Scholarship helps close diversity gap in medicine

Nefertiti Clavon, 22, struggles to keep up with rising tuition costs and other college expenses.

“There were times I felt I was going to have to leave school because of financial situations,” said Clavon, a health promotions student at the University of Houston in Texas. “I’m grateful there is a scholarship available for female students pursuing healthcare studies.”

Clavon is one of 16 recipients of the 2013 Go Red Multicultural Scholarship, part of the American Heart Association and Macy’s Go Red™ Multicultural Scholarship Fund.

Nefertiti Clavon, is one of 16 recepients of 2013 Go Red Multicultural Scholarship, part of the American Heart Association and Macy’s Go Red™ Multicultural Scholarship Fund.

Nefertiti Clavon, is one of 16 recepients of 2013 Go Red Multicultural Scholarship, part of the American Heart Association and Macy’s Go Red™ Multicultural Scholarship Fund.

The fund— now in its third year— provides $2,500 scholarships for multicultural women pursuing college or graduate school degrees in healthcare fields.

Besides easing the financial burden for students, the American Heart Association and its supporters are striving to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in medicine and increase culturally sensitive, patient care.

The number of minority medical school graduates is increasing steadily, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. However, the figures are still low compared with the population at large. For example, among 17,364 medical school graduates in 2011— 6.5 percent were African-American, 7.6 percent were Hispanic and 21.6 percent were Asian.

Only 5.4 percent of African-American and 3.6 percent of Hispanic nurses in the nation are registered nurses, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In contrast, minorities make up 36.6 percent of the U.S. population.

“Building a diverse physician and medical workforce is a critical component in the delivery of patient-centered care to the multicultural communities that will enter the healthcare system once the Affordable Care Act is implemented,” said Dr. Jennifer Mieres, senior vice president in the Office of Community and Public Health, chief diversity and inclusion officer for North Shore— LIJ Health System and American Heart

Association Go Red For Women spokesperson. “The recruitment of talented, young diverse women into the healthcare field is a critical step in the delivery of quality, culturally-sensitive, patient-centered care.”

Numerous ethnic groups— including African-Americans and Hispanics— are disproportionately affected by cardiovascular disease and risk factors. They also face barriers to diagnosis and care and experience worse health outcomes than Caucasians.

The Go Red™ Multicultural Scholarship is made possible by the Macy’s Multicultural Fund, which was created in 2009 to focus on increasing diversity in the medical field. Macy’s is a founding national sponsor of the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women® and Go Red Por Tu Corazón, raising more than $46 million since 2004.

“Encouraging and supporting multiethnic students as they join the ranks of healthcare professionals will more effectively impact the disproportionate rates of heart disease among women in their own communities,” said Bill Hawthorne, Macy’s senior vice-president of Diversity Strategies.

For more information and to complete an application, visit: The deadline to apply for 2014 scholarships is December 31, 2013.

Cole’s Foundation volunteer blesses terminally ill children with kindness

Caterina Grove is a resident of Reisterstown, Maryland. However, she blesses many children and their families around the country through her work with Cole’s Foundation, an organization that supports children and families facing a medical crisis.

“I met someone who knew a little girl who had cancer and sent me her link,” recalled Grove. “I went on the link and found out about other sick children. The next thing I knew, I found myself on Cole’s website, and began following him through his site.”

She added, “His father did not want his son to die in vain and wanted to do something. He asked if anyone was interested in helping. I said, ‘you’re in Michigan, and I’m in Maryland, but will help in any way I can.’”

Cole’s Foundation was created as a tribute to three-year-old Cole Ruotsala, who was diagnosed with adrenocortical carcinoma, a rare form of cancer. Less than two months after his diagnosis, Cole died in his parent’s arms.

Recognizing the needs of families struggling through the nightmare of caring for a child with a terminal illness, the organization was created by his father Aaron Ruotsala to utilize technology to provide support to families facing the illness and death of a child.

Grove is one of the organization’s most active volunteers, and is the pioneer of Cole’s Foundation’s ‘Send-A-Smile’ program. Through the program, balloons, cards and gifts are delivered to hospital rooms around the country. She recalled the time she sent a bright red Elmo balloon to a child that was in a coma.

“I’m a Christian, and felt the Lord had assigned me to send that balloon, she said. “The next day, the child’s mother posted online that someone had sent her child a balloon which she tied to his bed, and that he woke up and started playing with the balloon. That was five years ago, and I will never forget it. When God prompts you to do something, just do it.”

In addition to ‘Send-A-Smile’, other Cole’s Foundation programs include: ‘Cole’s Pages, a place to create and share personal web pages that serve to keep family and friends informed and updated; ‘Kids Unite to Fight’, which provides educational programs that rally students to support other children; and ‘Prayer Requests and Praise Reports’, which fosters community between families experiencing grief and uncertainty in the face of a medical crisis.

In addition to her involvement with the ‘Send-A-Smile’ program, Grove also travels around the country to visit families supported by Cole’s Foundation. She also sends 10 to 20 ‘care packages’ each month to children with serious illnesses and their families.

“I would send cards to the children attached with small gifts. It has blossomed. We send packages to the children, and we try to include the siblings as well. They also need encouragement, and we want them to know that they are important too.”

She added, “This is all volunteer work – no one gets paid. Money that is donated to Cole’s Foundation, is given goes to the families and their children.”

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. During this time, families, caregivers, charities and research groups across the United States spotlight cancers that largely affect children, survivorship issues, and to help raise funds for research and family support.

According to the American Childhood Cancer Organization (ACCO), in the U.S., almost 13,000 children under the age of 21 are diagnosed with cancer every year, while approximately a quarter of them will not survive the disease.

“Many of these terminally ill children are called ‘vegetables’, which upsets me,” said Grove. “Someone is inside of there. People look at the sadness, but don’t realize that a kind word and acts of kindness goes a long way.”

“I have taken meals to the hospital for those who need to be at the hospital with their children. I ask them what they need. I also pick up things like gas and gift cards. Oftentimes, one parent has to be with the child, while the other has to stay home in another state and care for the home and other children. It’s hard, because it splits the family.”

She added, “My husband and I just returned from visiting several families in Iowa. Sadly, all of these families lost their children to cancer. For me, it is a blessing beyond measure to visit these families. They are heroes. What I do is miniscule in comparison to what they go through. My goal is to continue to reach out and be a blessing to somebody.”

For more information about Cole’s Foundation, visit

Dance Baltimore celebrates Michael Jackson by teaching “Thriller”

In Baltimore, everyone dances—for fun, for fitness, for life! Dance Baltimore celebrates Entertainer of the Year, Emeritus, Michael Jackson (“MJ”) with a special series of dance classes. Dance Baltimore instructors will teach the steps to one of the most popular videos of all time, “Thriller” throughout the months of September and October with a final performance set for Halloween night, October 31, 2013. “Thriller” will be taught at the Eubie Blake Center located 847 North Howard Street in Baltimore. Street parking is available. Space is limited; advance registration is not required but suggested. No previous dance experience is necessary and ages 8 and older are welcome. Classes are offered on a pay-what-you-can basis.

Founded in 2003, Dance Baltimore is a dance service organization created to enhance the role of dance in the Baltimore metropolitan area. Dance Baltimore celebrates its 10-year anniversary in 2012 – 2013; a variety of special events and activities continue to recognize the accomplishment. The organization promotes dance for health, fitness, fun and self-expression.

“Thriller” classes will be set over the next several months, on Tuesday evenings and select Sunday afternoons at the Eubie Blake Center. A listing of other locations throughout the city can be found on the Dance Baltimore

website: Dance Baltimore instructors are also available to teach off site at the request of other organizations for a nominal fee.

For more information, visit the Dance Baltimore website at or register online at or call the Dance Baltimore Hot Line to register by phone, 443-470-9084.

Don’t believe the hype: A college education still matters to black students

The news is not good for young people with a four-year degree: roughly 284,000 college grads are working minimum wage jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports, “317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000 parking lot attendants.”


Jayne Matthews Hopson

The Associated Press published an article stating, “young adults with bachelor’s degrees are increasingly scraping by in lower-wage jobs— retail sales clerk, security officer or receptionist, and that’s confounding their hopes a degree would pay off despite higher tuition and mounting student loans.”

These stories with their attention gathering headlines, buttressed by dismal government statistics are sending a clear message that a college degree is no longer a ticket to the middle class. But does all this academic gloom and doom mean poor and minority students should abandon their pursuit of a college education? The answer is resounding no!

To support this advice I offer three reasons why young black men and women should work even harder to earn at least a bachelor’s degree. First, at the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, I suspect many of these reports are written to reduce the pool of college graduates by discouraging minority populations from pursuing higher education.

Why? In the minds of some, a college education has lost much of its exclusivity and prestige. For nearly 90 percent of our country’s history, a college education was solely the domain of upper class white males. Until the civil rights movement black attendance at state colleges was limited to one or two students per semester, and virtually barred from private white universities.

However once the doors to higher education were opened a new generation of black students, were able to successfully compete for merit-based scholarships at public and private schools. Many others qualified for financial aid, which allowed them to attend more affordable state colleges. In the span of 50 years a college degree has become a more democratic achievement.

Secondly, the news reports never say what types of degrees these college-educated waiters and parking lot attendants have earned. Every young black person that I know with a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degree is gainfully employed in their chosen profession.

It would not be surprising if a good portion of underemployed/unemployed college grads earned degrees in less demanding majors. This is partly the fault of college administrators who sought to boost enrollment by offering “student-designed” majors. The College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges reports the number of schools offering university-created interdisciplinary degrees has increased by 42 percent in recent years.

These hybrid majors produce highly specialized undergraduate degrees with esoteric sounding titles like “Ethnomusicology,” “The Self: Its Structure, Knowledge and Ends” and “Comparative Mythology” at Oberlin College, or “Ecology of Wellness” says USA TODAY reporter, Emily Atteberry.

I admire the creativity of fashioning a unique course of study. Yet, as the parent of current college student, I’d steer my son away from a hybrid undergraduate major. I feel it’s doubtful there’s much demand for a 22-year-old with a degree in a subject like Comparative Mythology.

My third and final point is based upon the thoughts of Ben Casselman, a writer for the Wall Street Journal “Better-educated workers still face far better job prospects than their less-educated counterparts, says Casselman. “The unemployment rate for Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree was 3.8 percent in February, compared with 7.9 percent for those with just a high school diploma.

He offers another compelling reason poor and minority students should seek a degree. “College-educated employees also tend to earn more and advance more quickly even when they are in fields that don’t require a degree. But as college-educated workers have been forced to take lower-level jobs, they have displaced less-skilled workers, leaving those without degrees with few job options.”

In the words of Public Enemy: “Don’t believe the hype.” A college degree is still one of the best investments a young black person can make. When the economy improves, who do you think will be at the front of the line for the best paying jobs? All those college educated waiters and sales clerks. My advice to secure your highest place in the work world is to do whatever is necessary to earn your degree.

Jayne Matthews Hopson is development officer for the Waldorf School of Baltimore. She believes education matters because “only the educated are free.”

Economic mobility linked to strong middle class communities

Since the onset of the foreclosure crisis, research reports from esteemed universities and policy institutes have documented what went wrong. A new report offers us a different perspective, one that views the creation of a strong middle class as the solution for strong economic growth.


Charlene Crowell, NNPA Columnist

Middle-Out Mobility, published by the Center for American Progress (CAP), relates how high inequality harms the growth of prosperity. It reached these conclusions after analyzing recent research by Alan Krueger, former chairman of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers; Stanford University, Harvard University, the University of California-Berkeley, the Pew Economic Mobility Project and others.

“Economic growth depends on ensuring that we can make full use of a precious national resource: the American workforce. That means we must cultivate individuals’ talents and make sure that every person can realize their full potential. This is not merely a moral matter, it is an economic imperative: When one person is held back, all Americans are held back,” the report states.

The report also reviewed whether race was a factor in limiting the relationship between the middle class and mobility. Their findings suggest that racial inequities, both social and economic, still persist. Regions with large African American populations were linked to smaller increases in mobility than in other areas.

“The size of the middle class is a powerful predictor of mobility, yet its reach is limited by our nation’s troubling legacy of racial inequity.”

The report also states that while 97 percent of Americans believe that every person should have an equal opportunity to get ahead in life, children born to low-income parents tend to become lower-income adults. Metro areas with small or few middle class communities also tend to have higher amounts of poverty. Conversely, children of affluent parents, tend to remain affluent.

However, in metro areas with a strong middle class, better access to quality schools leads to improved test scores, more civic and religious engagement and the enhanced ability for greater mobility among low-income students.

Noting how tremendous economic growth was shared by an expanding middle class from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, CAP identifies another important gap: incomes. While American productivity continued to grow, wages did not. As a result, nearly all of the income gains from the last 40 years have benefited the nation’s richest 10 percent.

This mismatch of high productivity against stagnant wages is at the center of America’s hopes for future prosperity, according to the report. It is also the basis for the CAP report to refute “supply-side” or “trickle-down” economic theories that promote giving tax cuts to the wealthy as the way to generate economic prosperity and opportunity for all.

“If supply-side theory were right, then we should expect regions with higher taxes to have lower economic mobility. But there is simply no evidence of any such relationship; to the contrary, there is a small positive correlation. In regions with higher state income tax levels, low-income children were slightly more mobile than in regions with lower state tax levels.”

The report concluded, “Giving tax breaks and other benefits to the wealthy will only perpetuate the current era of diminished mobility; to reignite opportunity, policymakers must grow and strengthen a vibrant middle class.”

Charlene Crowell is a communications manager with the Center for Responsible Lending. She can be reached at

Lupus walk participants raise money for cure

— Each year, thousands of people across the region join forces with the Lupus Foundation of America’s D.C./Maryland/Virginia chapter and walk with one unified purpose— to find a cure for lupus, a chronic, autoimmune disease that can damage any part of the body.

On Saturday, September 28, 2013, Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D-MD) are scheduled to be grand marshals in the 6th annual Maryland Lupus Walk to be held at Rash Field located at 201 Key Highway in Baltimore City. Pre-event activities begin at 9 a.m.

“This walk brings together the local lupus community in a unique way, which provides hope and continued efforts towards fighting for a cure,” said Jessica Gilbart, president and CEO of the Lupus Foundation’s DMV chapter. “This life-altering and sometimes fatal disease often takes three to five years and four to six physicians before a diagnosis is confirmed. We walk for those who can’t.”

Gilbart says that donations from the walk are critical to funding free services offered by the foundation, as well as support and education that helps local patients thrive while living with the devastating disease, including the largest education program in the country, the Maryland Lupus Summit which is scheduled for Saturday, November 2, 2013 at Johns Hopkins University.

“We want the lupus community to take charge and feel empowered [over] their health,” Gilbart said.

The foundation estimates that 1.5 million Americans, including 35,000 in Maryland, have a form of lupus and, although the disease can strike men and women of all ages, 90 percent of those diagnosed are women.

Most people develop lupus between the ages of 15 and 44. The disease is three times more prevalent among all populations of color.

Once a diagnosis is confirmed, minimal treatment options exist and patients must try toxic therapies with harmful side effects. In 2011, the first drug in over 50 years received approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, the lupus community still needs answers and support, which the local chapter provides along with other free resources, according to Gilbart.

“I was first diagnosed in August of 2011, almost a year after my mother died from multiple sclerosis (MS) and my doctor thought I also had MS based on some of the symptoms, which included fatigue, headaches, muscle aches and other things,” said Baltimore resident Alicia Stokes.

“After having an MRI and [getting] some blood work [done], they confirmed that I had systemic lupus erythematosus, a form of lupus that means the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue,” Stokes said. “I couldn’t imagine the road ahead of me with lupus. Each day is now different with some being more tolerable than others.”

Like Stokes, Baltimore resident Stephanie Teagle, also plans to participate in the upcoming walk. Teagle says the advice she would give others is to keep a journal of how you’re feeling each day— a tool that will assist doctors in making a correct diagnosis more quickly.

“It allows the doctors to see a pattern because people tend to run to the emergency room and they tend to see various doctors who don’t know each other and, therefore, it may take five years for a proper diagnosis,” said Teagle, who suffered three strokes and a heart attack prior to her diagnosis. “There must be a reason that I’m here today.”

Proceeds from the walk will also help fund the local chapter’s award-winning Patient Navigation Program, which includes telephone support; an emergency assistance fund; 16 support groups; three statewide summits; teleconferences; and personalized guidance to overcome obstacles associated with the disease.

Registration for the walk is free! Registrations can be made online at: For more information about the walk or to make a donation, call 888-787-5380 or 202-787-5380 or visit the foundation’s website:

National program recognizes former Raven Jonathan Odgen

Professional football legend and former Baltimore Raven Jonathan Ogden was recognized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Allstate Insurance Company in Washington, D.C., on Friday, September 20, 2013 as part of “Hometown Hall of Famers™,” a national program honoring the hometown roots of the sport’s greatest coaches, players, and contributors with special ceremonies and plaque dedication events in local communities.

“’Hometown Hall of Famers™’ has been warmly embraced by communities and Hall of Famers alike,” said George Veras, Pro Football Hall of Fame Enterprises president and CEO. “We are thrilled to continue our partnership with Allstate to bring the Pro Football Hall of Fame to communities across the country and congratulate Jonathan Ogden and St. Albans School on bringing a piece of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to Washington, D.C.”

An 11-time Pro Bowler and former high school standout at St. Albans School, Ogden was presented with his “Hometown Hall of Famer™” plaque during a special ceremony in the school’s gymnasium, where the plaque will live permanently to serve as an inspiration for the school’s students and athletes. The presentation will be made by Ogden’s former athletic director from St. Albans School, Oliver ‘Skip” Grant.

“To be part of a program that brings the prestige and tradition of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to communities like Washington, D.C., is an honor for Allstate, our agents and employees,” said Lisa Cochrane, Allstate’s senior vice president of marketing.

St. Albans School students, faculty, staff, alumni and Ogden’s family members and close friends attended the ceremony. Vance Wilson, St. Albans School headmaster served as the Master of Ceremonies at the event.

In addition to the plaque, a commemorative Jonathan Ogden “Hometown Hall of Famers™” road sign will be on display in Washington, D.C.

An Outland Trophy Award-winning tackle from UCLA, Ogden was the first-ever first-round draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens in the 1996 NFL Draft. The consensus All-Rookie pick helped the Ravens climb to the top of the NFL during his 12 seasons in Baltimore. A great pass protector and run blocker, Ogden helped lead the Ravens to their first-ever Super Bowl in 2000 where they beat the New York Giants in a 34-7 victory in Super Bowl XXXV.

The NFL Alumni named Ogden the NFL’s Offensive Lineman of the Year in 2002. He received first-team All-Pro honors six times and All-AFC honors nine times, and was a member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 2000s. Ogden was inducted into the Baltimore Ravens Ring of Honor in 2008 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2012.

In 2013, Ogden became the first longtime member of the Ravens franchise to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Fans can visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame website for more information about the “Hometown Hall of Famers™” program, and can view event videos at

Return to stalag O’Malley?

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley couldn’t resist putting in his two cents worth about Baltimore’s recent crime surge. And our former mayor knows exactly what to do about it.

A “new strategy” to fighting crime in Baltimore is needed, the governor says. That’s what he said; here’s what he means.

By “new strategy,” O’Malley means Baltimore should return to the bad old days of his zero tolerance policy, when city cops ran buck wild over the populace.

Things got so bad I took to calling the city “Stalag O’Malley,” the better to describe how our then-mayor had reduced Baltimore to little more than a police state.

Remember the thrust of O’Malley’s zero tolerance policy: cops would arrest people for even the pettiest of crimes. Some of those arrested ended up spending an entire weekend at the Central Booking and Intake Center. (At one point inmates spent 48 to 72 hours in Central Booking.)

Let’s recall the lowlights of that time, shall we?

The jive humble arrest of Evan Howard: Howard graduated from the esteemed Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in 2004. In April of 2005, he was a freshman, engineering student at Morgan State University. Courtesy of O’Malley’s zero tolerance policy, by the end of April Howard had a criminal record.

Howard came out of a store one day and greeted a friend. A couple of Baltimore cops arrested them. The charge? Loitering!

I kid you not. A young man— a college student with a promising career ahead of him who had no criminal record— spent a weekend (56 hours) in Central Booking on a loitering charge.

The arrest of the meter maid: Remember when two Baltimore cops busted a meter maid for writing a ticket after one of them refused to move a police vehicle? This had to be the low point in police-community relations in Baltimore.

The arrest of Douglas L Johnson: This Vietnam veteran was arrested for sitting on the steps of a vacant building. James Jordan spent 17 hours in Central Booking. His offense? Littering. He dropped a cup on the ground.

Things got so bad in the city that cops themselves rebelled. They went to their union, the Fraternal Order of Police, in an attempt to get O’Malley to cease and desist with his zero tolerance policy.

The officers told the FOP president that they were being pressured into getting the “stop and frisk” numbers up.

Those “stop and frisks” are also called Terry stops. They’re legal— when done properly— but they have to be documented. A District Court judge found that, in many cases, the Terry stops weren’t properly documented. That means those stops violated the law.

O’Malley justified his zero tolerance policy because it led to a reduction in the number of Baltimore homicides. But what lesson was learned?

That if we turn a city into a police state, then we can reduce crime? Well, yeah.

However, you would expect crime to be reduced— and reduced drastically— in a police state. The trick in a constitutional republic is to reduce crime WITHOUT turning society into a police state.

The upside of O’Malley’s zero tolerance policy was, indeed, a reduction in the number of homicides. The downside was that O’Malley’s policy left many Baltimoreans with a distrust of police that continues to this day.

During the days of Stalag O’Malley, two Circuit Court judges threw out gun cases because they said they couldn’t trust the word of police. A third Circuit Court judge urged that a grand jury investigate why so many Baltimoreans don’t trust the police.

Return to the days of Stalag O’Malley, governor? Let’s not and just say we did.

Rev. S. Todd Yeary, Ph.D. appointed to BCCC Board of Trustees

Governor Martin O’Malley has appointed the Rev. Dr. Sheridan Todd Yeary, senior pastor at Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore, to fill a vacancy on the BCCC Board of Trustees. Dr. Yeary is formerly associate director of the Center for Black Studies at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois.

A third-generation preacher and pastor, Dr. Yeary is the fifth pastor in Douglas Memorial’s 88-year history. He is a sought-after speaker on a variety of public policy and leadership topics, having presented at the Faith Leaders Roundtable of the Congressional Black Caucus (2011, 2012); the Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture Series on Racial Reconciliation, Hamline University (2003-2004); the Brown v. Board of Education Summit, College of DuPage (2005); and the African American Family Summit, University of Nebraska at Lincoln (2002-2006). Dr. Yeary’s presentation on the role of religion in promoting diversity, at the spring 2006 Oxford Round Table of the University of Oxford, England, was later published in the Oxford Round Table’s Forum on Public Policy journal.

Dr. Yeary holds a Doctor of Philosophy Degree (Ph.D.) in Religion in Society and Personality from Northwestern University and a Master of Divinity Degree from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, located on the Northwestern campus. He earned a graduate certificate in African Studies from Northwestern and a bachelor’s degree in management from National Louis University.

Dr. Yeary is an involved mentor of youth and young adults as well as community activist. He serves on the boards of the Center for School Mental Health (CSMH) of the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Baltimore Mental Health Systems, Inc. He is also a member of the Advisory Board to the University of Baltimore College of Public Affairs.

Dr. Yeary is in the process of writing two books, “The Black Church and HIV/AIDS,” and “Protecting Blackness: Faith, Pilgrimage and the Resilience of the African American Self.” He is married to the Rev. Rhonda S. Boozer-Yeary and is the father of three children.

‘White is beautiful:’ Why India needs its own Oprah Winfrey

— Tanupriya Khurana watches intently as her sister Bhavna gets a makeover at a designer cosmetics kiosk in the middle of one of Delhi’s most popular malls, Select Citywalk.

Shades of velvety pink blush roll over Bhavna’s olive cheeks. She holds up a mirror and inspects the results.

Behind the kiosk, a clothing and lingerie store displays trendy fashions on mannequins with blond hair, blue eyes and milky white complexions. They look nothing like Tanupriya and her sister or the hundreds of other Indians milling about this upscale shopping complex on a Sunday afternoon.

Even the advertisements and store posters that use Indian faces promote a look that is unattainable for most Indians: long, silky straight hair; a tall, thin body; and, most importantly, a fair complexion. The most popular Bollywood stars such as Aishwarya Rai — a former Miss World — look more white than Indian.

“Being white is the preference,” says Tanupriya, 23, an insurance brokerage firm employee. “There’s a different psychology here. I think Indian women have problems with acceptance.”

“Gori hai sundar,” she says. White is beautiful.

Khurana says this tongue in cheek. She knows it’s racist — and disagrees with this collective thinking. But she’s right. As far back as I can remember, a woman’s complexion has been a very big deal in my native land.

When I was a child, my aunt forbade me to play outside lest I turn several shades darker in the sun. The same aunt lamented after one of my trips to Iraq that the strong sun had made me “black.”

“You used to be so pretty,” she said. In other words: “You used to be so light-skinned.”

Many Indians feel their country’s disturbing obsession with fairness has been compounded in recent years with the invasion of European and American retail outlets and widespread access to information via the Internet.

The discussion was reignited after Nina Davaluri, a woman of Indian descent, was crowned Miss America. Many here wondered: Could someone as dark complexioned as Davaluri win a pageant in the country of her heritage?

Pratima Singh, the kiosk employee doing the makeover on Tanupriya’s sister, says she often has clients who choose foundation or powder that is too light for them.

“They say they want to look like her,” Singh says pointing to a giant clothing ad featuring a white woman. “But you can’t camouflage what you are.”

Khurana agrees. “That’s the saddest thing in our country,” she says as her sister’s face is transformed into Bollywood glamor. “Looks, color of skin — we should ignore such things.”

Should, yes. But even those here who do not dispute the new Miss America’s beauty said this: A pageant or a Bollywood role is one thing, but when it comes down to finding a bride for a beloved son, Davaluri, despite her stunning looks, would be too dark to make the cut.

Sure enough, matrimonial ads in India — arranged marriages are still the way many young people choose to wed — often read like this:

“Seeking match for beautiful, tall, fair girl …”

And those women who are the norm in India — that is, not light-skinned — are targeted by a $400 million skin-whitening-cream industry. It began years ago with a product called Fair & Lovely.

I was first introduced to it through a letter from India 35 years ago. It was from one of my childhood friends in Kolkata. She was getting married and wanted to look her best on her wedding day. Her parents thought they were lucky to have secured her a good husband in an arranged marriage. She was, after all, dark complexioned.

She said she had been using Fair & Lovely but wasn’t satisfied with the results. She wanted me to bring her something better from America.

I’ve noticed on my visit here that Fair & Lovely is still on the shelves. But women who can afford it have a wide selection of products from which to choose. There is even a vaginal wash that promises freshness, protection and, of course, skin lightening.

Some people blame the industry for making the problem worse. But Shivangi Gupta of MidasCare Pharmaceutical, the manufacturer of the vaginal wash, said the company is simply ceding to customer demands.

“We had a very proactive consumer coming in and asking us for this product, and I think it would be very irresponsible of us to not to provide that as a solution,” Gupta says.

In Kolkata, I ventured into a beauty products store that carried a dizzying array of skin creams. Employee Jayasree Sarkar told me the skin-lightening creams were the store’s most popular products. It doesn’t matter that they don’t really make you two shades lighter in a matter of a week. Women keep buying the stuff, believing there might be a chance.

Their hope is fueled by Bollywood megastars such as Shah Rukh Khan, a darker-complexioned actor who had been peddling a cream made by Emani called Fair and Handsome. Khan tells Indians that he gained success after using the cream.

Pria Warrick, a former Miss India who now runs a finishing school for women in Delhi, says India is still struggling to get over its colonial past.

“We, of course, in India are very obsessed with being very fair. I think it’s something the British left us with,” Warrick says.

Warrick tells me she is convinced that India needs someone like Oprah Winfrey to do for Indian women what the star did for black women in America — to make Indians proud of their culture, their heritage, their looks.

She also blames the infiltration of U.S. culture for making Indian society so focused on physical beauty.

“American culture places a lot of importance on looks,” she says.

Indians stand at a crossroads, Warrick says. “How much do we pick up from the West?”

Some Indians are trying to reverse the movement to be fair. Actor Nandita Das has lent her face to the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign, trying to foment change.

“The point is do we want to capitalize this prejudice and lack of self worth and further perpetuate it,” Das says in the campaign, “or do we want to address it in a way and empower more women and make them feel good in the way they are?”

Back at the Delhi mall, Jai Shukla, 31, says it’s a shame Indians are so obsessed with skin tones. “I think mentally, we are not free,” he says, admitting that he once tried lightening creams on his own chocolate skin.

He says he used to teach Hindi to Westerners at the posh Imperial Hotel in Delhi. Sometimes, the guards assumed he was a laborer. He says he was a victim of profiling because of his dark complexion. He tried skin-lightening creams but gave it all up once he began to gain more confidence in himself.

Rajat Tyagi, 28, rattles off a list of actresses he says personify his ideal of beauty: Kate Winslett, Angelina Jolie and Indian actor Katrina Kaif, who is light-skinned. But Tygai goes against the grain. When it comes to marrying someone, he says, he won’t care if she is white, brown or black.

It’s what inside that matters, he says.

“Really?” I ask him.

“Really,” he says.

I didn’t know whether to believe him, especially in the midst of the retail madness of this Delhi mall. His answer is cliche. But I am glad he said it.

CNN’s Mallika Kapur contributed to this report.


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