NEW YORK – Recently, while flipping through Facebook posts, I came across a social experiment put up by UNICEF that showed a pretty little girl, standing all alone on the streets, wearing cute clothes, who had a swarm of people, fawning on her, apparently concerned about her welfare.
The same child, dabbed with a darker shade of face powder and wearing clumsier outfit, was then asked to stand again on the same spot. And the outcome was shocking. People simply walked past her in cold indifference, with not a soul stopping by to ask about her whereabouts.
The same experiment, conducted in a restaurant had, inevitably, the same results. The well-dressed, light-skinned child was welcomed with warmth and affection, given food and a place to sit. On the other hand, the same child wearing, simply a darker shade of make-up, was an object of suspicion and derision.
Everyone around her clutched their handbags tighter and, soon, she was driven out of her seat. The behavior of these adults was so appalling that eventually the experiment had to be dropped, as the rattled child was close to a nervous break-down.
Much in the same vein, I see Facebook posts rallying against Fair and Lovely creams, and the so-called fight against discrimination on appearance appears to be growing vehemently stronger. But, I do wonder, if it is all relegated virtual activism.
Reality is that, universally, whether in India or abroad, light skin and a tall frame are both deemed to be “higher currency” values. And, don’t be fooled. It is slyly being perpetuated by people like us.
The other day, I overheard a conversation by an Indian doctor who was expressing his moral repugnance about how a baby born to an African American teenager was marginally cared for at the hospital he works.
However, I couldn’t help noticing that all the while, he was cosseting his grandchild with flaxen hair, born to her daughter and European son-in-law.
It seems to me that we, Indians, have, indeed, mastered this game of social outrage and injustice, cleverly inscribed in hypocrisy.
Just look at our matrimonial ads in their arduous search for wheat-ish or porcelain complexioned brides or our momentous pride in pirouetting our white daughter-in-law or son-in-law as the case maybe, now that the world has graduated into a “globalized village.”
But have we really shrugged off the shackles of our colonial servility to our white masters, despite our ornate arrays of PhDs in science, technology, medicine or what you will?
When my daughter was studying at a leading school in India, a mother sadly confided in me that her child, being dark-skinned, had no friends in her class. Imagine being a social outcast in your own country.
And why blame Indians alone? Take a look at any US school or colleges. Academic brilliance is a given understanding and hardly a thing to be touted. It is not even a topic for social conversation or dinner parties.
In the US, among native-born, despite your child being a school topper or a valedictorian, whether she goes to an Ivy League or a public school, or any other sundry accomplishments, it’s also about making the cut with appearance and the gift of the gab.
From the time the kids get up in the morning, the emphasis is about “how shall I look today?” And “what am I going to wear?”
It’s a mistake to dismiss this as simply a superficial anxiety; it is really the rocking boat between social acceptance and being ostracized.
The British psychologist and author, Steve Bidduluph, writes, “There’s now a cluster of really serious problems that are hugely on the up for girls,” he says.
“One in five will experience a serious psychological disorder before reaching adulthood. They are a lot more anxious, they are more likely to self-harm, they are more prone to bullying, they are binge drinking and they are more likely to be at risk of promiscuous sexual behaviour. Girls are more stressed and depressed than they’ve ever been before,” he notes.
Forget about raising moral and caring children—the drive is increasingly towards being edgier, flaunting more frenzied fashions, wearing those cut-away clothes, sporting an athletic and brash outlook simply to make the cut. To have that sense of belonging and not to be perceived as being backward and lame.
And, as in every aspect of this steep social climb, the wannabe desi-American community is never the one to be left behind.
So those train-wreck dorm parties, 3 am binge drinking, drugs, promiscuity, fraternity hazing with fatal consequences, all form a part of this irreverent scene, with barely any sense of moral responsibility.
And some parents even co-partner with their kids in desperation and with the hope that their child will not be a recluse. Otherwise, the fall-out is social isolation.
So when my younger daughter was moving to college, we, immigrant parents with limited resources, were subjected to wide-scale ridicule by none other than desi parents, who thought it hilarious that we chose to change our address to be close to our daughter, knowing the serious burden of mental toll it takes on families.
Strangely, the American co-workers in my husband’s office, on the other hand, who had been through this trying rigmarole, seemed to be more sympathetic, knowing first-hand the trauma and hazards girls are exposed to in university dorms.
This struggle to conform to a hard, materialistic, grasping society has been vigorously documented in the book, Black No More, where a young, African American man in the 1930s is asked to “Get out, get white or get along.”
Whether it is the 1930s or 2017, the nuances remain the same for the world over, Trump or no-Trump. And the one word that jumps out of the text is “conformity.”
Being fair complexioned, being tall, or being married to one is a passport to opportunities.
As Ray, in Claude McKay’s iconic novel, Home to Harlem, says, “What a unique feeling of confidence about life the typical white youth…must have! Knowing that his skin-color was a passport to glory, making him one with ten thousands like himself.”
The world of advertising and marketing has been much responsible for this steep descent towards vacuous and frivolous behavior.
Skin brightening lotions, hair straightening and bleaching products, manicured nails and a perfect pedicure are all part of the intense grooming package that make the young feel they need all of those essentials for social acceptance without which those surging grades in science or Math would mean nothing.
The ploys of marketing are really astute. Once the young are made to feel anxious or unsure about themselves, they are relentlessly thrust towards purchasing these items that make them feel better about themselves momentarily.
For an instance, that classic look with the Vineyard Vines pleated spaghetti dress or the trendy navy blue Coach sneakers is the aspiration that may have been deemed maudlin in another world but quite the social imperative now. And this could very well be low-browed, depending on the circle of image-conscious friends the child chooses to be with.
So, in no time at all, says Biddulph, kids are made to realize they desperately need “to be cool, to have a certain look, to be a certain size, to wear their hair or their clothes a certain way.”
If we look around any high school or college campus, we will observe that kids arrive very independent-minded in their routine, but wearing the same clothes and sporting the same expression at the cost of individuality.
The result can be catastrophic with children growing into their adult roles, utterly self-absorbed, arrogant and selfish, with the least bit of social awareness and moral obligation towards another human being.
Abetted by society, there is a serious crisis in making. Those who cannot make the cut are driven to the peripheries and are not invited to parties or social gatherings. Self-inflicted wounds or vapid escapes into the tired world of drugs and sex seems to be their only way out.
And, ironically, some parents are just oblivious. They elatedly boast that their child is not only an academic topper but very much the popular and the much- coveted kid in school.
But popular at what cost? Out of being witty and smart in school or being a bully and having his way through at all times or speciously dabbling with drugs and social violence?
Joan Bakewell, a broadcaster, claims that bringing up kids in current times is rife with conflict and contradiction.
“Technology has accelerated so fast, giving access to information we didn’t have. Pornography, for example, is the biggest online industry. All you can do is your best,” she says.
With TV in the room, a surgical attachment towards electronic gadgets, cheap magazines and friends who are the “cool kids” it is difficult for a parent’s message to come through.
And eerily, parents too have fallen prey into the same rat-race. So who can possibly help the child?
Harvard Psychologist Richard Weissbourd who runs Making Caring Common project, tells parents that children absolutely need to hear from them to make caring for others a top priority.
A big part of this is to hold them to higher ethical expectations, addressing others respectfully and honoring their commitments even if that makes them unhappy.
“They need to balance their needs to the needs of others, to show gratitude for those who care for them and who contribute to others’ lives. They also need to care for people who are vulnerable and are outside of their social circle,” he writes.
The mistake that parents make is concentrating solely on achievements and whether their child is climbing the social tier rather than raising responsible, caring and honorable kids.
Biddulph too points out that, even when we think our messages aren’t getting through to our daughters, they almost certainly are.
“Even when they are around 14, when they are desperately trying to be not like you at all, everything you say is lodging in there somewhere,” he says. In his view, parents have three main ways of influencing our children. “The first way, and this accounts for about half of the influence you will have on them, is in your role-modelling,” he says. “Think about not just what you do, but how you do it.”
“Think about how to be kind, how to be patient towards others – your daughters (sons)are watching the way you deal with that other driver who just cut you up; how you respond to the assistant who serves you slowly in the shop. If you are unkind, or sharp, they’ll learn that’s how you deal with other people, and they’ll go on to deal with other people in a similar way.”
(Poppy Mookerjee is a journalist and a writer for more than a decade with American and Indian publications)