Even in India, the “skin-colored” crayon is peach

What color is Indian skin?
What color is Indian skin?
Image: AP/Kevin Frayer
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In April 2013, 20-year-old Chirayu Jain made a phone call to the office of Hindustan Pencils, which manufactures the popular Nataraj and Apsara pencils and Colorama art materials. Jain wanted to know why Colorama’s peach-colored crayon was labeled “skin,” even though it was clearly not the skin tone of most Indians. Jain wanted the company to change the crayon’s name.

“The staff member at the other end of the line did not even begin to understand my point,” said Jain, a second-year law student at Bangalore’s National Law School. “He told me that if red is called ‘red’, then skin color would obviously be called ‘skin’.”

It’s precisely such deeply ingrained associations that Jain set out to break when he filed a complaint against Hindustan Pencils at the district-level consumer forum in Bangalore in June. The complaint accused the company of being racist for promoting the idea that there is only one kind of acceptable skin color—a light, peach one—in a country where most people have darker skin in varying tones of brown.

When he lost the case at the district forum in October 2013, Jain took it up to the State Consumer Commission, where it is now being heard. He has also asked for a compensation of 100,000 rupees ($1,608) from the company for hurting his sentiments.

In July, Jain began an online petition demanding that Hindustan Pencils change the name of its crayon. “In a country with as many skin tones as ours, labelling one particular shade as ‘skin’ colour and that shade in turn being used to represent skin in all human caricatures unknowingly, subconsciously deepens the fair and lovely syndrome at a very tender age. This has serious social consequences,” the petition reads.

“Skin” color is a shade too light.
“Skin” color is a shade too light.
Image: Brown n' Proud

Though Hindustan Pencils is not the only brand with a “skin”-colored crayon, Jain decided that it would be strategic to single it out in court. Faber-Castell and Camlin have colors called “flesh tint,” says Jain, but neither of them are Indian companies. Navneet has called its crayon “peach (skin),” but it is a smaller company. “Besides, when a brand is named ‘Hindustan,’ it needs to be considerate about the message it sends out to the people of India,” he said.

Actor and activist Nandita Das, who is the face of the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign launched last year to challenge the “toxic belief that a person’s worth is measured by the fairness of their skin,” believes that Jain’s complaint against the name of a crayon is important, even though it may seem like a small issue. “Subtle stereotyping has a way of getting into the subconscious, further reinforcing notions of what is the ‘approved’ or ‘preferred’ skin color,” said Das. “After all, children are sponges and absorb more than we think they do.”

Jain cites his own experiences to emphasize the impact that the “skin”-colored crayon can have on young children. “When I was in Class 8, I used to be very embarrassed about the color of my skin and would buy a lot of fairness creams to lighten it,” he said. “I believe the ‘skin’ crayon played a role in this behavior, because from a very young age, I thought that was the only right shade to use while drawing people.”

This is perhaps the first time that crayon names have created a stir in India, but the debate isn’t unfamiliar abroad. The popular American brand Crayola chose to rename its “flesh” crayon as “peach” back in 1962, a nod to the US civil rights movement. In 1992, responding to consumer feedback, Crayola also introduced a special set of eight “Multicultural Crayons” representing different skin tones. Given this global context, Jain feels a big Indian brand should have known better.

While the consumer court case could go on for a long time, Jain and eight of his friends hope that their online campaign, called Brown n’ Proud, will raise awareness about “rangbhed,” or color discrimination. The campaign’s Facebook page has received more than 2,800 likes and carries dozens of testimonials from Indians who have faced prejudice because of their skin color. “The only reason I have asked for compensation in the case against Hindustan Pencils is so that I can use the money to expand this campaign,” said Jain.

This post originally appeared on Scroll.