Combating Colorism Amid a Global Racial Reckoning: An Interview with Nina Davuluri

Note: The transcript of this interview provided below has been edited for style and concision. For this reason, it may deviate in part from the video.

Nina Davuluri is an acclaimed advocate, filmmaker and TV host. She gained international recognition by becoming the first Indian American and South Asian to win the Miss America title in 2014. Most recently, she has produced a documentary called “COMPLEXion,” which seeks to disrupt global beauty standards by illuminating stories of colorism, self-love, and diversity.

Harvard Political Review: Right after you won Miss America 2014, articles were asking, “Is Miss America too dark to be Miss India?” Take me back to that moment. How did you feel when you heard those remarks? How have those remarks inspired your current work?

Nina Davuluri: I remember waking up in a dream-like state. It’s very difficult to describe that moment in words. Growing up in a South Asian family, you hear a lot of comments like, “Don’t go out in the sun, you’re going to get too dark.” It was something that had followed me throughout many phases of my life. This was a culminating moment where I asked myself when I read that headline, why is this the first thing we say in terms of beauty standards? Why do women more so than our male counterparts deal with this idea of colorism — that fair skin is considered more beautiful, more successful, and more elite than darker-skinned complexions? That was the moment where I said enough is enough. I have a platform, and I want to use it to educate others. I knew that people were hungry for this conversation. To tell this on a much broader scale was our goal with producing COMPLEXion. As we started filming, we found that colorism was different in every culture. We really wanted to tell the human stories.

HPR: When you talk about differences that exist in communities, cultures, and regions of the world, what have you learned through producing COMPLEXion in terms of how colorism uniquely manifests within countries in South Asia and globally? And why do you think it has been such a persistent issue in many of these cultures? 

ND: We were able to film a part of our Africa chapter, but a majority of our work was in India. Whether it was a tradition or a family member or a comment, I found that colorism was based on very archaic notions of ideologies that were passed down from older generations. And how that manifested was different for every person. When we talk about skin-whitening products, there’s certainly an industry component to it. What products or chemicals are companies using? Are they toxic? Are they safe? But how colorism was affecting people in their day-to-day lives was what we really wanted to tell. 

HPR: With the current moment that we’re in — this racial reckoning following the killing of George Floyd and others — have you felt that the discussion surrounding colorism has taken shape differently in terms of how much we’re talking about it or even in thinking about colorism as a form of racism?

ND: Absolutely. I think [the racial reckoning] really sparked an entire conversation within our own communities around the world about being actively anti-racist. We have to address this in South Asian communities as well. What are the conversations that we’re having at our table? Colorism is certainly a component of racism, and it’s something that I have experienced, and something that several individuals across generations have experienced. This was finally the point, especially when you have companies like Unilever, L’Oreal, and Johnson & Johnson saying that Black Lives Matter, and yet they’re still producing skin-whitening creams in other parts of the world. You have to actually make changes across all spectrums of your business. You can’t just preach something in one part of the world.

HPR: I know that you also wrote a letter to the CEOs of some of these major companies that you just mentioned: Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble. Unilever has now renamed their skin cream from  Fair and Lovely to Glow and Lovely, and L’Oreal is phasing out terms such as whiteness and fairness. These companies, however, are still selling skin-lightening products. Do you think that these companies have gone far enough with this name change and rebrand, or should they completely halt the selling of such products?

ND: I think it’s certainly a first step. Do I think changing a name to Glow and Lovely is enough? Absolutely not. We really have to talk about what this ideology is and what the hierarchy is. When I started my petition, See My Complexion, it was calling out not only the skin-whitening companies that were producing these products, but also the Bollywood industry. They have a huge responsibility to acknowledge that they have also perpetuated colorism. Bollywood, as well as media conglomerates, have poured billions of dollars into building one very hierarchical racist image, that fair skin is considered the only type of elite skin or beautiful skin. I would love to see Bollywood have more representation of what are the true skin colors of India. I would love to see these companies who have announced that they are putting an end to fair, white, and light actually do that in their rebranding. Is their messaging going to change, or are they still sending the same message that fair skin is more beautiful? 

HPR: Companies have made a lot of money from selling fairness creams. What would you say to companies that are continuing to produce such products because of those financial reasons?

ND: It’s not about necessarily banning these products. It’s about how we can change this conversation. I think that does start with companies. Let’s see how they roll out their rebranding campaign. Are they going to start using darker-skinned models or models of all colors in their campaigns? Bollywood has to recognize that they are also perpetuating one sort of beauty ideology. And that’s starting to happen — they are being called out. As individuals, you can continue to sign the petition, but of course, money talks. So are you buying these products? Do you know people who are buying these products? If there’s no demand, then obviously companies will not continue to produce these items. And then there is this other part of social media where you see Bollywood celebrities using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, and then they’re endorsing skin-whitening creams. It’s incredibly important that we use social media for the right reasons, and not necessarily everyone does that. I’m hoping that now people will start to recognize that it’s also our responsibility to see what other people are doing and hold them accountable. This is a conversation that has become global, and I think it’s certainly here to stay. 

HPR: I’m sure you’ve watched “Indian Matchmaking” on Netflix. Some of the show’s participants have expressed desires to be matched with potential spouses who are fair-skinned, which has sparked a lot of discussion globally about colorism and casteism. Do you believe the show is illuminating colorism as an issue or instead normalizing fairness as a beauty standard?

ND: I don’t think it’s normalizing fairness. I think what the show really did was bring all the issues that are pervasive in Indian culture to the forefront. These are conversations that are typically private that we are able to see happen. And I guarantee you that so many people probably had similar conversations in their own homes about wanting someone fair and tall or of a certain caste. What’s interesting is that there were many people who were upset by the show and saying that it isn’t necessarily reflective of the culture, but I think it is. I’m lucky that it’s not something I experienced myself, but of course, there are still people going through this, even as South Asian Americans. These are conversations that are still happening in people’s homes. Colorism very much does exist in America too. The more we talk about it, the more it’s brought to the forefront. 

HPR: Even if the show is acknowledging or portraying the issue as reflectively as possible, do you think seeing a positive counterexample could have been a more powerful symbol? Or is it more powerful to have this example that you believe is pretty much a mirror of what is happening in a lot of South Asian communities?

ND: It is important to show both sides, and the show tried to do that to an extent. I think the show did balance the issues pretty well. It will be interesting to see if there’s a season two and what that will hold. The fact that we have a show like this, and that it is being seen worldwide, is important. We need to understand that representation is there. I hope that with season two, the producers learn and grow from this experience.

HPR: You mentioned traditional ideologies that might be held in a lot of families. What are some of the best strategies to approach sensitive family conversations about colorism?

ND: It’s not just one conversation. It’s an ongoing lifelong conversation. I think assimilation has to happen from both sides. The most important thing is having an open line of communication with your family. If you’re disagreeing on something, ask those questions. Ask them why. Yes, it’s difficult. But I think that we have to start these conversations ourselves. The more we normalize difficult conversations, the more change happens. And it has to happen within our families first.

HPR: For a lot of young girls who have been struggling with this issue and received really hurtful comments, what message would you send to them?

ND: I would say that if someone in your family has said something hurtful, you really just need to sit down and have a conversation with that family member, and know that it’s okay to stand up for yourself. You can certainly be polite about it, but ask that person why they think that. Asking them about their beliefs is a good starting point. But ultimately, it’s our responsibility to dismantle colorism and not stay silent.

HPR: What are the larger goals for your COMPLEXion series, and what type of impact do you hope the series will have?

ND: I showed a pre-screening of the series to my mom, and she said, “I think this is the first time that people will stop to think and ask themselves why we have done this over generations.” When you hear stories from young children who are being bullied about their skin color, who have finally stood up for themselves to older people, I hope this changes that for other people. It’s the human stories that I hope that others see themselves reflected in.

Image Source: Nina Davuluri

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