25 June, 2021


Skin-Colour Discrimination In Sri Lanka

By Lasantha Pethiyagoda

Lasantha Pethiyagoda

The birth of a child is still heralded with pleasure in Sri Lanka, and a girl child is usually no exception. In recent times, a close member of my extended family gave birth to a beautiful girl. Visiting them at the maternity ward, I found her to be adorable, albeit odd-looking as babies usually are, with rather out of shape face, slightly flattened brow, and half-closed eyes too large for the face. Gazing at the baby, I could see my cousin in the corner of my eye, waiting for a chance to comment on something – the colour of her skin.

Celebrating a new arrival invariably focuses on skin colour, something Caucasians do not have to worry about. After years of living in the West, I was completely staggered by how my relative went on about how her family members including her mother and grandmother seemed to ignore the baby, not cradling him, no one going “wow, how sweet, aney daaarling” and touching her – all because of the colour of her skin.

But what really rankled, were my relative’s comments. In Sinhala: “It’s the first time in our family that such a kalu child was born. Everyone was shocked. But the shock will wear off with time. Then they will carry the baby”. I quietly commented that it could hardly be the reason, considering the colour of the mother, who was of a dark complexion. She replied “That is thalaelalu no, the baby is really kalu” She went on to justify her reasoning, saying that people naturally thought that way, and it was not just her opinion.

Later on, I found out more about my relative, when I saw messages she had sent to my cousins overseas. The only thing she seemed to convey was…”The baby is dark” In my mind’s eye, I visualised her disappointment about twenty odd years ahead, when preparing for the girl’s marriage (in contrast to eligibility as a human being in society)

Messages both verbal and ‘texted’ had a similar theme, with “Sin, no” (colloquial for it being a pity) repeated countless times. Upon quiet requests for clarification she elaborated that she was “being realistic, and this is how the world is, this is how people think, no” I know that the misguided notion of beauty dictated that fair people were prettier than dark people.

It is disheartening and embarrassing to think that after generations of colonial rule, exposure to the consequences of discrimination on a variety of bases, that they have adopted an alien value that fair equals pretty and dark equals ugly. Why is dark skin not beautiful?

Ah, but we forget that nature can be defied, so it is “OK”. The remedy is the ever-present and miraculous “Fair & Lovely” with commercials depicting the glorious effects of a fair skin, ranging from attracting a handsome prince, wealth and job prospects and the special love of one’s closest friends.

While the claims made, are at most, laughable, the contexts are absurd and demeans basic intelligence, while the messages themselves are preposterous. On TV, naturally fair young women are made to say things like: “My husband loves me more because I am much fairer now”. This marketing gimmick has altered social values, introducing the notion that being fair makes you the epitome of attraction, people flocking around you like ants to a pot of honey.

This notion is being established as a prerequisite for success in both personal and professional spheres, and sets a dangerous precedent further relegating merit-based criteria as being less important. Dumb beauty threatens to become the yardstick of social mobility, ranging from what the president “looks like” and the leader of the opposition “looks like” to eventually what doctors, engineers, dentists, architects, accountants, teachers and lawyers “look like” as a measure of their credibility or worth.

This notion also threatens to heighten a natural anxiety in women and men and their critical ability to remain comfortable in their own skin. The bizarre reality being developed, is that the best way to market a product is to feed on misplaced cultural views fuelled by human insecurities.

Further developments introduced to the notion of young women’s beauty in recent times is the colour of their intimate areas (not just their cleanliness, it would seem). This is marketed as another “opportunity” to make themselves more attractive to the opposite sex. It is an Indian product, probably as dubious as its predecessor meant for the face. Marketers argue that if lipstick can be used to heighten the sexual desirability of one’s lips by making them brighter and red, the same theory can be used to lighten the dark nether areas.

The lack of fairness is exploited in numerous ways. Consider this example. If you had two daughters, the younger one fair and the elder dark, the mother would ensure that the younger is hidden from prospective suitors visiting their home, as the elder needs to be ‘rid of’ (as in lightening the ‘burden’) first, and her prospects would diminish if not.

Even causal reading of hundreds of advertisements for “marriage proposals” in Sri Lankan newspapers will reveal they are replete with this misguided notion as a cultural ‘norm’.

Watch any Bollywood “commercial” movie (those designed primarily for profits rather than artistic enrichment) made during the last ten years. In the many song and dance scenes, you will see the girls dancing at the centre of the screen have blonde hair, are pale white in complexion and are comparable to “European” in most aspects, while those who are shown sparingly have darker skin and black hair.

The colonial sediments of a basis for subjugation have been rejuvenated to reflect the superiority of white as being powerful, if not in political preponderance, then at least in artistic merit. History, written from a white perspective has often assumed this naturally, while our idiotic marketers exploit this for monetary gain.

White skin is now recognised as a social marker for high class, while darker skin is associated with labour in the hot sun, a total reversal of how class is viewed in European and American societies where a tan is associated with travel and therefore luxury.

Imagine a dark-skinned Sri Lankan girl who had been brought up in a Western society having had to cope with discrimination based on colour, looking for succour from her own compatriots “back home”. Comments like “Look at you aney, you are still so dark no, after living so long in suddo country…”

It would be deeply depressing to be judged on one’s skin colour in a country where most people are naturally kalu, or making one feel ashamed of a feature they have no control over, degraded and burdened by dark people who refuse to regard those who look like themselves as being beautiful.

They will develop an inferiority complex which will affect not just a minority in a ‘foreign’ country but which affects the vast majority of the population, and contribute to further degeneration of society.

Skin colour discrimination in Sri Lanka must be as socially unacceptable as discrimination for caste differences, class differences and disability difference. Otherwise, young people will, in desperation run into the waiting hands of the predatory monster that is the marketing industry, which will gladly embrace them with open arms and slowly leach them dry.

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Latest comments

  • 2

    To an educated man beauty is that which beholds the eye. Some of the most beautiful people have very deceptive looks but can make a stiff English woman laugh anytime anywhere.
    Nip it in the bud- A bit of child psychology would assist in changing the attitudes of nations. Passing the blame on being a former colony does not auger well because it’s the complete past; we are being demagogues to think otherwise.
    Presently Europe is spending billions doing very much to remove this menace but its facing the backlash from the poor south and east of Europe. Now added to that in their ignorance the refugees/immigrants that have never seen freedom taking the local folk for granted.
    Sri Lanka with a very low I.Q. where 90% have less than 70 is a major problem and a fertile hunting ground for nationalistic politics as you have seen race, religion, region, cast/class etc. Only a revolution or a natural disaster changes that thinking. Even Picasso the Spaniard who saw it all made it made it in Paris the land with the opportunity like Freud and Einstein.

    • 1

      Yep, cannot blame others for somthing deep rooted in our herritage.

      Fair n’ lovely Aryan supremacy ideology is our herritage, probably introduced by Vijaya & Co.

      A contributor to the national problem and confusion too.

      Even the Adivasi in Bihar north India (given disgusting class/caste, economic and political space) are darker than many of us.

      • 2

        Geethal:Quote”Fair n’ lovely Aryan supremacy ideology is our herritage, probably introduced by Vijaya & Co.Unquote

        XANTHIC POWER- Epicanthic fold rules!

        Aryan you are not European OK sorry but “Mischlinge” even the educated north Indians don’t call themselves Aryans! Just go to Patna and ask any “babua” who you(they are very hospitable folk and can show you proof beyond 2k years) are because that’s where the bandits roam. Vijaya was a bandit on the run neither a Guajarati or Bengali- period. Asoka was exactly like Henry the 8th around 40 wives so one of his offshots came with the “potha danda” that is your Buddhism. However the Chinese have an original script written during Buddha’s time and it is called Mahayana (like the Hindu Gautama the Mahayana permits marriage so no pedophiles) the best works of Gautama anywhere are seen at “Longman Caves” at Loyang and the monastery close by is Shoaling Temple. The CPC gives respect only to the Buddhist but it is seen as a philosophy of life not a religion as Gautama said- Gautama died a Hindu too. Go see if you are a Buddhist/Singhalese.
        Why don’t you fanatical Sinhala/Buddhist invite the Dalai Lama who is respected very much by the French, Swiss and overall west? Forget politics why not? I have met a Rin poche who was a relative of the king of Bhutan and he had not even plucked a flower in his life and I gave that man life for 3 months by mere accident. Sri Lankan monks are just a disgrace to the race and Buddhism.
        Why is it that the high castes of India don’t become Buddhist? Because the Potha was written 500years after Gautama’s death and I am sure you don’t even know what your grandfather thought even in this age of press and script. Don’t our parents often say alas generation gap? Be honest to yourself and find out by visiting Patna who you are without thinking like “Mischlinge”. I am neither Singhalese nor Tamil go find out for self without talking bollocks Sinhala Buddhist.
        Ethnic problem is your sinhala buddhist problem not my problem its just that you are so uncivilized gas gembos that you cannot say sorry to the folk you killed in 83 when they were not even tamils of the north- thats your proble pervert.
        Happily Agnostic.

      • 0

        My apologies Geethai I took your comment the wrong way around while attending to a couple of others. Sorry again. If SL forgot about everything and just gave rights to the individual then all are cared for. A bit utopian at this stage of course.

  • 3

    So because your cousin had a dark colored child & it’s aftermath, should we believe all Sr Lankans are the same?

    Either his wife slept with someone else, say a dark mumbo, or one of those long hidden DNA popped up. All left to do is either do a DNA test or be content with the child.

    Don’t make a simple stupid situation like this to discriminate a whole nation.

    • 0

      Oh brother… I guess Wuliangguobinjiu is right about the IQ levels in Sri Lanka.

      Hey Einstein, the author’s relative is a woman suggested by the quote “my relative went on about how HER family members…”.

    • 2

      Well said latif

  • 1

    What is Lasantha P. writing about this now as if all this has suddenly dawned on him?!!

    This has been an issue for a long time and reams have been written about it, speciall by feminist writers in Sri Lanka. But as he has been living overseas, maybe he’s waking up to this only now! Its not only a problem here but all over South Asia (hence the popularity of skin whitening creams)but alsi in other countries as well in the world, ie Peru.

    So many things that are destroying Sri Lanka and he talks of the colour of the skin of a baby!

  • 1

    This is something that happens all the time here – before asking if the mother had a healthy baby and if everything is fine, so many people I know always ask if the child is fair or dark in complexion. Drives me crazy. If the child is dark, they keep saying ‘sin’ as if the child was born with some terrible deformity.

  • 0

    Well, in the west they want to be thin..

  • 0

    This exemplifies how stupid the SL are.

  • 10

    As a dark skinned girl living in Western Society I thank you for writing about this topic. I disagree with some of the comments above regarding relevancy. This type of thinking is at the core of our problems. As long as we keep putting ourselves down as a people, then we don’t need enemies to do it for us.

    • 0

      SK down under
      As much as one has to be mindful about what, when, and how much etc. of what we eat.
      Do you know that the only Ceylonese name known even today and discussed in the western world of Art from Leuven University (Oxford of the continent) to Guggenheim at Chicago is Ananda Coomaraswamy? There is no mention of Cyril Ponnamperuma or Dr Xuesen Qian, the father of American space program.Maybe because its only the artist who observant :)
      You also know that the western businessmen who arrived from Portugal wanted only the Salagama caste to handle their work and finally the British came in with a different concept.
      Even today if you go over to the deserts of Rajasthan you would find blue eyed blonde Brahmins unmixed to the westerner. The British traders preferred the one time refugees to the Indians because they were able to “represent themselves as being like the British,” which they did “more diligently and effectively than perhaps any other South Asian community” not because of their colour or being Indo-European. Johan Mandelslo (1638) saw them as “diligent”, “conscientious” and “skillful” in their mercantile pursuits. Similar observations would be made by James Mackintosh, Recorder of Bombay from 1804 to 1811, who noted that “the Parsees are a small remnant of one of the mightiest nations of the ancient world, who, flying from persecution into India, were for many ages lost in obscurity and poverty, till at length they met a just government under which they speedily rose to be one of the most popular mercantile bodies in Asia”.
      Nothing has changed since then regarding acceptance. If you want to still think of the African Slaves or the Bangladeshis and talk about colour, racism and human rights don’t blame the whole of the west because it’s not so but your own seeking. Like the KKK there are many disgruntled folk in Europe and they are on the increase because of the economy and the influx of other cultures that have no idea of freedom and responsibility and misuse it. But then haven’t Ceylon’s great leaders like SWRD; Sirima; J.R. Rajapakse Weerawanse etc. been demagogues who thrive on race, religion, region, caste etc. and been ably supported by the yellow robed pedophiles.
      Happily Agnostic

  • 0

    Actually, this kind if sh*t goes on in any society all the time. And this is not limited to Sri Lanka. If you look at old paintings from Leonardo da Vinci, et. al., or consider beauty in old books, you will notice that being fat (over-weight, bordering on obese) and fair skinned was considered beautiful in those times. Why do you think Geisha women painted their skin “white as milk”? In those times rich people were fed well and didn’t have to work in the fields. So they were fat and white.

    The pendulum has swung the other way in the West but news has not reached Sri Lanka yet. It will take some (a lot of) time but when fat, fair girls reach a critical mass, skinning and dark-skinned will be considered the beautiful.

  • 0

    I am black, Maan really jet balck! Still I am very happy, to be frank very very happy because I have a big white tip, which most of these fair ladies not only like of if, but believe me mad on it. I am more than sure the case of the black female too should be the same because lot of white european who married to black women have very successful lifes.

  • 0

    Well I dont agree with Author…

    That is the human nature that we always want what we dont and take granted for what we have.

    This is no difference in Europe, as people both men and women spend colossal amount of money for “Fake tan craems”, sun beds etc.

    Being “white” , they prefer tan.

    For us with dark skins we would prefer to be more fair.

    this has nothing to do with “being Sri Lankan” it is just human nature.

    Also “fair and lovely” has biggest market share in india for the same reason

    • 0

      we in sri lanka think tamils of tamil nadu are dark and hence colour is not an issue. i tell you they talk about colour more than anything else. most of the higher caste tamils in tamil nadu are quite light skinned. castes like pillay, gounder and some other groups are quite light skinned. on the other hand lower caste people like dalits are very dark. majority of the christian converts are black. tamil brahmins of course are very light skinned. if you watch a tamil film you will see how much they ridicule dark colour and the name calling is really intolerable. when i was in chennai i saw a board hanging outside a money changer shop looking for staff. the advertisement read ” require young and fair female staff”. in britain means they would have been reported to the commission for racial equality. the advertisement contain the following:-
      (1) gender bias
      (2) age discrimination and
      (3) colour discrimination

      padman, i have seen only a very few white guys going out with black girls. white women with black guys yes but they are not husband and wife. black geezers are only after one thing. once that’s over they will just walk out. then white women become single mothers with half caste children. black geezers don’t stay in marriage and they say it’s not their culture. i have seen indian and tamil girls with black geezers. i don’t know any sinhala girl so i don’t know anything about them. i also know a few tamil single mothers with black children. i personally don’t like black people. i have no black or indian colleagues at work. north indians are like snakes. they are very dangerous. believe it or not south indians are a lot better.

  • 0

    I think this has earlier roots than European colonization. In Indian caste system, 4 castes were known as ‘warna’ literally ‘the colour’. So, higher casts were ‘golden’ skinned while lower castes were darker skinned. So, the colour of your skin reflects your social status. This was exacerbated by the European colonization.

  • 1

    I lived in a Tamil society for nearly half a year and no-one even mentioned skin colour to me! I don’t think Sri Lanka is as bad as India when it comes to colour discrimination.

    • 2


      which tamil society are you from?? tell me because you guys need more recognition!

      I’ve got a friend who grew up in the north (now lives in the city) who always accidentally blurts out how being dark is a negative thing and then rushes to correct herself.

      “yeah, but he’s dark. Too dark. Oh.. not like you, you are not that dark” Gee, thanks I guess?!

      “She’s was so rude. She’s really dark too… not that that’s a bad thing……..” I was too busy rolling my eyes to respond this time.

      Why do I hang out with these people? Oh right, because they’re everywhere.

      Damn right, being dark is not a bad thing.

  • 2

    What has Skin Colour got to do with anything Worthwhile?

    It is the Mind that Matters, according to the Buddha’s Teaching. And the Mind has no Colour or Shape!

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