The year 2020 has been a cauldron of chaos. From the decimating virus that has crippled the economy worldwide to the exposure of inequalities both economic and racial, this year will be considered significant in history. The unfortunate killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor that sparked the Black Lives Matter protests brought the issue of police brutality against African-Americans to the limelight. It started a conversation on systemic and institutional racism that has plagued the marginalised communities for ages.
The roots of this racism can be traced back to the colonial times where the various population of Asia and Africa were subjugated and where the notion of white superiority prevailed very strongly. Even though the sun has set on the Empire, a few of the relics failed to board the last ships back to Europe. One such example is the notion that fairer the skin, the more beautiful a person is.
For ages multinational companies like Unilever, L’Oréal and Johnson and Johnson have profited off this notion by marketing their so-called solution in the form of ‘Whitening creams.’ One can only think of the Hindi ads on Fair and Lovely where a woman of darker complexion who had been rejected in various spheres of her life has her life changed just because a friend provided her with the ‘magical potion’. Fair and lovely managed to market itself as a cream to provide young women with fair skin which supposedly made them more capable and acceptable for life.
Due to the recent events in America, Unilever decided to rename ‘Fair and Lovely’ as ‘Glow and Lovely.’ According to the Insider, L’Oreal has decided to remove words like ‘fair,’ ‘light,’ and ‘whitening’ from their creams. While this may seem to be a positive change towards inclusivity on the surface, it is in reality only a facade to hide what the purpose of these creams was in the first place i.e., their solution to enable non-white people to conform to the white standards of beauty. It is nothing, if not a perfect example of putting, ‘Old wine in new bottles.’
Ever since childhood, we have been conditioned either consciously or unconsciously to believe that fairer skin meant either more handsome or pretty. A kid with a fairer complexion meant more relatives either pulling the cheeks or praising the cuteness of the kid. As the kid grows up, their belief is only strengthened by the matrimonial sites where families demand a fair, upper-caste bride/groom from a well-connected, wealthy family.
Further, cinema through the portrayal of characters with a darker complexion as stereotypical uncouth, dangerous villains has not helped in any way.
Thank U 4 making me realise dat I cannot b paired along wid d fair & handsome bcz I m dark & not good looking, but I never focus on that.
— Nawazuddin Siddiqui (@Nawazuddin_S) July 17, 2017
With such colour prejudice in the world, we can only imagine the adverse effects on self-esteem that it may have on the people of darker complexion. This can and has been further worsened when people begin to internalise the prejudice.
An experiment titled ‘Doll Test,’ conducted by Social Psychologists, Mamie Phipps Clark and Kenneth Bancroft Clark demonstrated the internalisation of prejudice.
This experiment was conducted during the 1950s in America when schools were segregated for Blacks and Whites. According to the Smithsonian magazine, 253 black children aged three to seven years old were the subjects. 134 of the children attended segregated nursery schools in Arkansas and 119 attended integrated schools in Massachusetts. They each were all shown four dolls: two with white skin and yellow hair, and two with brown skin and black hair.
Each student was asked to identify the race of the doll and which one they preferred to play with. The majority of the black students preferred the white doll with yellow hair, assigning positive traits to it. Meanwhile, most discarded was the brown doll with black hair, assigning it negative traits.
The Clarks concluded that black children formed a racial identity by the age of three and attached negative traits to their own identity, which were perpetuated by segregation and prejudice. This experiment is a testament to the fact that whitening creams have only been successful due to our colour prejudice. As long as these creams continue to exist they will keep feeding off the low-esteem perpetuated by colour prejudice.
Due to such racism in the world, it only seems practical that people who are not whites use products that whiten their skin. This is not far from fiction for many women in Africa where using dangerous bleaching products and steroids are entirely rational, calculated, businesslike decision as according to the United Nations under the Africa Renewal section.
According to the very same article titled ‘Paying a high price for skin bleaching,’ whiteness is seen as a universal sign of success and wanting access to things white people have easy access to, privileges both social and economic. The article also says that since men would prefer a woman of lighter skin, women try to assimilate to that standards so that their prospect of getting married increases. Marriage serves as a form of social capital where it elevates their social status in society.
Due to this, people may go to the extent of using steroids which reduces the amount of melatonin temporarily but increases the risk of addiction, skin thinning and bruising. While it is not sure if the creams from Unilever and L’Oréal contain any bleaching substances or steroids but the creams are a great part of the problem that only enhances colour prejudice. Therefore, clever rebranding does nothing to change the ages of destruction these creams have caused. The only question that we have to ask ourselves is to what extent would we go to destroy diversity?
However, in the darkest of days, there does seem to be a silver lining and not just one but a great amount of it.
The colour prejudice has been something we learned which also means that we have the potential to unlearn it.
Although it’s easier said than done but not impossible. We can begin to first love our skin. The best example is the magazine Cocoa Girl/Boy. It is the UK’s first black magazine. According to an interview by the BBC, a mother named Serlina Boyd, (the editor of the magazine along with her 6-year-old daughter Faith) before the lockdown wanted to get magazines for her daughter. However, she could not find any magazines that reflected her daughter in any way.
So, she decided to bring out the magazine cocoa girl which features girls of African descent just like her daughter Faith. Now, African kids have a magazine that reflects themselves. The movie Black Panther which predominantly had a black cast was another way that brought about the idea of the beauty of diversity in cinema. It went on to be the first super-hero movie to be nominated for the Oscars.
Greater representation of marginalised communities who are mostly non-whites is perhaps another way to tackle colour prejudice. The famous picture of Barack Obama bowing so that an African-American kid could touch his hair is perhaps a great example of the beauty of representation. The kid saw the similarity of his hair with the president. This picture serves as an inspiration to all the African-Americans that they too could aspire to be whatever they want. Greater representation could serve as an effective way to battle colour prejudice which would ultimately render all whitening creams as moot.
Ultimately, one can argue that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder and that beauty should not be taught or dictated. This argument is absolutely true and it is only befitting that the article ends with one anecdotal story with this regard.
Once upon a time, a man prayed to the extent that God was impressed and appeared before him. God then asked him for his wishes. The man asked for the most beautiful woman in the world and the most valuable drink. Contrary to what many would expect, God gave him Mother Teresa and water.
It is true that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, but does it really lie in the eye of the beholder if the lens, we view the world through, has been taught to be biased in the first place?