Why are so many black and Asian women desperate to be white?
It's a shocking and rarely discussed phenomenon. But, according to one of our most respected Asian commentators, it's feeding a cynical industry of plastic surgery and skin-lightening cosmetics...
An acquaintance of mine, Umi, whose family is from India, has skin the colour of dark teak and big black eyes. We are having tea in a small cafe in London. She is agitated because her younger, fairer-skinned sister has had a good marriage proposal, while Umi, who's 28, is still waiting for her Mr Right.
'What did I do wrong in previous life?' she wails. 'I will do anything to change this horrible colour, the round nose.
'And look, just look at this fat, flat Indian face; no bone shape at all. Let's go to a plastic surgeon - if two of us go, maybe we can get a discount. Buy one, get one free!'
Two women facing each other
This is not some dippy woman with more money than sense. She is a primary school teacher in a large UK city.
So when she suggests this, do I hug her and laugh companionably, or challenge her grotesque desires and values? Where do they come from?
There is no doubt that, even in the 21st century, being white offers to all too many minds a stamp of supposed cultural superiority. But that only partly explains Umi's pathological self-mortification.
And she isn't alone. Gazing at the mirror at my age is always testing, since callous time etches and doodles on it relentlessly. But it is my face - uniquely mine - still able to attract the odd flirty bloke.
Unlike Umi, I don't recoil from my own image as an Asian woman, even though arbiters of beauty have forever judged women of colour to be aesthetically and biologically inferior to white females.
Coloured skin is considered a curse unless it is a fake tan, and so are those flat noses, thick lips (considered gorgeous on Scarlett Johansson but not on Whoopi Goldberg), short necks and legs, apple and plum shapes.
What a lot of uglies we are; unworthy; unfit to kiss the feet of Western fashion goddesses and Hollywood stars.
In glossy magazines and on billboards, models are mostly white. They daily remind us people of colour that we're not worth it.
Take Charlize Theron, advertising a perfume brand: golden hair, ivory skin, bright, radiant eyes, burnished lips, diffusing luminosity like a full moon. 'The incarnation of absolute femininity,' says the caption.
Charlize joins the galaxy of exquisite blondes, past and present - from Marilyn Monroe to Twiggy, and now to Sienna Miller, Nicole Kidman and Kate Hudson.
Radiant: Actress Charlize Theron has joined the Hollywood list of exquisite blondes
But dark-haired Audrey Hepburn, Catherine Zeta Jones, Julia Roberts and our own ubiquitous Cheryl Cole are also up there; white women whose beauty sets the standard and raises hopeless aspirations among many Caribbean, African, Chinese, Arab and Eastern women who want to shed (or shred) their racial features so they, too, can dazzle.
That, at least, is what they imagine, these brainwashed millions.
Dream-makers have always projected idealised and unattainable images of women - to create insecurities and stimulate desires.
That's what they do. And, sadly, countless non-white women can't resist their pernicious influence.
They believe that skin colour can make or break you. And that can even include what shade of brown or black your skin is.
Surveys in the U.S. have long shown that all things being equal, lighter-skinned black people get more job and life chances than do those with darker skins.
The combination of superb talent and honey skin make stars such as Halle Berry and Beyonce irresistible. Tracy Chapman, fine singer but 'too black', remains in the shadows.
Michael Jackson appeared to understand that reality and internalise the prejudice. He claimed his ever-lightening skin was the result of the skin condition vitiligo, but combined with his straightened hair and slimline nose, he became a dubious role model for black people unhappy in their own skin.
Similarly, Leona Lewis and Lewis Hamilton - both mixed race - are envied for their looks by many ambitious black Britons.
I overheard two young mixed-race girls this week agreeing that the wannabe singer Rachel Adedeji had to be dropped from X Factor because she was too dark for people to like her.
We have to accept that such sick and sad attitudes are fed by pressures within their own communities.
Rani Moorthy, a brilliant theatre actress and playwright, has written movingly on 'shade discrimination' in Asian communities, using her own searing experiences.
When she was only a child, her grandmother advised her to get some skills because no man would marry her.
'It was because I was dark-skinned. It was treated as a disease, and every Friday I would have oil baths in an attempt to lighten my skin,' she recalls.
My own mum, open-minded in every other way, put chickpea flour paste on my face for the same reason, and did not let me have coffee or tea for fear it would make me dark.
In the Eighties, I used to train teachers so they could deal confidently with multi-racial classes.
They were intensely worried about black and Asian children who stubbornly described themselves as white and sometimes used Brillo pads to rub off their 'bad' skin.
I thought we had moved on from those days. Evidently not.
More women than ever detest themselves and are desperately seeking to be more like the white movie stars and supermodels they idolise.
A study in America found that plastic surgery among minorities had quadrupled between 1997 and 2003.
Black or white? Michael Jackson claimed his ever-lightening skin was the result of the skin condition vitiligo
Here, too, the figure is shooting up. One prominent example is a British model named Jet, of Caribbean origin, who says she wants to look like a Barbie doll.
As demand increases for such transformations, so suppliers come forth. A new army of plastic surgeons has emerged, promising to make any race look more Caucasian, more gorgeous.
One of them, a slippery-smooth Dr Shailesh Vadodaria, claims they are, thereby, creating a new 'de-racialised' world: 'It's part of the globalisation process where ethnic differences are going to be narrower and narrower.'
They have charts and measurements, percentages and figures to show our faces are more brutish and less pleasing than those of Caucasians.
Some of these creepy people appeared last Tuesday on Bleach, Nip, Tuck: The White Beauty Myth on Channel 4.
There was Tahira, a likeable Bangladeshi woman who hates her toffee-coloured skin. She said: 'I dream about how to become white - how to look white and beautiful.
'Michael Jackson, I love his colour. I mean, I want to know what type of things he used to become that colour.'
So smiling broadly, a man named Dr Jacques Otto obliged and sold her stuff in a jar costing a fortune. Who knows if it will work. What we do know is that many whitening creams can cause irreversible damage.
Another Channel 4 programme featured a French doctor, Dr Jean-Marc Guichet, who extends the legs of oriental females - an excruciating process - to give them Jerry Hall pins. Or not. It is almost a kind of sinister racial cloning.
The international media has a large part to play in this. You have only to look at the television both here and in 'emerging' countries from India to Brazil to see that there is still no doubt which colour is the most alluring, and confers the most status.
Indian actresses were once all shapes and colours. Now, top Bollywood female stars are pale and have green or light brown eyes (or contact lenses).
British women of Vietnamese or Chinese origin are having their eyes widened and breasts enlarged because their men like them better that way.
On Asian marriage sites, third generation British Asian men ask for 'wheaten' brides. Asian fashion magazines, meanwhile, regularly use dark-haired Eastern European models.
And in black communities, Western features are craved, hair is straightened, skin lightened for reasons which I find profoundly disturbing.
That Caribbean model, Jet, having bought herself a pointy long nose, now says she looks rich enough to shop in Waitrose.
This mass 'ethnic' psychosis is manifestly getting worse. And my teacher friend Umi proves my point.
She's made an appointment with a Harley Street doctor to begin her 'de-racialisation', starting with the nose and chin.
She hopes that after spending thousands of pounds, she will find a new face looking back at her in the mirror.
Her experience is backed up by several letters I've received from parents and teachers worried that a number of non-white children are rejecting their looks and identities.
One mother writes: 'My children are Afro-English. My older daughter was happy with her curly hair and lovely brown skin, but my younger daughter Betty, who's eight, says she hates her hair and her African dad.
'His own mother says Betty is too dark. She pulls her hair out and keeps scratching her arms as if she wants to tear off her skin.
'We are getting her psychological counselling and it is tearing us apart. I really thought we had beaten this.'
So did I. Back in the Sixties, the Black Is Beautiful movement in the U.S. spread across the world and made us proud to be who we were, even in Uganda, where I was growing up.
I stopped ironing my hair to try to make it look like Jean Shrimpton's, and my African college room-mates let their hair go naturally Afro again. No more burnt hair in the sink, and a new dawn, we thought.
For a few decades, yes. But now we have a world where American morality and media impose their standardised Western notions on every corner of the globe. And a surge in 'ethnic' self-loathing and self-mutilation has emerged in its wake.
What is different now is the absence of any political or social fightback against this. The message seems to be that race is dispensable, can be wiped out if you can pay for the privilege. Then what?
Do Jet and Umi and all those other young women think they will be good enough to please the bigots of the BNP?
When, oh when, will we stop being our own worst enemies?
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