Racism Is Endemic. What Role for Microfinance?

> Posted by Joshua Goldstein, Principal Director for Economic Citizenship & Disability Inclusion, CFI

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Last June, in my hotel room in Delhi, I read in the Sunday edition of the Times of India that hiring white girls to work wedding parties is the new status symbol in Bangalore. Though this might sound surprising, alabaster skin as the ideal of beauty (and the status that goes with it) is neither new to nor specific to India. This is not a trivial matter but a deadly serious business.

One need only look at skin whitening products, like Unilever’s “Fair and Lovely”, which are great sellers in the beauty product category in India, Bangladesh, and Thailand—indeed, in 30 countries around the world. The Unilever Sri Lanka website reads: “Today, 250 million consumers across the globe strongly connect with Fair and Lovely as a brand that stands for the belief that beauty empowers a woman to change her destiny.”

I first think of a close Indian-American friend, now living in India, who believes that the woman he married was only still in the market when he met her because her skin was too dark to merit matrimonial consideration– in spite of her beauty. Lucky for him. Or another colleague from an upper-class Indian family who told me that as a little girl her mother had her use “Fair and Lovely” and that today as a young woman in her twenties her mother will say to her reproachfully when she goes home: “you are looking a little dark”. On the matrimonial page in the Times of India, just scanning, I see, over and over again, parents advertising “fair, slim girl”, “fair and handsome boy”,  or “wheat-colored girl”.

Women who choose skin whitening products are not doing so because they are silly or vain, but because they are trying to advance their matrimonial prospects in order to optimize the survival and success of their offspring. So rather than condemn them, we need to change society so that the evolutionary strategy to become as white as possible no longer conveys an advantage.

Discrimination based on skin color has a deep and terrible history around the globe, not least in my own country, the United States of America. While much progress has been made all over the world in civil rights, which has sharply reduced official discrimination, it is clear that the culture of discrimination is much harder to eradicate. The question arises: what should microfinance institutions do? How much responsibility do they have to combat the scourge of racism? Overtly, most microfinance institutions prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or ethnic identity, and the Client Protection Principles promoted by the Smart Campaign enshrine that standard. However, inevitably, staff attitudes and behavior (not excluding senior managers) reflect the culture in which the institution operates.

Focusing in on microfinance, here are a couple of examples, if any are needed, that such prejudice continues. A case study from Caroline Shenaz Hossein of York University on microfinance in Guyana uncovered biases among branch managers and staff that limit access to microfinance for eligible entrepreneurs. The case study covered nearly 100 individuals and focused on Albouystown, a slum of Georgetown. The research suggested that race, class, and gender prejudices were pervasive. Micro-lenders, most of whom were Indo-Guyanese, openly admitted to a lending bias against Afro-Buyanese hucksters (informal traders and vendors).

These exclusionary behaviors appear to apply to donors in the microfinance sector as well. A study from Kiva showed – to no fault of Kiva’s – biases in the charitable microfinance lending practiced on their site. The study demonstrated that lenders on the large peer-to-peer lending platform appear to favor more attractive, lighter-skinned, and less obese borrowers, with all other factors equal.

Through my purely anecdotal observations of MFI operations in Latin America, I have noticed that lighter-skinned people often make up the higher echelons of management in microfinance institutions. (I hope one of my readers can either provide some substantiation of this claim or cite examples that show how wrong I am—which would please me to no end.)

In any case, MFIs do not seem to be an exception to the racial prejudice that pervades the societies in which they operate. Hardly surprising but something they should become more conscious of and try to remedy.

International development professionals and microfinance practitioners have too often had blinders on when it has come to bearing witness to, and struggling against, the blatant and subtle discrimination based on skin color that is a defining, oppressive reality in many of the countries where we work. This sobering reality needs to infuse our consciousness or we may be unintentional accessories to further injustice.

Have you read?

The Difficult Crawl Towards Non-Discrimination – Financial and Otherwise

Two Possible Futures for Persons With Disabilities

For Vulnerable Groups and Minorities, Naming Is Claim to One’s Identity