Skin Color Matters

Like many other people, I cringe whenever I’m routinely mistaken for another brown person. When I attended graduate school in the midwest, people repeatedly confused me with another desi woman in my class, Sheila, who looked absolutely nothing like me — the obvious difference being that Sheila was much lighter-skinned than I was. At least, to me, it was obvious. To other white people, it was apparently not. Never mind that Sheila was from India and a had a bourgeois Mumbai accent, whereas I was from southern California and talked like a valley girl. As far as other people at school were concerned, we were interchangeable.

And so, because of repeated instances like that, I had figured that brown folks were just more sensitive to skin tone differences than white people were. But apparently, that’s not the case. When I was at work yesterday, I caught this news blurb:

Light-skinned immigrants in the United States make more money on average than those with darker complexions, and the chief reason appears to be discrimination, a researcher says. Joni Hersch, a law and economics professor at Vanderbilt University, looked at a government survey of 2,084 legal immigrants to the United States from around the world and found that those with the lightest skin earned an average of 8 percent to 15 percent more than similar immigrants with much darker skin. “On average, being one shade lighter has about the same effect as having an additional year of education,” Hersch said.

While I don’t think her findings are entirely improbable, I’m curious as to what she defines as “one shade” of skin tone.

What’s also interesting that it seems the researcher compared skin tones within immigrant groups:

Hersch took into consideration other factors that could affect wages, such as English-language proficiency, education, occupation, race or country of origin, and found that skin tone still seemed to make a difference in earnings. That means that if two similar immigrants from Bangladesh, for example, came to the United States at the same time, with the same occupation and ability to speak English, the lighter-skinned immigrant would make more money on average.

So what does this mean? Contrary to my earlier beliefs, it seems that other people are able to distinguish between darker and lighter-skinned browns.

I also wonder why Hersch used immigrants as her subjects, and not second, third, or fourth generation Americans. Would the results be the same? I don’t know. I wasn’t able to find this particular study of Hersch’s online, and I usually prefer to link to original sources rather than the newspaper, but still, this is food for thought.

123 thoughts on “Skin Color Matters

  1. Tiggs,

    If you want to have a serious conversation, I am more than willing to deconstruct the situation, and I have not resorted to any ridiculous phenotypic comparisions.

    My point is actually that the caste system itself is ridiculous.

    Punjabi Jatts are quite proud of their community, as they should be, as everyone should be. That is the one and only point being preached. I am not sure why you seem to be assuming that as a member of a community, we should “know our place” and act like we are subservient to any other group. As a group, Jatts, who are Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim, are not downtrodden or oppressed, and there is no reason we should accept being made to feel inferior implicitly or subtly as it may be

  2. Hi there. My first time posting, though I’ve been reading for a couple days.

    I haven’t read this particular paper in too much detail, though I’ve read plenty of others like it. We seem to have econometricians and statisticians on board here at SM, in addition to lawyers and sociologists. These folk love to discuss this sort of stuff to death and still get nowhere (and for at least some of them, that is partly the point).

    But please. Do the rest of us also need to go along? What is really new here? Should it surprize us that in a country with a population of 300 million, the well-entrenched color-prejudices of the native society also come to apply to the foreign born cohort of about 20-30 million when they attempt to integrate into the free labor market? The distinction between free and specifically contracted labor is critical here, in my view. The only reason to expect otherwise is when the color of the immigrant’s skin is a positive discriminating factor in itself, such as in contracted labor situations, whether the H-1B at one end or the ‘bracero’ on the other. The fact that half the H-1Bs in any given year are from India, and most of them ‘dark-skinned South Indians’ only goes to prove the point, being that, when assured of minimum competence, an employer prefers a cheaper, compliant workforce, tied down till fired, even when of the ‘wrong’ color and ‘nationality’, to a free agent ‘native’ workforce of the ‘right color’.

    One could, of course, also ask whether the labor market is ever free anywhere at any time, and the expected negative answer then implies that discrimination based on non-work related factors is endemic to every real labor market, the only question is which factors are used to discriminate.

    The desi spin on this is just the following – as there come to be significantly more of us in the US, (and there already are nearly 3 million of us, compared to just about 500K about two decades ago) our average labour market achievement will also likely converge toward the color-, age-, and education- normalized population average when we attempt to integrate into the free labor market. Yeah, this is a scary thought.

  3. Sahej, you took my comment in a wrong way. I was calling the caste system riduculous, and my criticism was directed at calling jatts, shudras….

  4. I just wanted to tie this with the other superficial thread on noses where there was an implicit assumption that a sharper nose was associated with higher standing in society. Based on that hypothesis, Jats/Jatts supposedly have the sharpest nose in the subcontinent so they should be at top of the caste classification heap. I was just illustrating the ridiculousness of the caste system by being ridiculous myself. Changa?

  5. The fact that half the H-1Bs in any given year are from India, and most of them ‘dark-skinned South Indians’ only goes to prove the point, being that, when assured of minimum competence, an employer prefers a cheaper, compliant workforce, tied down till fired, even when of the ‘wrong’ color and ‘nationality’, to a free agent ‘native’ workforce of the ‘right color’.

    Except that it doesn’t explain why Indian-Americans (as opposed to Indians who come with H-1Bs) are the highest earners in the US. Which, no matter how many shades of brown you guys claim to see, is still darker than jewish and japanese people. So, the report is flawed, and I suspect it is the usual “correlation is not causality” kind of fallacy.

  6. Except that it doesn’t explain why Indian-Americans (as opposed to Indians who come with H-1Bs) are the highest earners in the US. Which, no matter how many shades of brown you guys claim to see, is still darker than jewish and japanese people. So, the report is flawed, and I suspect it is the usual “correlation is not causality” kind of fallacy.

    I bet Indians in the US also have the highest education levels, and are represented in careers normally associated with high income. Perhaps if you compare indians with other lighter skinned people with similar education and proficency levels, you may see a bias.

  7. One more point. An issue relevant to discrimination in general and employment discrimination in particular that is rarely brought up is the following: discrimination within an ethnic or racialized group. That is, how do desi bosses and colleagues treat each other and their subordinates, and how do they react to applicant pools with lots of other desis, some of whom are taller (shorter), fairer (darker), co- (or other-) religonists, co- (or other-) linguals, etc. How do desi professors grade their students? Do desi professors prefer ‘from the desh(‘FOB’)’ graduate students over equivalently qualified native-born whites, non-whites and ‘ABCDs’?

    Really, this is an issue that gets shoved under the rug a lot. As ethnics, (even if as yet not fully racialized) desis (whether ‘ABCDs’ or ‘FOBs’) tend to encounter each other a lot more often than they encounter non-desis. This is only likely to increase in the future. While the sub-ethnic breakdown in the desi immigrant population has not yet approached the overall South Asian breakdown, and is unlikely to do so barring a major change in entry criteria and numbers, I still see desis in America dealing with each other through home-country stereotypes – i.e., Punjabis vs Bengalis vs Tamilians vs Gujaratis! Does this really not feed into employment or credentialing related decisions that desi bosses or professors make? Does the preference for ‘tall, fair’ matches so evident in ‘matrimonials’ magically disappear from the employment context? I don’t think it does, this would require a super-human effort. What then? What if it turns out that the major perpetrators of discrimination against (or in favor of) desis are desis themselves?

  8. As for Jatts, it’s not really accurate to call them ‘sudras’. This was a label applied in the past by brahmins, khatris, etc. but it doesn’t make any sense on the ground…Jatts are actually THE dominant group in Punjab, socially, economically, and politically. They also own most of the land. If anything, they tend to look down on brahmins, khatris, etc. (who are mostly involved in service-oriented occupations).

    So genius, do explain how the erstwhile sudras the Jatts became non-sudras by dominating the brahmins “socially, economically, and politically”? Are punjabi brahmins the new sudras just because the old sudras the Jatts “look down” on them?

    We were discussing hindu casteism and its supposed equation to colorism (which is BS perpetuated by many posters here including the one I was responding to). Based on hindu/brahminical casteism, Jatts belong to the lowest caste. Only the outcastes/Dalits/Untouchables are lower than them. The current political ground reality does not change that fact.

    Now since the Jatts have the “sharpest features” as shown by another poster, and since they are “fairer” (based on the low threshold for fairness among indians) than the typical brahmin from north or south or east India, doesn’t that make the oft-repeated equation lighter skin = higher caste a falsehood?

    Its only the servile desire to pander to their white masters that makes so many desis flatter them with this nonsense. This desire to endear themselves to non-indians at the expense of indians comes from stupidity and spinelessness. For desis condemn themselves to a low status by playing this silly game, since the great majority of non-desis are lighter-skinned than themselves.

  9. Guess fair is more aesthetically pleasing

    Not necessarily. Else white-skinned, whitish-blond haired, blue eyed albinos would be in great demand in India:

    http://i1.trekearth.com/photos/633/albinosw_s_.jpg

    And Africa:

    http://www.aokeh.com/images/albino%20african.jpg

    Many whites, including the affluent class, have a fetish for women from east and south-east Asia. Its neither fairness nor “sharp features” that attracts them in these cases. The current Indian fetish for fairness and “sharp features” comes from centuries of slavery at the hands of such foreigners. Statues from ancient India and depictions of the heros and heroines from the Puranas reveal a completely different standard of beauty.

  10. Jatts are actually THE dominant group in Punjab, socially, economically, and politically. They also own most of the land. If anything, they tend to look down on brahmins, khatris, etc.

    Jaats are descended from hunnic tribes who invaded India in the early centuries after AD. The Hindu caste structure relegates such to Mlecchas or Sudras. The Rajputs, excluded, most other such communities with a pedigree amongst the invading Hunnic tribes are lower-castes

  11. “Jaats are descended from hunnic tribes who invaded India in the early centuries after AD. The Hindu caste structure relegates such to Mlecchas or Sudras. The Rajputs, excluded, most other such communities with a pedigree amongst the invading Hunnic tribes are lower-castes”

    here’s an interesting wikipedia link relating to that

    [url]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Ancestry_of_Jatt_Names[/url]

  12. The Rajputs, excluded, most other such communities with a pedigree amongst the invading Hunnic tribes are lower-castes

    That’s a little confusing the way you wrote that…I think what you meant was ‘other than Rajputs, most other such communities etc etc.’

    Also, I think ‘scythian’ is probably more accurate than ‘hunnic’.

    But it does address my point about the word ‘sudra’ when applied to these people…in the centuries after Alexander but before Islam, there were many migrations/invasions of various Central Asian groups (mostly Iranian/Scythian in type) into India. These people became Hinduised/Buddhified (essentially ‘Indianised’), but they were difficult to fit into the earlier Hindu caste system. They were relegated to ‘sudra’ status by the brahmins, but it is doubtful that the label ever bothered them or was taken too seriously, since they were now the powerful groups in the region. What a bunch of powerless brahmins decided to call them had limited impact I’m sure. For that matter the British were also considered ‘sudra’, for all the difference it made.

  13. Of course, the brahmins were not TOTALLY powerless…they excelled at penetrating into people’s ritual lives, and exerted their subversive influences that way…

  14. Interesting premise, but I think the focus on skin color is sort of barking up the wrong tree, when looking for physical attributes of success.

    There have been several studies attributing higher levels of earning, interview success, etc. to height. The taller person always wins, and not just at basketball tryouts. This is a totally anecdotal and non-scientific observation on my part, but North Indian desis are, on the average, fairer than their counterparts, but they are not generally significantly taller than their counterparts. So when you norm the entire group for height, I think the earnings sort of average out, so that darker people are doing just as well (if not better) than lighter people.

    I do think that Caucasians generally do not distinguish desi individuals based on their various shades of brown. It’s not because they’re inherently unable to tell the difference. It’s just not the normal mode used to distinguish people in their minds. People are distinguished by hair color, eye color, etc…and since most people of South Asian origin have similar hair and eye color, you end up with that age-old problem of “all you people look the same.”

  15. Of course, the brahmins were not TOTALLY powerless…they excelled at penetrating into people’s ritual lives, and exerted their subversive influences that way…

    Whoever had stregnth to take the land in Hindustan became king – and the power relations and hierarchy were organized around the king, not the Brahmins, whatever wishful thinking they may have put forth in their dharmasastras. Patrick Olivelle – a Sri Lankan who is considered one of the foremost western scholars of the Upanishads, early Indian asceticism and the dharmasastras, said that the bigoted Manusmriti was a reaction to Maurya (non-Ksatriya rule), and doubts very much that it was enforced. Brahmins often assigned Ksatriya status (in an act of ritual fiction) to certain royal houses, to legitimize their lineage. As for the original Ksatriyas, there is no evidence that those clans survive today; their blood has been relegated to oblivion. There have been Brahmin kings as well.

    Even in the ritual sphere, Brahmin influence shouldn’t be exaggerated. Very many temples in India are run by non-Brahmins; most of the South Indian bhakti sants were so-called sudras, including 47/63 Nayanmars (the Shaivite mystics and devotees) etc. And there were and are constant spiritual challenges to brahmanic orthopraxy as well, sometimes in the same neighborhood. For example, Madhva’s Dvaita Vedanta is orthoprax in that it recognizes the special status of Brahmins; but the Virashaiva (Lingayat movement) which is more popular in Karnataka, rejected caste – and the authority of Brahmins – outright.

  16. Paper bag test anybody?

    Amen, brother. While there may be problems with the methodology of the study (small sample size, lack of statistical power, etc. etc.), is this really very surprising? Come on people.

    As for the whole “why are Indians, who are darker, doing better economically”… perhaps this should be compared within industry, controlling for SES and education? I haven’t taken a close enough look at the study, but I seriously doubt that, when broken down, the parts are the same as the aggregate.

  17. Lets just not indulge in this skin color and caste nonsense, if we never mention it again, fail to imbed it in our kids heads, then it will die. As it is it is a load of bullshit. I cant wait for the day when I meet a South Asians and they donÂ’t evaluate me on my skin color, accent and surname.

  18. As for the original Ksatriyas, there is no evidence that those clans survive today; their blood has been relegated to oblivion

    I’m not sure that’s true; the khatris are probably at least partially their descendants.

  19. the Virashaiva (Lingayat movement) which is more popular in Karnataka, rejected caste – and the authority of Brahmins – outright.

    This was a fascinating movement.

  20. Where exactly is that? Western or Eastern UP? Are there any big cities close to it?

    Western UP.

    Big cities close by would be Meerut, Muzaffarnagar.

  21. They were relegated to ‘sudra’ status by the brahmins, but it is doubtful that the label ever bothered them or was taken too seriously, since they were now the powerful groups in the region

    The label is indeed taken seriously. For instance the Jats, Ahirs were not very happy by being left out of the SC/ST category by the constitution. The immense pressure on their leadership is why the Centre recently created the new OBC quota to accommodate their aspirations alongside other recognized sudra castes who have existing reservations

  22. “I do think that Caucasians generally do not distinguish desi individuals based on their various shades of brown. “

    Would Freddie Mercury have been as successful had his skin been as dark as an average indian?

    He became a star in England at a time when racism against “pakis” in England was widespread..

  23. Advice to people, if you say anything bad about Jatts, be ready to defend youself. I had to learn that the hard way.

  24. Advice to people, if you say anything bad about Jatts, be ready to defend youself. I had to learn that the hard way.

    You only have to defend yourself if each and every one of your posts is about how horrible jatts/punjabis are.

  25. The major difference between Jaat/Jatts and Rajput is that the rajputs acknowledged Brahmins high standing in the caste system, and were themselves rewarded with high standing in the caste hierarchy. The Jatts did not, and were in turn classified lower. The jatts and rajputs are essentially the same people ethnically and share quite a few ‘last names’ or gotras if you will (Rana, Solanki, Tomar, Pawar etc etc). Despite the close affinity, there are many customs that are totally different in the two communities. The Jatts always allowed widow remarriage while the rajputs did not is the one that readily comes to mind. There has been animosity between Jatts and Brahmins from historical times.

    There is no mention of Jatts/Jaats or Rajput in Indian history prior to 2nd or 3rd century AD. Both appeared on the indian historical scene together. The Jatts in punjab majorly converted to sikhism to get away from caste bullshit. The hindus started following Arya Samaj which does away with idolworship, and has minimal ritualistic ceremonies. Many Hindu Jats villages did not even have a temple in an effort to minimize brahamanic intrusion.

  26. Would Freddie Mercury have been as successful had his skin been as dark as an average indian?

    I don’t know about that. I suspect the name change from Farokh Balsara to Freddie Mercury helped a lot…probably more than the lighter skin tone.

    Anyway, my point wasn’t that Caucasians do not make distinctions between white people and non-white people. My point was that they don’t distinguish between various shades of brown…so they wouldn’t describe desi person A as light-skinned, while describing desi person B as dark-skinned.

    Only tangential to this discussion, but this made me remember an an incident at a restaurant. We were waiting for another Indian friend to join us, and I told the waiter to let her know where we were sitting when she showed up, and by way of identification, I added that the person we were waiting for was Indian. The waiter was outraged and told me point blank “you don’t have to tell me that, I’m not racially profiling you.”

  27. Sonia Kaur I did not badmouth Punjabi/Jatts. Why because I am one.

    My only problem is with this whole jatt thing is. My family is of sikh background I have been told that there is no such thing as caste in sikhism.

    That why have never been a big fan of the term Jatt Sikh. Being a sikh one should reject the caste system. Not that long ago I get into a heated agrument with someone over this issue.

    But one I hear storys about sikh not getting along with other sikhs just cause they are not the same caste bother me alot.

    Also my sister is getting married to someone who is not a sikh, but he has chosen to convert to sikhism. Yet that is not good enough for some of my relatives who won’t accept my sister marriage because he is a not a jatt.

  28. Is it crazy to suggest that if the earliest human migrants that ventured into the Northern parts of Asia and Europe had simply supplemented their diet with Vitamin D enriched foods, that they would have saved the world from the curse of colourism that has plagued mankind for centuries?

    There’s something more to colorism (which almost always places lights above darks) than meets the eye. Could it be that the lighties deprived of their melanin and living in the cold wilderness had to develop a psychological ideology that would place themselves above darkies to justify their conquering of them and their most often desirable territory…something along the lines of Iceman Inheritence or Diop’s two cradle theory.

    Something as pervasive as colorism has to have an interesting background to its development in human history

    Just my thoughts

  29. Lets just not indulge in this skin color and caste nonsense, if we never mention it again, fail to imbed it in our kids heads, then it will die. As it is it is a load of bullshit. I cant wait for the day when I meet a South Asians and they donÂ’t evaluate me on my skin color, accent and surname.

    Yeah, me too. But I think we’ll both be waiting a long time. I think discrimination based on skin color(or for that matter discrimination based on any visible markers of difference) is an innately human behavior. It takes a lot of conscious effort to see beyond the visible marker at an individual level. This requires training, sensitization, consciousness raising, and it has to happen all the time, in every generation. Although one makes distinctions precisely because one is human, it is also because one is human that one can become aware that one is doing so, and learn not to base significant decisions on these markers. People who claim they are not racists are often being not so much dishonest as ignorant of their own psychological processes.

  30. They were relegated to ‘sudra’ status by the brahmins, but it is doubtful that the label ever bothered them or was taken too seriously

    Being consigned to the lowest caste would bother anyone. You are thinking wishfully.

    the British were also considered ‘sudra’, for all the difference it made.

    Hogwash. The British, who saw the brahmins as an inferior breed, weren’t hindus; so assigning a hindu caste to them is ridiculous. They would be considered mlecchas, not sudras.

  31. Hogwash. The British, who saw the brahmins as an inferior breed, weren’t hindus; so assigning a hindu caste to them is ridiculous. They would be considered mlecchas, not sudras.

    Yeah, you’re right, that’s an important distinction, I agree. But still, the word ‘sudra’ has connotations of a downtrodden, oppressed, servile, timid people, who revere brahmins and other upper castes, and accept the brahmins’ superiority…and that’s why it’s comical to consider some of these groups like Jatts as sudras. They did use brahmins for some of their rituals (true even of Muslim Jatts in the past) but did not view them as superior to themselves. Sikhism further eroded the role and status of brahmins in the region.

  32. Advice to people, if you say anything bad about Jatts, be ready to defend youself. I had to learn that the hard way.

    You don’t need to say anything bad to need to defend yourselves if you’ve lived in Gurgaon ;)

  33. It takes a lot of conscious effort to see beyond the visible marker at an individual level. This requires training, sensitization, consciousness raising, and it has to happen all the time, in every generation….People who claim they are not racists are often being not so much dishonest as ignorant of their own psychological processes.

    First of all, it would be useful to define what is racism. If it is uncounciously/conciously acknowledging that you are of a different race/culture/ethnic group based on your visible markers, then yes, we all do it and I see little point in pretending otherwise. We also stereotype based on our limited experiences.

    However, in my opinion, there is a big distinction between acknowledging that you are different and being disrespectful. And there is no excuse for the latter.

  34. Now since the Jatts have the “sharpest features” as shown by another poster, and since they are “fairer” (based on the low threshold for fairness among indians) than the typical brahmin from north or south or east India, doesn’t that make the oft-repeated equation lighter skin = higher caste a falsehood?

    Great post, Doordarshan. It is a falsehood that undermines our people, history and achievements. This myth was used by our ex-colonial masters to divide and conquer, to justify their presence in India (new white invaders), and worse, to say that people of colour where incapable of creating a great civilization.

    It is a myth you see, because there is little or no evidence of the Aryan invasion, or that they created the caste system to seperate themselves from the dravidian societies. All Indian epics supposedly written by the aryan invaders tell no stories beyond the borders of the Indus region.

    Indian skin colour differs a lot, and that happens even among siblings and family members. It is lie to say that you can figure the caste by skin colour.

  35. Kush: Are you from an actual village? Whats the name of the village?

    ALM,

    No, The name of the village is Sakuti Tanda. I have travelled villages, attended weddings and functions there as a young bloke, and have done some field work in villages in Rajasthan.

    I just like the name Sakuti Tanda, just like Jhumritalya. It is on the route from Delhi to Roorkee, if you take a car/ taxi.

    My grandparents, and parents have spent most of their lives in near Agra, Allahabad, Kanpur, Roorkee (mostly in Roorkee which is a rarity in India, an essentially a campus town, and with one of the prettiest campus in India), and some US too.

  36. My grandparents, and parents have spent most of their lives in near Agra, Allahabad, Kanpur, Roorkee

    Except for Roorkee, the rest of the towns are in Eastern UP though you consider yourself to be from Western UP?

    I am just blown away at the small number of people from UP which has a population of 200 million plus. Western UP in population is probably comprarable to Andhra Pradesh and you will hardly see anyone from Western UP.

  37. Except for Roorkee, the rest of the towns are in Eastern UP though you consider yourself to be from Western UP?

    Technically, Roorkee is now Uttranchal (from last six-seven years or so). DehraDun is the capital of Uttranchal.

    I do consider Roorkee as my hometown…….because my early years were in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and mostly Roorkee. My parents live there.

    Eastern UP has traditionally been more hub of culture and activity.

  38. I just like the name Sakuti Tanda, just like Jhumritalya. It is on the route from Delhi to Roorkee, if you take a car/ taxi.

    My favourite gaon names: bakshi-ka-talaab, kasai-ka-pul, and in the middle of nowhere in Orissa, Johnson.

  39. Clueless wrote:

    My family is of sikh background I have been told that there is no such thing as caste in sikhism. Also my sister is getting married to someone who is not a sikh, but he has chosen to convert to sikhism. Yet that is not good enough for some of my relatives who won’t accept my sister marriage because he is a not a jatt.

    I had a (religious) girlfriend like this back in the Phoenix area (where there are many white Sikh converts). But she said that she would not go out w/ those guys b/c her family wanted her to see Punjabi Sikhs only (like them). It came down to culture, NOT just religion in her case.

  40. One time in my midwestern middle school days, I got mistaken for probably the only other person that wasn’t white. I corrected him, and he didn’t care. So the next day I called him Steven or somesuch name, and he went to correct me, so I commented that all white people look the same to me. Ah, sweet revenge!

  41. You have so many comments that I didn’t read through them. I live in India but have lived abroad for short periods of time. I think white people are very conscious of skin colour. They know that the colour differences between a really white person from Sweden for example and a darker one from say Italy. They call these people ‘fair’ and ‘dark’. For them ‘dark’ means white actually. All Mills and Boon heroines prefer a tall dark handsome hero…meaning white, not brown. They think of the really dark people (brown) as just brown. That’s because they don’t care to know the difference.

  42. im brown desi and i guess america favors hard work over skin color and whoever wants to work hard will succeed which is better than how other countries favor skin color for progression.