Fair & Lovely for Sikh Youth?

Embracing my new role as a proud Chacha, I recently bought some Sikhi-related children’s books for my niece for her first birthday. I was especially excited about this new book and CD of Sikh nursery rhymes called Ik Chota Bacha. The book/CD is a great way to teach basic Sikh values to kids and help develop their Punjabi skills (all the nursery rhymes are in Punjabi) in a fun way. I played the CD for my niece on the daily when I was visiting for her birthday, and by the end of the week, the whole family was singing along to some of the catchy (and rather cheesy) tunes. (See a full review of the book here.)

My excitement about the release Ik Chota Bacha quickly became muddied with disappointment and frustration once I saw the book’s illustrations. Every single Sikh child and adult depicted in the book looks WHITE. I don’t just mean they’re all fair-skinned on the spectrum of brownness. I mean peachy, rosey-cheeked, white.

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Hardly a new issue for our community (and South Asians more generally), obsession with fair skin has been a cultural norm for as long as I can remember (unfortunately, I can’t remember the pre-colonization days). But I was still startled to see these pictures in a brand new Sikh children’s book, written and published here in the United States in 2011.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, some of the most innovative and popular educational films about Sikhi for kids from the last several years are not much different in their depiction of Punjabi Sikhs. Great animated films like Sundri, Sahibzadey, and Bhai Taru Singh, brought to us by Vismaad Films,consistently portray Sikh historical figures to be extremely light-skinned.

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What gets me the most about these examples are that their intended audience is children. While on the one hand these books and movies teach our new generation about Sikhi and our inspiring and revolutionary history, they simultaneously send kids very specific messages about skin color. The heroes and protagonists here are all light-skinned, hardly a reflection of the historical or contemporary realities of our people who hail from the land of the five rivers. In a sense, our kids are left with Sikh history treated with Fair and Lovely.

So, while I still gave the book to my niece for her birthday, I did so somewhat reluctantly, and included a disclaimer/apology to her parents. I want to help my niece learn about Sikhi and be proud of our history from an early age. I also want her to be proud of who she is and to know she is beautiful, not in spite of but because of her brown skin, no matter what shade it is.

 


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44 Responses to “Fair & Lovely for Sikh Youth?”

  1. Rishi says:

    Very true!!! as a filmmaker and artist.. I plan to balance this issue! keep making more of these and helping us unlock our minds

  2. tanman says:

    brown is just a tan. get over skin color.

  3. ichpal singh says:

    awal allah noor uppaya kudrat de sab bandy…..ek noor te sab jag upjaya kon bahlay kon mandy while depicting history a film maker/drtr must balance subject viz place religion people sentiments etc

  4. Danielle says:

    I'm so glad you addressed this. While this is in my daughters book collection, I continue to search for more balanced representation. What I also find disturbing is that even when I read seemingly progressive articles in some Indian magazines about the issue of colorism, the people they display as "dark" are actually still essentially light (on the full spectrum). Vogue India did a cover story on darker models last year (see http://www.vogue.co.uk/news/2010/04/13/vogue-indi…. And while those models are actually darker than most I see in the typical dark vs light articles, I think about the many Indian people I've seen with downright chocolate skin and wonder why their photographs don't even make it onto the pages discussing this problem. There are truly dark-skinned women in the world who are gorgeous!! But they are rarely celebrated.

  5. brooklynwala says:

    I didn't get into this in my original post, but I think it's worth saying here that I think the roots of this color consciousness (which is certainly not limited to South Asians) lay in colonialism. Internalized racism and colonization runs so deep in the psyche of people of color all over the world. Little India did a good story on this issue a few years ago: http://www.littleindia.com/nri/1828-the-white-com…. In it Vijay Prashad is quoted:

    "Race-thinking and racism came to India via colonialism, and they marked the reformulation of caste. In other words, when race-thinking came to India, the worst elements of caste were re-cast, as it were, on racial lines. The meaning of varna, for instance, was seen as a reference to skin color rather than to feudal standards. European racism entered India through the hierarchy of caste; European racism 'modernized' the worst aspects of the caste system."

    So as Sikhs, challenging this obsession with fair skin is a part of our spiritual obligation, as it is just another form of caste oppression, which we were created to obliterate. Danielle, you said in a different thread that perhaps our community needs an equivalent of a "Black is Beautiful" movement, and I think you're right on.

  6. kantay says:

    Sikhi is concerned with understanding Waheguru, in the course of that understanding the various falsities of Maya become revealed as false, but that is not the same as implying that Sikhi is specially created to end particular forms of injustice. Progressive movements are created for that purpose and this is a way that Sikhi is not simply a progressive movement. Abolition or a similiar movement was created to abolish slavery for example.

  7. kantay says:

    But I strongly agree with you that people need to portray Punjabis in the way they are and an obsession with fair skin is a problem, and it is a problem that kids books are so inaccurate and you put it well. It’s troubling full stop and we should not continue it. Anyone who can’t get over it needs to fix up quick.

  8. kantay says:

    If you think that apolitical quietism is the consequence of Sikhi you are selling the concept of enlightenment in the world which is the cornerstone of Sikhi very, very short. The Guru Granth speaks about salvation from the five thieves, understanding the nature of Maya, and realizing the nature of the Creator through constant thought and recitation. You sell that very short by reducing it to a social movement. Whatever social structures were created during the Guru period were in the service of that more fundamental goal. To consider that Sikhi is just a movement designed to work toward orbring about a more just form of Maya is frankly a mind blowing appropriation.

  9. nkr says:

    i noticed this with a picture of the 8th Gurusahib in a book by one S.S. Bagga entitled "The Guru's Word & Illustrated Sikh History" – this is a book written with the assistance of ethnically non-Punjabi editors – to normal eyes black&white skin are both strange/freakish and associated with mourning/plague/cruelty &other misfortunes whereas any shade of brown is naturally connected with Mother Earth/fertility/attainment: ketu legend &associated colaration linked with ketu:shades of brown – moksha – "mata dharat mahat" – let's face it – it is impossible to have Sikhi to the max without Punjabi to the max – it is unethical to depict Sikhs as bhuts/prets/pisaaches – again generally white or whitish – focus on actual dhur ki bani rather than 'man gharat' books written by godknowswho and for what purpose – dark hair on the other hand in the dharmic tradition is the beauty standard: All the Goddesses of the Bharat regionare blessed with lustrous black wavy hair. A true Sikh would seek to limit contact as much as possible with freakish humanoids –

  10. kantay says:

    Let me know for example how often we are called or enjoined in the Guru Granth to think upon the nature of this world and Creator and Kartar, in comparison to how often we are in your words enjoined to fight injustice. The level of emphasis points to realizing Waheguru in the course of which caste and all other trappings of Maya fall away. its interesting that you read Sikhi as a manifesto of progressive social change

  11. kantay says:

    I think in practical terms it becomes difficult to fight and obliterate anything and be free from jam krodh lobh moh and ahankar. That would be my point but I am with you in chardi kala and that justice is Sach

  12. kantay says:

    Kam not jam.

  13. sant sipahi says:

    don't make the mistake of placing the "world" (maya) and "spiritual realization" into a hierarchy; the gurus enjoined us to realize the nature of maya not by withdrawing from our senses and living as renunciate/ascetics, but by engaging with the world. we realize the true nature of reality through engaging with the world.

    thus, seva (service, engagement with community) is not an epiphenomenon that somehow floats over the "real" root of sikhi. sikhi is not an either/or proposition; either engagement with the world or spiritual realization, it's both. embracing that paradox is one of the things that makes sikhi unique and inexplicable in terms of simplistic binaries. seva *is* sikhi.

  14. sant sipahi says:

    i'm with you too, chardi kala! i think we're dancing around the same ideas, just different points of emphasis. sikhi is not *only* guru granth sahib ji, it is also sangat, realization of gurbani in sangat. they're both equally important.

  15. kantay says:

    I think we are in the same territory. Sangat however is quite difficult to achieve and I do not think much of what we discern as decisions made ostensibly in sangat are actually Guru inspired. So I’d say Guru Granth and Guru inspired sangat yes they are Guru and our flawless guide

  16. sant sipahi says:

    agreed.

  17. Nimarta says:

    In the Movie Bhai Taru Singh, his sister has a dark complexion.

  18. kantay says:

    Sikhi is a resolution of the abrahamic and dharmic world views in way that is deeply profound and we are here consistently massively selling that short. Even the word resolution is not sufficient for the level of achievement found in Gurubani to reconcile and reveal the underlying way to understand these two worldviews which met most fully in India. I am not sure in history that two opposing worldviews that are as different as these two met and mingled in this way. Please look into this without resorting to platitudes and cliches.

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  20. bangbangfairfaxgang says:

    Thank you for this post. That`s the first thing I thought when I saw the book.

  21. deep says:

    I am actually very disappointed to see this post bashing the great efforts of our young Sikh community parents who have actually taken the time and responsibility to bring forth some great audio-visual tools for our children to help embrace Sikhi because of its values, not just because they were born in it. As a Sikh mother myself who has struggled to find good quality and clear message material for the Sikh youth and who was so excited to support such great work, I am truly disheartened to see such superficial comments who are completely engrossed in the appearance of things. All they do is discourage the great Sikhi talent from posting anything out there because people like yourself will blog something negative about their work.

  22. deep says:

    If you were not pleased with the "color" depicted in the illustrations, perhaps a comment to the author would have sufficed. Everyone welcomes constructive critism, but what good does it do to completely overlook the Sikh values that a brave aspect of our community is trying to revive? You need to start looking at the glass as half full rather than half empty, Frankly, I did not even notice the "color" of children depicted in this book until you mentioned it because all I could focus on was how my children were joyfully singing these nursery rhymes in place of "old McDonald" and other western popular songs. My hope is that one day as they grow to understand the meanings of these Sikh nursery rhymes, that they will ask me about Seva, Sach, Simran and not be bogged down by the "color" of the kids in the book.

  23. Jeevan says:

    It is important to remember that this is a book designed to develop a child's development. One can only imagine how much of a sponge a child's brain is. Early cognitive development has been known to have significant influence over their subsequent adult personalities. Portraying only one skin color of a child in a book expressly to influence on their personality development and how they see the world should be treated sensitively. In a world where vastly different skin colors exist, any sort of slip-up may inadvertently and inconspicuously, yet still influentially, affect the way that child develops in how they see the world. Specifically towards this book, a child may not look at darker skinned children as particularly bad or less Sikh, but would much more easily see lighter skinned children as good, and better Sikhs. While this may not be the most direct form of racism, it is still something that I feel should be corrected in the next line of books. This is something that should be treated seriously.

  24. Jeevan says:

    This does not mean that I do not highly praise the makers of Ik Chota Bacha. What they have introduced is a line of books explicitly for the developing Sikh child in an era where Christian-based child development books flood the market, leaving minorities overwhelmed with possible inferiority complexes. However, the Sikh community should remember that this is only one of the first major attempts at Sikh-oriented child development books. We shouldn't expect perfection, nor immediately have virtually no criticisms regarding it. In fact, providing constructive criticism, when applied respectfully to the authors, is our way of showing its importance to the Panth.

  25. Thanks for posting this article. Will take note and ensure that we do not make the same mistake at http://www.sikhcomics.com

  26. Kira says:

    Absolutely composed content material , thankyou for information .