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Beauty brands need to do more if they actually want to end colourism


TextPoorna Bell

Conglomerates like L’Oréal and Unilever has promised to rename and rebrand skin whitening products, but why won’t they commit to removing them from shelves completely?

Over the last few weeks, when the #BlackLivesMatter movement swept across the world in unprecedented way, it created a tidal wave that spilled over into areas of the non-white community. While I’ve always been adamant that the focus must be on the Black community around whom this movement is centred, one of outcomes of broader conversations around race has meant that the beauty industry has been forced to acknowledge the role they have played in perpetuating colourism

Described by actress Lupita Nyong’o as “the daughter of racism,” colourism is the prejudice against darker skin, and the preferential treatment of those who have fairer skin, within one’s own race. It affects people who are from Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and Africa, and as someone who is South Asian myself, it’s a concept that I have been aware of from the moment I knew the sky was blue.

In the last couple of weeks, Johnson & Johnson has announced it will be removing skin whitening products – the Neutrogena Fine Fairness line and the Clean & Clear Fairness line – from its Asia and Middle Eastern markets. Others have taken a greedier approach – L’Oréal has said that it will be changing the names of products with words like ‘whitening’ in them. Unilever, that produces a whitening cream called Fair & Lovely which has been the bane of so many people’s lives (one lady told me how an aunt gave it to her as a birthday present once) has issued a similar statement saying it’ll change the name of the product. 

While the changes made by Johnson & Johnson are welcomed, colourism hasn’t exactly been toppled or even been dealt a deadly blow. The moves by Unilever and L’Oréal have pushed it into more of a Leaning Tower of Pisa position, given that the same products will still sit on the shelves, but wink wink, will be called something different. One thing is also true of all the beauty conglomerates – they haven’t properly acknowledged the role their products, which they have profited from, have propped up the infrastructure of colourism as a whole. 

While I can only speak for my own race, it is something that is so enmeshed in the fabric of my own culture and so prevalent, that not a single family is free from it, and not a single person remains untouched by it. It has made people feel suicidal, actually driven some to suicide, and is responsible for generating untold self-hatred and self-harm. The defence used by the beauty industry as to why these products sit on the shelves, is because they reduce the appearance of dark spots. It’s certainly the excuse Johnson & Johnson used to backdate why it sold these products at all. But the defence is riddled with holes.

“While the changes made by Johnson & Johnson are welcomed, colourism hasn’t exactly been toppled or even been dealt a deadly blow. Beauty conglomerates haven’t properly acknowledged the role their products, which they have profited from, have propped up the infrastructure of colourism as a whole” 

Firstly, because the two lines they are removing are only sold in countries such as India and the Middle East where there is a higher prevalence of colourism and therefore a big market. If it was actually about dark spots, why aren’t these lines sold in Western countries which aren’t immune to dark spots? 

Secondly, if it was really about getting rid of dark spots, or hyperpigmentation – a darkening of the skin caused by an overproduction of melanin – skin whitening wouldn’t be such a huge business. According to Euromonitor, Fair & Lovely had sales of more than $500 million last year in India alone. The skin whitening product industry is worth $13 billion and is projected to grow to $24 billion in the next seven years. That’s a lot of sales for ‘hyperpigmentation’, wouldn’t you say? 

Unilever and L’Oréal are using this to justify why they aren’t removing the products, but instead merely changing the name. Given that Unilever has donated money to racial justice causes, and L’Oréal posted a black square in support of Black Lives Matter, their efforts to properly effect change is simply performative and devoid of nutritional value. 

Someone the other day asked me why skin whitening products weren’t the same as someone who wanted to buy tanning lotion (yes, really). Colourism has different origins depending on where you are from. In South Asia, for instance, it is rooted in the caste system and was then fuelled by colonialism where, the fairer you were, the better the British treated you.  

The whole system has been used to determine a person’s worth, attractiveness, access to wealth and job opportunities, and in effect, their whole life. A woman’s marriageability rests almost solely on the fairness of her skin, and how she might be treated by family members. All of this is around something a person has no choice over – the colour of their skin – which is where the injustice lies. So no, it’s not the same as someone worrying they might be looking a bit pale and wants to whack on a bit of St Tropez. 

Some people have tried to scrub the colour from their faces with bristle brushes, and bleach it into grey. All to reinforce the message we’re taught that if we have fair skin, we will have everything we ever wanted. Fair & Lovely, the brand Unilever refuses to remove while at the same time championing women’s empowerment, runs adverts that speak to this very theme. The dark skinned girl is unhappy, unloved, but she uses a tube of Fair & Lovely and hey presto, her work colleagues love her, and she meets the man of her dreams. 

“The hard truth is that colourism is not going to be dismantled within communities anytime soon. But one thing that absolutely will help, is for conglomerates to not aid this any longer. No renaming or rebranding, just remove the products”

And of course, it’s a double bind because if you are a visible person of colour living in the Western world, you face a structurally racist system that either doesn’t represent you at all, or when it does, it chooses the closest approximation to whiteness within your own race, that it can find. 

The hard truth of it is that colourism is not going to be dismantled within communities anytime soon. It takes time for new generations to learn new ways of thinking. But one thing that absolutely will help, is for conglomerates to not aid this any longer. To me, that’s a simple premise. No renaming or rebranding, just remove the products. There really is no justification for why they exist.

The only recourse for people like me is boycotting, and petitioning. But it’s also not lost on me that petitions are what got companies such as Unilever and L’Oréal to finally address the issue in 2020. And it still wasn’t anywhere near enough.

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