The Power of Language: After #NotFairandLovely
Changing Thought Patterns Instead of Skintone
By Namira Islam, Co-Founder of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC)
An image of where the hashtag #NotFairandLovely trended on May 7th
The MuslimARC-launched hashtag #NotFairandLovely trended in London on Wednesday. The tweets—many by women of varying backgrounds recounting personal experiences with shadeism—were heart-breaking. Women shared how they were limited from going outside to play in the sun as children, their struggles to overcome an internalized hatred of a dark skin tone, and subsequent acts of self-shaming and devaluation. Some questioned whether their husband’s compliments were genuine and expressed concern over the future lives of their children who may inherit their skin tone. People related stories of children judged from the day they are born by the color of their skin: a light-skinned baby is a joy… and a dark-skinned baby?
The discussion was much needed, and I hope that MuslimARC will be able to adequately modify the hashtag discussion experience to a workshop for use within our communities. In the meantime, I wanted to address two things: one, briefly, why we chose the particular phraseology of “Not Fair and Lovely” and two, some requests for modifying our vocabulary in order to re-shape our thoughts and outlook on a skintone-based value assessment.
First, why not “NotFairButLovely” or “DarkAndLovely,” “BrownAndLovely,” or “BrownButLovely”?
The word choices we make and the phrases we use can play a large role in how we conceptualize the world around us (see: theories of linguistic relativity and articles on sites ranging from Scientific American to Cracked.com). At MuslimARC, we like hashtags that can work in multiple ways and “NotFairAndLovely” does that. With it, one could state: “I am #notfairANDlovely,” “This act is #notfairandlovely”, and “We are more than #notfairandlovely,” among other examples. In addition, the hashtag plays on the name of the infamous and globally sold skin-lightening cream “Fair and Lovely” based out of India.
For the alternate suggestions above – taken from actual tweets – the underlying assumption is one that relies on differentiating between “fair” skin and also seeking to defend the beauty of “dark” skin.
I call on us all to reject the necessity of doing any of that.
That dark skin is beautiful should be a given.
Using the word ‘fair’ to refer to ‘light’ skin should not be.
I ask that we begin un-training ourselves from using the word ‘fair’ to mean light. No skin tone should ever be considered unfair, nor should we settle for a world in which possession of a certain skin tone brings with it an assessment of strength of character. A “fair” world is a just world.
Second, let us remind ourselves and those around us that our words and our thoughts and our actions matter.
For example, if someone lists skin tone as factor in considering whether a person is a good candidate for marriage, ask why the person’s skin color is relevant to the discussion. Listen. Follow up. If you cannot end the conversation with a verbal request (i.e. to refrain from making comments valuing one skin tone over another or using skin tone to determine the worth of a person in front of you), do so in your heart. Letting people politely know that you dislike what is being said and that you are uncomfortable with it is an important starting point.
Stop adding value judgments to words in your own vocabulary. Don’t use ‘fair’ to refer to light-skinned in your thoughts, your writing, or your speech. Realize that this usage does not reflect an objective truth—this is a construction we maintain. ‘Fair’ does not have to refer to any one particular skin tone. The human body is a miracle, skin is fascinating, and an individual is beautiful, period. Statements like “beautiful for a …” should be corrected when uttered by others and eliminated from our thinking and speech. Repeat as necessary.
Lastly, realize that this entire discussion is grounded in the use of appearance as a metric of quality. Reject the notion that outward beauty dictates self-worth. Reject the idea that someone’s physical beauty is the outward manifestation of their inward value. Reject the idea that your face, your skin, your hair, and your bone construction bears any connection with your strength of spirit, depth of heart, or beauty of imagination.
We are more than our skin. Our bodies house our souls, but our souls are timeless. Our bodies can break, and in the grave, disintegrate. But the soul remains. To seek control over our genetics, to alter the physical form we came in is to be ungrateful and arrogant in the face of our Creator. Is it worth it?
Allah is beautiful and loves beauty. Arrogance is rejecting truth and looking down on people.
– the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), as narrated in Muslim.
We must retrain our brains to understand that skin tone does not dictate physical beauty, and that physical beauty does not guarantee happiness. Our words should reflect these concepts. Begin within yourself. True happiness comes from valuing the self and valuing others so that we treat ourselves well in order to better the lives of those around us.
Namira Islam is an attorney in poverty law, a graphic designer, and the acting Executive Director of MuslimARC, the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative. Asian Heritage Month at MuslimARC continues with the following live panels and discussions: