There has been a concerning proliferation of influencers who have taken social justice movements as an opportunity to center themselves.
By Hareem Khan
What’s pervasive about colorism is its mundanity. Its sly, subjugating gaze.
Its violence is enacted and concealed by its quotidian nature, which enables a kind of extraction of colorism from the systems that sustain it. Undoubtedly inspired by the uprisings in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, a number of South Asian influencers have recently launched their versions of “social media for social change” campaigns tackling colorism. The resulting sanitized rhetoric reveals the corporate logics of this type of global citizenship. The influencers at the center of these campaigns masquerade the complexities of colorism through a call to change mindsets instead of systems, while subsequently amassing their own social and financial capital. But how does any of that improve the status quo?
Locating the effects of colorism solely within the realm of beauty standards and media representations misses an opportunity to transcend performative politics into an envisioning of radical change. Colorism is deeply etched into our collective notions of beauty, yes, but it is so much more. It’s individual, institutional, and structural violence against people with darker skin, shored up by the simultaneously violent context of white supremacy, caste, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy. It is layered into the landscape such that it not only informs the way things are, but also how things got to be that way.
To be anti-colorism is not just celebrating “dusky” skin; anti-colorism work should be to re-imagine the world as we know it and being willing to risk it all for liberation. Some influencer anti-colorism campaigns, in contrast, are little more than attempts to commodify oppression and engulf the influencer in a sea of vapid affirmation.
In thinking through the various invisibilities that certain performative visibilities enact, I reflect on the nature of influencer culture and the limited kinds of liberation that are made possible through its valorization. If these politics are not intersectional and ignore systemic oppression in all of its forms, they are, in effect, a politics of violence and erasure.
Colorism and Performative Empowerment
I have tried to reconcile the simultaneous abhorrence toward and exotification of dark skin my entire life. I often think back to one afternoon in Illinois, during which nostalgia had cast aside the filters, and I asked my mom about her earliest memory of colorism involving me. She recalled her first visit back to Karachi, Pakistan soon after I was born. A relative had approached her in the arrivals area of Jinnah International Airport and looked down at the brown infant bundled tightly in her arms. “This is what you bring from America?” she inquired. This powerful memory that, until then, wasn’t mine had now become mine—an intergenerational keepsake.
This is what you bring from America?
The memory still serves as a specter of my own insecurities, but also an instructive on systemic colorism. By migrating to the US, my family had un/willingly subscribed to externally imposed expectations of class mobility. Bringing home a dark infant from America represented a conceptual incongruence. After all, how could my family claim respectability and upward mobility in a world in which success and melanin were perceived as paradoxical? Consequently, when I come across influencers who center a deficient self-love politic and media representations as the main culprits of colorism’s pervasive and systemic power, I find their campaigns not only vacuous, but actually harmful.
Diipa Büller-Khosla is one such influencer, whose recent #EndColorism campaign attempts to address South Asian colorism by asking Bollywood and “major media outlets” to change beauty standards to represent all shades. For Diipa, shade discrimination is the reason why some women lack confidence and are berated by “aunties and uncles.” Put simply, to people like Diipa, colorism is not systemic; it is simply the roadblock preventing us from embracing the harmony of self-love and skin-care regimens we were all meant to share (and purchase). What comes off as initially innocuous is made almost absurd by the #EndColorism campaign’s call for participation by asking followers to juxtapose an unedited photo of themselves with intentionally lightened, “whitewashed” versions of the same photo. While the campaign offers no clear explanation, presumably it is about making people feel they are addressing the exclusivity of media representations by way of their own altered selfies. However, in doing so, this troubling campaign erases the visibility of dark folks by literally asking them to erase their brownness and with it, any semblance of this campaign’s legitimacy.
#EndColorism manages to position the influencer at its center while simultaneously extracting colorism from its historical, political, and economic contexts and neglecting movement work that addresses systemic oppressions of dark-skinned people.
The chorus of placid statements like, “beauty has no skin tone,” or “we are one human race,” or “we need to change this mindset” obfuscate the social, political, and economic violence brought on by colorism. In other words, this campaign becomes the type of project that enables white or diasporic folks to condemn colorism happening in South Asia while ignoring their own complicity in global white supremacy. It’s not simply that darker-skinned people are not considered attractive; people with dark skin are also disproportionately impacted by state-sanctioned violence, the global capitalist market, and the localizations of class and caste politics.
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Additionally, effectively addressing colorism is about dismantling the neoliberalism that activates many social media for social change campaigns, providing influencers opportunities for commodified relationships with international non-governmental organizations that have burdened the global south with their own imperialist policies under the shroud of humanitarianism.
Humanitarianism, a present-day euphemism for neocolonialism, has made the empowerment of Black and Brown women its perpetual project—a project that survives on the same oppression that it purportedly seeks to address. Here, I’m speaking to the specific initiatives set forth by philanthropic agencies and commissions stemming from the United Nations, for example, but also including multinational corporations and other international organizations. These institutionalized initiatives rely on a developmental discourse that positions “women and girls,” specifically, as needing rescuing from global poverty without any real reckoning with racial capitalism and heteropatriarchy as the logics that produce these conditions. These efforts become a means to further incorporate people in the global south into capitalist systems as precarious laborers under the regulatory guise of empowerment.
The urgency that this moment calls for is not a comfortable foray into commodified social justice activism. It’s not acceptable to focus solely on the media or Bollywood or a multinational corporation without an acknowledgment of the economic and political contexts through which these institutions operate. This negligence only enables a type of ephemeral spotlighting that is incapable of transcending hashtag politics and a few floating petitions. Seeing darker actors in Bollywood may be the ultimate goal, and if so, the limits of this political vision are as clear as the banality of its analysis. Ultimately, failure to reckon with colorism in its entirety is an act of harm.
Influencer, in the Singular
Juxtaposed against the influencers with their massive followings, are radical organizers, activists, and organizations that are using social media to call out systemic oppression in all of its insidious and blatant forms. They resist any articulations of feminism and anti-racism that operate under the banner of capitalism. These are the ideas that should ground us, if anything, as a reminder that feminism, anti-racism, or humanitarianism under capitalism is not liberation.
As a consumer of social media, I reflect on the agendas of those whose content I consume. If the content sanctifies the status quo through a commodified performance of philanthropy, then I find it suspicious. If the content glamourizes a lifestyle that is classist, I reject it, even if the content creator is a South Asian woman, because representation also has the capacity to damage even if we think it’s doing nothing at all. If, instead, social media pushes me to continue the necessary work of building a radical consciousness, then I make space for it.
It’s crucial that people take this time as a call to do better, but there has been a concerning proliferation of influencers who have taken this as an opportunity to center themselves. I’m here to advocate against normalizing an aspiration to be the center, a leader, an influencer, a founder—particularly if that quest is embarked upon by someone whose politics are rooted in a palatability that does nothing for movement work while displacing the powerful labor of Black, Brown, Indigenous, Muslim, and Dalit Queer and Trans folks and communities. The singularities of influencer/founder/leader are just that: singularities. Instead, I ask what does solidarity mean if any will to do good must be done in the spotlight of social media and/or public validation for being unique.
Instead of launching colorism campaigns built around the image of the global influencer, what kinds of collective solidarity can be imagined if, instead of followers as currency, we dismantle the whole concept of currency capital to begin with? What would followership look like if a diasporic Indian influencer committed to eradicating colorism also called out right-wing Hindu nationalism for its Brahmanical supremacy, violent Islamophobia, and economic oppression of India’s working classes? And what might we accomplish if we centered dark-skinned people without their faces, voices, and bodies being buffered by light-skinned representations under the banner of universal multiculturalism?
There is beautiful work that’s being done for liberatory futures for us all that builds on the radical traditions of our ancestors. I ask influencers, particularly South Asian ones, to read and learn and sit with it before walking up to that mic. This may lead to a realization that passing the mic is itself a radical act. And that is okay.
Hareem Khan is an educator and learner based in Los Angeles who has written on colorism, racialized labor, and critical ethnography. She teaches Cultural Anthropology and Ethnic Studies at California State University, San Bernardino.
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