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Mirusha and Yanusha YogarajahFrom the photo series 'Unfair and Lovely'

Meet the women using selfies to combat colourism

The Unfair and Lovely campaign highlights the prejudice faced by many dark-skinned women of colour to this day

Colourism – meaning the discrimination of individuals with a dark skin tone, often by people from the same ethnic group – remains an ugly reality within some Asian, African and Latin American cultures. Colourism persists to this day, whether it’s the ubiquitous ads for skin-lightening cream you’ll see across China or the prevalence of lighter-skinned actresses within the Bollywood film industry.

Despite this, attitudes are slowly changing, thanks in part to the tireless work of campaigners to highlight how this damaging beauty ideal excludes darker-skinned women of colour from mainstream media representation. Sales of skin lightening creams are declining, and advertisers are waking up to the lack of representation of women of colour – all colours – in the media. Nonetheless, there’s still a huge amount of work to be done to correct this historical exclusion and bias. 

Three students from the University of Texas – two of South Asian descent, and one of African-American origins – are fighting to change this. “Unfair and Lovely” started out as a photo project which challenged people to appreciate darker-skinned beauty, in all its guises. It’s now expanded to encompass the experiences of all women of colour, who’ve been sharing photos of themselves online with the hashtag #unfairandlovely. The movement is affiliated with the Reclaim the Bindi week, and darker-skinned women (and some men) have been sharing their stories online to highlight what it’s like to live in a world that is “shadist”.

To find out more, we spoke to Pax Jones, Mirusha Yogarajah and Yanusha Yogarajah, who are leading the campaign.

Yogarajah explains how colourism affects her everyday life. “I’ve been told, “Dark skin bitch go walk" by a college student, been bleach bombed twice, and had comments made on how dark my skin is. Most of the verbal comments have been from fellow South Asians.”

Yogarajah highlights how colourism is intimately linked to structural violence experienced by women living across South Asia today. “This can range from the jobs women are hired for, the education they receive, and their experiences of physical and sexual violence. More often than not, domestic workers, unskilled labourers and scavengers in South Asian community are darker skinned.”

The problem doesn’t just affect South Asian communities, nor does it only affect women. “In South Asia, darker-skinned people, especially non-cis men, are subjugated through the violence of caste rape, discrimination and violent labour practices. The experience runs parallel to the experiences of black femmes in non-Black spaces—the disdain for dark skin is expressed through marriage, labour and migration systems.

Jones tells me that the response to the campaign has been “beautiful”. “So many people have shared their experiences with colourism all over the world. From West Africa, to South Asia, to the US, we have heard people's experiences with skin lightening creams, and the joy they feel seeing #UnfairAndLovely affirm their dark skin.”

The hope is that social media will give a voice to those who feel excluded from society due to the colour of their skin. “I think social media is one of the most powerful tools for activism, because of the accessibility. It allows a voice for those who ordinarily go unheard. It allows the marginalized and silenced groups to make an attempt at having their voices heard.”