is a ticket out of poverty, frustration, and destitution. I am not saying this is a bad thing, but you need to paint a more realistic picture about the motivations. I had a boss who offered me several times free tickets to Morocco. A free vacation all in exchange for meeting a guy. My boss assured me that I could say no, but I was not trying to put myself in that bad position. The primary thing was that I was a walking green card, the other stuff like me being Muslim, educated, nice, cute, whatever were just pluses. Believe me, I am sure that the Moroccans who were trying to marry me would have prefered a white woman first, then a Moroccan woman, then an AA woman. The difference between the brothers and the many women who have refused green card marriages is that women do not appreciate being pursued for material reasons. We find that reprehensible. But since both parties in those marriages have ulterior motives (green card and ticket out, fetishizing Mediterrenean women, seeking lighter brighter and therefore someone they perceive to be more attractive, and escaping what they perceive to be Black women’s matriarchy).

    My ex, who had a MA from an Ivy League school had no problem finding AA women. None of them had kids. In fact, he broke off several engagements. He still wanted to go to Morocco until he was introduced to me, at 10 years his junior. I think brothers fetishize Moroccan women, they are the exotic other, and they don’t feel like sell outs because it is in North Africa. I was on the West Coast.

    Seems so much easier to take an international flight than to hit up some matrimonial networking sites, conferences, or contact imams from different communities about available AA sisters. Whatever….

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  29. Margari, what does Fetishing mean to you? You throw that word around a lot to describe peoples motives, which kind of strikes me as pseudo-scientific psychobabble. I say that not be facetious or insulting but the sort of assumptions you make about peoples motives comes off as…unrigorous(made that up but I couldn’t think of anything else) Anecdotes are cool as well but they don’t paint the whole picture. In my jamaat, out of like 20 AA males only one or two are married to non-AA women. Many married non-muslim black women who eventually converted. So, we “see” different situations in our environment but I think one should be more careful when trying to discern anothers intentions.
    And its funny that you point out that women don’t like being pursued for material reasons but than why all the emphasis on beauty and whatnot. And what about women who look at a man’s educational attainment and social level?
    BTW, what do you think about women who prefer darker skinned men.
    My sister has a Latina friend who explicitly seeks out dark-skinned black men. And I’ve been outrighted rejected for being light skinned. Thats my personal experience and don’t tell the whole story.
    One other thing I’ll like to point out.I think there is difference btw beauty stigma of dark skin and the social stigma of dark skin. One may find a dark skinned women attractive but refuse to marry because of the social stigma(they may not want them or their children to face racial discrimination or the desire to please the family.
    Other cultures may find light skin to be more sexually appealing but there doesn’t necessarily bear any stigma to marry a darker skinned individual. Apparently Brazil and some of the North African countries may be like that.
    You also have to take in consideration the differences in class and colorism(do the poor or the rich discriminate more. Do the different classes have different beauty standards)
    There are also differing beauty standards btw men and women.
    Take thin body and thick body. You would think that the larger society of American men prefer the skinny girl but thats only if you pick up the fashion mags. Flip through playboy once in a while and the girls are noticably more full-figured. Fashion mags are for women, Playboy for men. A difference.

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  30. Pertaining to the last post, I don’t read playboy(or condone pornography) but I did take a class in University dealing with culture and psychology and the professor used examples to point out the clear differences.

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  31. im form bangladehs and married to a carribean/jamaican sister, and i tell you what my dear brothers adn sisters it is hard work for the community, but allh gives us strength to go and and ishallah knows our intentions are sincere.

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