-EZHIL PRIYADHARSHINI (CONTRIBUTOR)
The year is 2020. Even amidst a world-wide pandemic, there come matrimonial ads such as this:
“WANTED suitable Match 4 fair slim Punjabi Groom 36 5.5 Well settled own car own house Dog lover. Looking for educated, slim fair, caring bride” (sic)
in a Sunday Times newspaper.
Colorism, a term coined by author and activist Alice Walker in her book ‘In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens’ published in 1983, is widely prevalent in India. It is defined as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their colour.” However, it is important to contemplate on the reasons for such widespread prevalence.
One important factor for this ingrained prejudice is the exposure to several external rulers who invaded India. History suggests that Indians were not always discriminatory based on skin color. From the Mughal rulers to the British colonizers, powerful rulers were usually fair-skinned. This automatically led to Indians associating white skin with power, supremacy, and ultimately beauty. The Britishers used to give preferences to fair-skinned Indians than dusky-skinned ones even for menial job roles. Followed by this, the caste system was also introduced which perpetuated the notion of purity and pollution. According to this, the upper castes – Brahmins and Kshatriyas were predominantly fair-skinned and hence considered pure, while the lower castes like the Shudras were usually dark-skinned and hence, apparently, were polluted. A practical explanation for this could be that the caste system was inherently based on job roles which automatically suggests that the upper castes usually were privileged to work indoors while the lower caste population worked under the sun.
However, fast forward back to the present ‘modern’ times, the major culprits who still enforce colorist prejudices would be corporate companies and media. This article is being written at a time when themes such as racism and colorism are gaining strong momentum due to the murder of the innocent African-American man, George Floyd, on 25th May 2020 by policemen in the US. As protests around this matter arise and the popular Black Lives Matter movement makes around worldwide, corporate companies are using this scenario to showcase themselves as being politically correct. US-based MNC, Johnson and Johnson announced on 19th June 2020 that it will stop the sale of Neutrogena Fine Fairness cream, which is being sold in Asia and the Middle East, and Clean & Clear fairness cream, which is being sold only in India. Followed by this move, Hindustan Unilever, the Indian subsidiary of Unilever – the British – Dutch MNC, announced that it will rename one of its successful products in the market, Fair and Lovely and drop words like fair, whiteness, lightening, etc. from its marketing campaigns and brand name. On 2nd July the fairness cream was renamed as ‘Glow and Lovely’. But does a name change bring inclusivity and redefine the notion of beauty? A product like Fair and Lovely which has been in the market since the ’80s and has had a wide market reach is obviously still going to be associated with what it claimed to do for ages. Also even though this is a mere step, why only now? Moreover, does renaming the product with just another synonym of fair suffice when the hazardous skin lightening formula remains the same? On top of this, Emami and Unilever fight over the renaming of their men’s range of fairness creams to Glow and Handsome, as the numbers of synonyms of ‘fair’ reduce. These corporate companies are basically performing whitewashing. They just want to clean their hands of the dirty politics that they have been playing by capitalizing on the insecurities of hundreds of young consumers.Poster for the former “Fair and Lovely Cream” | Source : Hindustan Unilever Limited
Moreover, the media only adds fuel to the fire. Movies usually have fair-skinned actors as protagonists, while dusky-skinned actors are usually portrayed in a negative connotation or as just a supporting role. In addition, several Bollywood stars majorly endorse these fairness products. However, there are also a few cinema actors questioning the notion of colorism and also taking a jab at their colleagues from the industry who have endorsed fairness creams through ads. Moreover, the narratives of the advertisements are in themselves very problematic since they mostly reinforce that fair is equal to beauty and success, where success is defined as being able to get a job, get married, etc. In fact, in 2014, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) had to put in place a rule stating “no advertisement should communicate any discrimination or reinforce negative social stereotyping on the basis of skin colour.” It was only after this Fair and Lovely changed its very discriminatory ads drastically. Even right now this move from HUL may be primarily because of the proposed draft of the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) (Amendment) Bill of 2020.
To put it in a nutshell, almost irreversible damage has already been done by the different corporates which sell not only fairness products, but also offer services for skin lightening, etc. This mistake cannot be undone by just renaming the products but only by removing the products from the market itself. It is also the responsibility of the government to keep a check on corporate companies if they seem to be selling hazardous products like in other countries. Finally, it is high time for all of us, the consumers, to realize the facade that we have been buying into, and take efforts to change our mindsets around beauty standards.
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