We are racist, like our parents were

Published: January 12, 2011

The discrimination against dark-skinned people in Pakistan is as prevalent among adults as it is at the school level.

Growing up I was often told by my parents to stay out of the sun. Like most middle class Pakistanis, they were worried that the complexion of my skin will become dark if I spent too much time outside. My aunts flung concerned glances at me and my cousins during summers, especially when we were returning home after playing cricket, and made taunting comments about our tanned skin. Thus, from a very early age I learned that having dark skin was something to be embarrassed of.

My classmates were also familiar with this racial demarcation, so making fun of kids with a darker skin tone was quite common. The discrimination against dark-skinned people in Pakistan is as prevalent among adults as it is at the school level. For most front desk, sales and customer relations jobs, preference is given to fair-skinned candidates because many companies believe that employees with a white-complexion can make a better impression on the clients. While looking for a suitable spouse for their sons, parents almost always give extra points to fair-skinned girls. I still remember being flabbergasted when a few of my male cousins rejected scores of girls solely on the basis of the color of their skin.

Let’s face it. We are racist without even realising it. But, it is not our fault. We’ve been conditioned since childhood to hold the fairer-skin tone in higher regard. Now the million dollar question is how this discrimination came to be so deeply rooted in the culture and social fabric of Pakistan?

It seems to have been a gradual process that began thousands of years ago when white-skinned foreigners invaded the subcontinent. From the Aryans to Greeks to the more recent Europeans, we came under the rule of a variety of foreign powers, most of whom had a fair-complexion. As a result of this, we began to think of white-skinned people as a superior race. The caste system in India further contributed to this discrimination because the Brahmans, who belong to the highest cast, also have fair complexion.

However, discrimination on the basis of the caste system has been abolished throughout the subcontinent, and European powers have long since stepped out of both India and Pakistan. Why then, are we still stuck in this old and absurd form of racism? Why are we unable to grow out of this discriminatory mindset and look beyond the color of a person’s skin?

The answer partly lies in the portrayal of beauty in our media. While many Indian actresses have a darker skin tone, not once have I seen a Pakistani actress who was not white. There are many Pakistani ads, songs and films that advocate the merits of having a fair-complexion. Even corporations are instilling and reinforcing this racism in our minds by promoting beauty products and creams aimed at making the skin fairer.

Kya goray rang ka zamana kabhi ho ga na purana?

(Will the age of white-complexion never grow old?)

Whether or not we will ever completely overcome this racism, I do not know. But, perhaps it will slowly seep out of our minds if the media stops reinforcing it. We, on our part, should also stop idolising the white skin and must not pass on this racist notion to the younger generation.


Obed Suhail

A senior editor for MyPRGenie, a PR platform and newswire. He graduated from LUMS in 2005

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • http://islamabad Maryam

    i totally agree……
    thats exactly how it has always been and will always be.

    well written !Recommend

  • Faust

    It was also a common definer of class, or caste if you will, in most European countries. If you had a tanned skin it meant you had to work outside, you were a peasant, pale skin was a indicator of wealth and privilege.

    Until the full explosion of the industrial age in the West, where most workers went into factories and offices and became pale, and so tanning became fashionable for the upper class.

    So, is it racism, or class snobbery?Recommend

  • Deen Sheikh

    Pavlovian style, conditioned learning. It is not just restricted to one’s skin tone, but extends to include discriminatory practices towards short height, over weight, bald and even physically challenged individuals. So not only if one is dark is labelled unattractive, but also if one is too fat or too skinny or too short or too tall or not even hair on the head. Even people with genuine disabilities are given such a brush off. We are an intolerant bunch.

    And I am just curious Nadir-El Edroos will say about this little blog of yours? Im curious for his remarks….Recommend

  • http://www.sorcim.com nauman

    most of your observations are correct.Recommend

  • Disco Molvi

    This brings back some memories.
    In my school years, whenever I used to hear ‘Kaala gutter ka naala‘(Black like a gutter drain) from my schoolmates, I used to shut them by saying ‘Hazrat Bilal (R.A) was also Black, wasn’t he?’ and then I used to enjoy their confounded expressions.Recommend

  • http://na prasad

    I realised how superficial our fairness is when I referred to another south asian as being fair – my American (white) colleague then remarked that it is funny that I referred to that person as being fair when it never occurred to her that that there was a difference in complexion between that south asian and I (or is it me?)

    The point being that we make much ado about our fairness. Granted a Hrithik Roshan or Kareena Kapoor are much lighter than the average South Asian but most of us (Indians atleast) are dark skinned and should be comfortable with that. But see how our eyes light up if someone comes up to us and tells us “Oh but you dont look south Indian…. at all” !!!Recommend

  • George

    I suggest that Pakistanis who think along the lines of light skin being beautiful should visit Arizona here in the US and try and cross the security check point at the Phoenix airport. You will be the first one to be stopped, while a dark skinned Pakistani who looks black will not be hassled. Happened to a few light skinned Indians at that airport while their darker skinned colleagues mistaken for black passed through without any problem. Due to anti-Hispanic and anti-moslem feelings in this country, light skin especially for South Asians is a liability as they are frequently mistaken for Hispanics and hence for being illegally in this country.Recommend

  • http://www.pakspectator.com Sana Saleem

    Even if we want to think in good way…. Oo We are not racist… People will not let us do so…

    Unfortunately this is the problem with the whole world. Where you go, you’ll be treated in the same way.. The whites (Goras) will think that we are inferior and same happens in any part of the world. So, every one is racist :)Recommend

  • http://syedaabidabokhari.wordpress.com The Only Normal Person Here.

    Awakening. Colonialism still haunts us. Recommend

  • rukun

    @The Only Normal Person Here.: haha. but true, caste system was abolished but the colonists brewed a different form of class system in our society. something like that was said in some pak studies lectureRecommend

  • colonised

    hmm but fair skinned people are superior, ain’t they??Recommend

  • parvez

    Nice write up. But realistically the kala-gora divide will remain the makers of Fair & Lovely will see to that. Recommend

  • http://bakedsunshine.wordpress.com/ Shumaila

    You’re right about the fair-dark prejudice, but I don’t think in language terms it should strictly be called racism. Racism is discrimination based on race. What you’re talking about is superficiality or simple prejudice, not racism, since the people in question are usually all pakistanis and only their skin tone is different.

    Call it what you will, its wrong, of course. Recommend

  • anon

    @Shumaila: People with white skin do not become dark even if their expose their skin to sunlight for hours because they have a different genetic structure. There are many races in Pakistan ranging from Aryans to Mongols. So, it would not be wrong to use the term racism in this scenario. Recommend

  • SRV

    It’s not only restricted to skin color, discrimination exists in every possible form all around us all across the world. Call it racism, biasedness, snobbery, class discrimination, caste discrimination not a single person is beyond it. Recommend


    Jo Kehta Hai Wohi Hota Hai :)

    I totally agree with your point. This is actually the most absurd kind of racism because the ‘un-fair’ people actually belong to the same race as the ‘fair’ ones.
    I’m sure most of us are subconsciously racist.Recommend

  • http://website.com [email protected]

    Good work Obed. Change is working for you :)
    But lets face it, white is a nice color. And our skins are not tanned they are dark :PRecommend

  • http://jannath bvindh

    Hmmm…may be that’s why Michael Jackson became a muslim….that and “little boys shiny like pearls”Recommend

  • http://www.bonfriends.org/2011/01/08/parents/ Marina Khan

    Nice article. Loved itRecommend

  • Shariz

    Dont agree at all beacuse you want or like the thing you lacking, as we asian have dark skin but people specially youngsters are mad to get fair or bright skin its iust because we dont have that kind of skin, and then where ever you see if it about job or mum looking for wife for her son the first think they would see or get impressed is girl’s skin colour and if you have fair bright skin then you would get advantage of it its like saying in urdu ” Andhon may kana raja ”

    On the other side of the world where the majority is white its opposite there people are mad to get dark, brown tanned skin like us, in our country parents dont allow kids to go out when its too sunny even my self I remember when I used to play cricket I wasnt bothered at that how hot or sunny day is but after getting back home my mum used to shout and agry, but here people wait for summer to come so they go out in garden sit there in sun for long using so many things on skin to get tanned then next day they show how tanned they have got, after seeing all this I compare my self to them whites skined so I feel that how lucky I am that I am brown I tell my white friends that it not easy to have brown skin you cant even get it but im lucky and proud that I have dark skin and I am originally and naturally tanned.Recommend

  • Tony Singh

    @ Author
    We may have actresses of dusky skin here in India, but majority of North Indians still have this bias for fairer skin. It is no wonder that companies manufacturing creams claiming to lighten skin tone are raking in the mullah. Guess some prejudices take generations to eradicate.Recommend

  • batool

    do you remember being told drinking tea makes us darker?
    BAHAHAHAHA- oh our racist moms!Recommend

  • Humanity

    Skin color is the least of the problems facing Pakistan is these troubled times. Talk about our parents being bigots and espousing bigotry in their children.

    Become a force of good by addressing the intolerance and hatred we have for others. Look at others with a compassionate eye and you won’t even see the color of their skin.

    Please, let us arouse and espouse the humanity in us. This country yearns for kindness and love. The future generations depend on the actions we take today. Please let us live up to their expectations. Thank for reading this cry for help. God bless this country and its people!Recommend

  • http://www.tanzeel.wordpress.com Tanzeel

    You have conveniently ignored “Sanwali saloni si mehbooba” sung by the same band. If your mom forbade you to play for longer hours in Sun she was not being racist but she wanted to protect your skin from tan burn or freckles, excessive sun light could have harmed your original skin color. On the other hand its a fact that Pakistanis are obsessed with fairer complexion, every body has h/her likeness but that doesn’t make them racist.Recommend

  • Anoop

    You have chosen a very good topic.

    White people sit hours in the baking son to look more like us and we want to be more like them!

    I dont know how many times I’ve yelled at people who have criticized others for having a darker skin tone.

    Who cares about the colour of the skin, the colour of the heart matters.Recommend

  • http://deleted Sabeen Masood

    i dont agree with u. i think you have taken the ridiculous taunts and jokes of your young ( and children are innocent and senseless) friends to your heart. i do not give priority to fair people but yes, we all sometimes talk about appearance like their complexion, height and weight.
    You have written the article in a manner that declare that Pakistan is a senseless nation and dangerously racist. Read the bloody stories of racism in america and Germany than you will say that Pakistanis are outspoken and fun-loving but not racist.Recommend

  • http://www.dudekichussian.blogspot.com Hamza

    Wah! u spoke my heart out :)
    Hum Kaale hain to kia hua dilwale hain Recommend

  • sahar syed

    The biggest contributors are the fairness cream ads…who brainwash the already complexed girls in feeling pathetic about themselves.Recommend

  • rehan

    Well written!!
    @Sahar Syed. Couldn’t agree more!You’ve hit te bull!!
    I was born n raised in Nigeria for 16 years!Blacks are a very interesting race and believe me unlike us confused BROWNS they are damn proud of their colour!..which makes me want to say,”Goray ne hamein Sahi DANDA diya hua tha..and even till today!” Recommend

  • Babs

    “However, discrimination on the basis of the caste system has been abolished throughout the subcontinent”

    I do not agree with this. Go to any village in Punjab and this caste system is very prevalent. In fact so prevalent that one mistakes it to be a Hindu society instead of what is purported to be an Islamic one.

    The concept of “paleet”,”chuura musali” is very much alive. As is the separation of utensils. A high caste person won’t drink from a utensil used by a low cast person, as has been that practiced by the Hindus. This has been carried over, dressed in Islamic clothing and presented as a valid. In fact this backwardness is the starting point to which a certain Bibi was put in jail due to blasphemy, and a certain public official, murdered. Recommend

  • Robin

    Yes, It is all because of the Hindu Caste System; Of course…Recommend

  • Athenian

    Reading the above post made me think that people waste their time and sometimes life concerned with things that have no value at all. Skin colour? Why should people in any country be judged on the basis of their complexion? All we should be interested in is people’s hearts and minds, not the way they look. Here in Greece we have a huge number of Pakistanis easily distinguisable due to their skin colour. They contribute to our culture and make it richer with their own culture, language, religion and appearence.The same counts with other immigrants from other countries as well. I would never dare to consider anyone inferior because s/he happens to be darker than me. Pakistanis should be proud of their colour which by the way is considered to be a sign of beauty and health by the majority of Greeks. Did you know that Greeks spend endless hours in the beaches under the sun in the summer time to get as tanned as possible, even if they know that they may risk their health? (potential skin cancer). Also, there are many products in the market (creams, sprays), that give you colour before you go to the beaches in the summer so that you do not feel embarassed for the white skin winter left you with. Pakistanis, celebrate your complexion and ignore racist comments. Recommend

  • maria

    I think issues with skin colour are less complex in Pakistan than India. Whereas in India, skin colour may have some basis in the caste system, skin colour in Pakistan may also have to do with ancestry. In India Brahmins are said to be from the original Aryans and darker skinned Indians are the Dravidians. This is the Indian caste system. Pakistan has many more racial influences because of its location. For example I recall my grandparents saying so and so was dark because they were originally Hindu converts from India whereas so and so is originally from Central Asia which is reflected in their appearance. People who are darker skinned are not felt to be from the invading class of Muslim races which ruled the region. For Pakistanis, it’s not a caste thing but ancestry of one’s family. But then it is confusing since most people in Swat, Dir and Northern Pakistan are fair skinned with light eyes and they are pure natives.Recommend

  • Ahmed

    Before the British came to India, there was no prejudice against darker skins. The Indian subcontinent has 4000 years for literary history, starting from the Vedas. And, there is really is no tinge of color prejudice. In fact, dark skin and dark hair often considered beautiful and auspicious. Not surprisingly many heros of the vedic times were dark skinned. Primary example is Krishna, who was called that due to his dark skin (Sanskrit: krishna = black), was quite a hit with the ladies and the prototypical he-male in Indian mythology :-) Also, in Sanskrit poetics, the woman is often compared to the dark colored “koyal”. Heck, the primary interpreter of the Vedas, Veda Vyasa, is himself described as dark skinned.

    The color bias came in with the Europeans who wanted to divide and rule. Color was an obvious way to break up the people, as was caste and religion. They even worked hard to reinterpret the Vedas to perpetuate their own interpretation of “varna” and the (so-called) “aryan invasion”. I must say that they succeeded splendidly for three centuries, though modern historians don’t quite buy those theories!Recommend

  • Nobody

    “It seems to have been a gradual process that began thousands of years ago when white-skinned foreigners invaded the subcontinent. From the Aryans to Greeks to the more recent Europeans, we came under the rule of a variety of foreign powers, most of whom had a fair-complexion. As a result of this, we began to think of white-skinned people as a superior race. The caste system in India further contributed to this discrimination because the Brahmans, who belong to the highest cast, also have fair complexion.”

    If that’s all you got out of this article, then my friendly advice to you is stop skim-reading (or selective reading) and actually read & try to comprehend the article before posting (for your own sake), or perhaps you shouldn’t post at if all you have to offer is sarcasm & disdain. Recommend