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Dropping ‘Fair’ from Fair & Lovely won’t erase Indian racism

Johnsons & Johnsons, Hindustan Unilever, and even Shaadi.com, are introspecting their contribution to racism. But re-branding products is not enough.

Actor Yami Gautam in a Fair and Lovely facewash ad | Screengrab

India’s favourite fairness cream Fair & Lovely seems to be taking responsibility for the inherent racism and colourism that the product has perpetuated for decades. It’s parent company Hindustan Unilever announced today that the product line would be rebranded and the word ‘Fair’ dropped from the brand name, while the company’s advertising would evolve to feature women of different skin tones. Why not drop the product altogether?

The move comes days after US multinational company Johnsons & Johnsons announced that they will be halting production of their ‘Clean and Clear’ fairness range of products, after the Black Lives Movement protests made several companies take stock of their own contribution to systemic racism. “Conversations over the past few weeks highlighted that some product names or claims on our dark spot reducer products represent fairness or white as better than your own unique skin tone,” Johnson & Johnson said in a statement clarifying their decision.

Forgive me if I don’t believe these token acts of ‘fairness’. For years, these products have been circulating in markets, but it is only now that these companies have developed a conscience about their role in actively contributing to impossible beauty standards and fixation with fairness, especially in India.

Despite all the campaigns claiming ‘dark is beautiful’, colourism and racism is a problem that persists far beyond these products.

Recently, Bollywood actors like Priyanka Chopra, Sonam Kapoor and Disha Patani came under fire for expressing their support for the Black Lives Matter protests in the US. Apart from selective and superficial activism — they are mostly mum about matters back home, they are also all guilty of endorsing fairness and brightening creams. Hypocrisy much?

Also read: On International Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a look at our own racism

From racist classmates to ‘white’ actors

This hype for fair skin affects dark-coloured women in India on a daily basis. As cliche as it sounds, children truly are a mirror to society. Once in second grade when we were studying about blacksmiths, our teacher was trying to explain how a smith is not actually ‘black’, as no one’s skin is actually the colour black. However, a classmate of mine soon chimed in and said, “Oh but no ma’am, Rachel is black.”

At that point, the word ‘black’ was, of course, devoid of all political and racist implications. But it was still obvious that it was something horrendously negative — it was written all over the faces of my teacher and my fellow classmates. That is when I realised that regardless of time, location, or context, the first thing that would always be noticed about me was my skin colour — and that included the classist and casteist baggage that darker skin in India carries.

Popular culture we consume is no better. When I go back to my state, Tamil Nadu, I feel at home around people who look like me. However, this sense of acceptance is only superficial at best. Just take a look at Tamil cinema, rarely will you find a leading lady who looks like me, or any of the thousands of women who actually live in the state.

No, you will see female actors with blindingly fair skin —the ideal that all Tamilian women then aspire to. Interestingly enough, this rule does not apply to men. Every Tamilian superstar, from Rajnikanth to Vijay, is dark-skinned. It is just women who have to constantly prep and bleach their skin to fit into certain standards of beauty.

Fairness as a tool for self-acceptance

Fair & Lovely ads have for years sold the narrative of how a dark woman acquires some semblance of self-worth only after her skin colour ‘upgrades’ to the lighter end of that ridiculous fairness scale. Want success, fame, love? Apply the cream. Even if it drops the word ‘fair’ now, it won’t change what it has done for years. It’s time to scrap the product.

Even though it is not the only product in the country that manufactures ideals of fairness, it is the most recognisable cultural symbol of the fairness fixation that plagues India. Several prominent Bollywood actors chose to sell this narrative with Fair & Lovely, and several other products — Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Priyanka Chopra, Katrina Kaif, Kareena Kapoor, Yami Gautam, the list is endless. The beauty industry even came out with a male version of the product ‘Fair and Handsome’, endorsed by none other than Shah Rukh Khan.

Selling the notion that fair skin equals greater acceptability and success clearly works, because the fairness industry is fairly well-off. By capitalising on the insecurity of dark-skinned girls and boys, they have managed to rake in a profit of over $450 million annually (nearly Rs 3,500 crore).

Although ‘fairness cream’ has now become an uncool terminology to use, so similar products are masked by terms like ‘brightening’ and ‘spot-reducing’ creams.

Also read: Afghan Snow, India’s first beauty cream, was christened by a king and endorsed by Gandhi

Colourism in Indian matrimony

The legacy of Fair & Lovely is an enduring one. This particular product has withstood all taunts, insults, pressure and activism that has been thrown its way, and continues to be sold everywhere. According to an article by social worker and crafts activist Laila Tyabji, it is one product that permeates to the very interior of rural India as well.

And the avenue where this prejudice is most visible is the marriage mart. Aside from all marriage ads specifically emphasising the need for a fair woman, Shaadi.com — India’s foremost marriage website — recently launched a filter that allowed people to search for potential partners on the basis of skin colour. Alas, they had to withdraw the filter after widespread backlash. But the fact that they thought that it was a viable feature to have on their website, to begin with, indicates how skewed and regressive the arranged marriage institution is.

An end to fairness products and ads may not magically put an end to the inherent racism that plagues our society, but it is an important first step.

Over the years, several complaints have been filed against these fairness creams. In 2015, a consumer court had imposed a penalty on Emami for their ‘Fair & Handsome’ cream for ‘misleading claims’. The government had also banned 14 such products in 2018, after it was found that certain harmful steroids were used in their production.

In February this year, the health ministry proposed a five-year ban and jail term for promoting such products that make false claims via their advertisements.

It continues to be a long and exhausting fight, but in the meantime, we can take heart with Queen Beyonce’s song Brown Skin Girl:

“Brown skin girl
Your skin just like pearls
The best thing in the world
Never trade you for anybody else.”

Views are personal.

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