Michelle Obama

How Michelle Obama's Fashion Diplomacy Punctured India's Color Prejudice

The First Lady's love for fashion exposed Indians to a different conception of beauty


Michelle Obama
national museum of american history / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

President Barack Obama went to India seeking a breakthrough on global warming and regional security. But First Lady Michelle Obama's fashion diplomacy may deliver one on an issue of far more immediate relevance to the lives of millions of Indians: Breaking India's notorious obsession with skin color.

Days before she shocked Saudi Arabia's royalty by showing up at King Abdullah's funeral sans headscarf, Michelle Obama had become a fashion icon in India, the land of skin whitening creams, which treats blackness as an affliction.

President Obama noted in a speech to a youth audience last week in India that there were moments in his life in America when he was "treated differently because of the color of my skin."

In that case, he should have tried growing up dark — especially as a girl — in India.

Even though India doesn't have a history of slavery or KKK-type white supremacy, racism — or, rather, colorism — is rampant. Explanations abound, but the most plausible one involves India's history of domination by lighter-skinned races, starting with the Aryans, then the Mughals, and culminating with the British, whose quasi-apartheid ways formalized what was until then more of an unarticulated prejudice.

But whatever the root cause, the fact is that colorism is now ubiquitous in India. The first thing that parents notice about newborns — after counting their fingers and toes — is their skin color. Pregnant women are routinely advised to start their mornings with white foods like milk or blanched almonds — not tea or coffee — to ensure a lighter complexioned baby. Girls are admonished to stay out of the sun because a tan makes them instantly less beautiful. "Darkie" and "blackie" are terms of derision on the playground. Matrimonial ads grade the skin color of the prospective bride and groom with "very fair" being the most desirable category, "wheatish" — the term-of-art for Halle Berry-style skin tone — being acceptable, and anything darker regarded as a major flaw. Skin-whitening creams such as "Fair and Lovely" to lighten every body part — including the vagina — represent a $500 million industry that growing at nearly 18 percent annually.

In India, skin color doesn't just affect one's prospects in the marriage marketplace, but also in the job marketplace. The beauty industry has no use for really dark-skinned women. Even someone of the skin tone of Nina Davuluri, the Indian-American Miss America, would have a hard time finding anything more than a bit part in Bollywood, let alone becoming a model. And darker people are often relegated to back-end jobs in retail and other industries as well.

Nor do Indians judge only each other by their skin color. White tourists are lavished with attention while African visitors often experience borderline abuse. Diepiriye KuKu, a gay black American who studied in New Delhi, reports that discrimination in India involves a basic lack of courtesy and kindness — and more. He recounts that while his white partner was offered tea and saluted by guards at an ATM, he was asked why he was there. He was denied visas, apartments, and entrance to discos.

Likewise, Mary Frances Barry, former chairwoman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, who once came to the offices of The Detroit News editorial board when I worked there, told me that India was the most color-conscious country that she had visited. Bellboys at five-star hotels would ignore her while rushing to serve her white colleagues.

There is no easy cure for this prejudice because most Indians, outside of a few progressive circles, don't think there is anything wrong with it. "India is racist, and happy about it," notes KuKu.

That might be an overstatement, but it is absolutely true that shaming isn't an effective strategy against Indian-style racism (which, incidentally, is also prevalent in much of Southeast Asia, especially Singapore). Although the psychological toll of making dark-skinned people feel inherently inferior is immense in a country with a lot of dark-skinned people, it's not equal to slavery or apartheid. Those are the kinds of large injustices around which it is possible to build a campaign to jolt a society out of its apathy by organizing the victims. But in India, almost everyone has both perpetrated and suffered from colorism at some point. Every family sports a variety of skin tones, allowing the same parents, say, to show off their light-skinned daughter with pride while enduring the sting of having their darker-skinned daughter stigmatized. Both situations seem normal to them.

That's why last year's ban on commercials portraying dark-skinned people negatively is unlikely to change attitudes, even if it were enforceable. A "Dark is Beautiful" campaign launched by a dusky Bollywood actress may help, but only at the margins, because Indians have an allergy to preachy public campaigns.

The most effective antidote to colorism might be confronting Indians with alternative conceptions of beauty that stretch their conventional notions. And, without actively trying, Michelle Obama did just that.

Standing tall next to most powerful man on the planet, she exuded the quiet confidence of an intelligent, empowered, professional woman — neither trying to shrink to avoid scrutiny nor over-project to hog the limelight. She certainly didn't treat her skin color as a liability that needed to be camouflaged or covered, which is something that dark Indian women sadly often find themselves doing. Rather, as is the first lady's wont, she took fashion risks to showcase who she is, experimenting with bright colors and bold patterns.

Not all of them worked. But Indian women were transfixed from the moment she stepped out of the plane in an unusual black-and-white checkered suit embossed with a large, bold, blue floral design created by Bibhu Mohapatra, a New York-based Indian-American designer. They were glued to their TVs, eagerly awaiting a glimpse of her outfits. The Indian fashion press was abuzz with every detail of her hairstyle, accessory, and makeup. Fashion websites depicted her in various Indian outfits, trying to entice her to wear one. She was the black version of Jackie Kennedy.

No doubt her husband, a popular and charismatic figure with Indians, helped boost her cache as a fashion icon. But Bill Clinton was all of that too — yet Hillary Clinton never became India's glam queen.

Michelle Obama's critics might be tempted to dismiss her love of fashion and clothes as a frivolous self-indulgence. She can't knock down India's color prejudice in one visit, but by taking herself — and her appearance — seriously, she might have given her dark-skinned Indian sisters a push in scaling the country's formidable color wall.

 A version of this column originally appeared in The Week.

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  1. Oh dear God.

    1. This is the kind of stupid, worthless bullcrap you write about as a distraction when the alpha males of your wet dreams are decapitating reporters and burning people alive for fun.

  2. She was the black version of Jackie Kennedy.

    Great analogy! Except for that bit about Jackie being pretty and classy. But other than that, great analogy!

    1. DON’T TELL ME YOU WOULDN’T. For the story?

      1. *barf*

    2. Did Jackie have a barn ass?

      I really wanna know her BMI before I hear her make another food recommendation to anyone. Because there’s no way that linebacker is anywhere near the recommended BMI.

  3. A version of this column originally appeared in The Week

    Does anybody actually write for Reason these days? Why does H&R get the Daily Beast and Time sloppy seconds??

    1. i was curious about that. do they get paid multiple times for this?

    2. Seriously, is this the shit that my donation is paying for?

  4. HA.

  5. I like her in that white dress. You can barely see her penis.

    1. Made me laugh.

    2. Hey, knock it off. Wookies get to deceive themselves that they’re attractive too. Besides, if you tell them differently, they’ll tear your arms off.

  6. Oh puleeaaseee, spare us!

    Can’t we get a new fluff piece here at H&R? I’m bored with this one.

    1. This is the second time around for this one, isn’t it?

  7. Don’t like the article, but I like the alt-text

    1. Yes, that does deserve a +1. Credit where credit is due.

  8. Everyone does racism worse than the USA- but we’re the only ones who openly talk about it, so we’re stereotyped.

    1. Yeah, Europeans are casually racist in ways that most Americans would find shocking.

      1. This is very true. And they don’t even notice it, though in their defense it’s usually not hateful, just kind of boilerplate “other tribe” shit.

  9. Btw, where is the pin it button? This is soo going on my Wookie style pinterest board.

  10. I think most of the Shikha hate here is retarded, but this article… I just… huh?

    1. I live to hate Shikha.

      okay maybe not, but it’s a hobby.

  11. I’m not sure if this article is serious or not. Is it too early for April Fool’s?

  12. What is it she’s supposed to have done? Shown up in India? I’m not clear on the big event or what it’s changed in India.

    I believe American women in official or quasi-official capacities like the First lady have been not covering their heads in Saudi Arabia for some time now.

  13. Must I remind the commenters here: The substance of style, bitches.

    While MO isn’t my favorite, well, anything, she (or her stylist) does have a good sense of what translates well in public. And, yes, style is important. It influences choices and perceptions in a sometimes deep and lasting way.

    So put away your dislike of the wookie (and Shikha) and realize her point has merit.

    This place was better when Postrel was here.

    1. MO has got as much class as school at five in the morning. You can dress her up in the finest, and she’s still got no class.

        1. Awesome! Thanks! Haven’t seen that in decades and have been looking for that for years! I just emailed the link to my personal email and will watch it after work! Thanks! Seriously!

          1. Hey, hey, hey!

            Wait, can we like Fat Albert anymore?

              1. Crap. It’s not a good time to be a Cosby fan.

    2. You know who else had a good sense of what translates well in public?

      1. “You know who else had a good sense of what translates well in public?”

        Babel Fish?

    3. I don’t know about her sense of style. The bows she wears all the time look ridiculous. I think it’s more that she has a fawning media that will proclaim her a fashion icon, no matter what unflattering shit she wears.

  14. I thought it was great when Nancy Reagan wore these:


    1. I’m just kidding…that was Martha Washington.

  15. I rather enjoyed the article. I learned things I didn’t know about another country.

    But those Indians: “Matrimonial ads grade the skin color of the prospective bride and groom with … ‘wheatish’ – the term-of-art for Halle Berry-style skin tone – being acceptable….”

    All Halle Berry gets is “acceptable”?

    Have they not seen the movie Swordfish?

  16. Explanations abound

    In China, they’re prejudiced against dark-skinned people because that means they work in the fields instead of living an easy life indoors.

    PS. I liked the article too, even if was a little fawning. Having been the white person in China, I know this phenomenon first-hand.

  17. President Obama noted in a speech to a youth audience last week in India that there were moments in his life in America when he was “treated differently because of the color of my skin.”

    As I recall, we called it “election day” and millions of Americans ignored Obama’s lack of credentials, accomplishments and his far left wing views and elected him on account of the color of his skin.

  18. Is this Shikha’s submission to write for People? Is she hoping to land a gig on E?

    One can only hope.

  19. So will Shikha suck my black d?ck for free, because she is “colorist” otherwise.

  20. The obsession in the non-white world for lighter skin is no secret. The darker the skin, the lower the social strata, as persons whether East Asians or Indians who were darker where more likely to work at hard labor out of doors. The rich, the powerful, the educated, worked indoors and therefore had no darkening of their skin and did not genetically select for survival from skin cancer with darker skin as the lower classes and castes did. Just ask any Japanese peasant when viewed in contrast to a woman in the Imperial Palace in medieval Kyoto. There the Japanese were so obsessed with white skin, elite Japanese women painted their faces white to show how little time they spent out doors, unlike the peasants who labored all day in the field and had darker skin.

  21. Now we just have to wait until Michelle’s beauty standards replace the tone one. It’ll still be about beauty, looks. There’ll still be better and inferior; there’ll still be competition. Some will be naturally advantaged, be it due to smooth skin, or skin tone, facial features, or whatever — and beauty products will be used. What exactly is the improvement, especially when the original tone-competition was finely differentiated, apparently with so many tone groups that one can barely speak of classes. (Compare that to our features and rankings of beauty.) Don’t get me wrong, this is a very interesting article (“intra-black discrimination”).

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