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Color Scheming

Recently Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) decided to change the name of its infamous product 'Fair & Lovely', to 'Glow & Lovely'. This decision was a reaction to the backlash caused by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. This article explores a specific form of racism that is prominent in India, and the history behind our society's mindset.

“Her black is beautiful, his society is ugly.” ― Habeeb Akande.

Following the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement created waves across the globe, and the dangerous inequalities that are created by racism have been brought to light. Racism is essentially intolerance, discrimination, or antagonism towards a person, based on the racial or ethnic group that he or she belongs to. India has its fair share of racism, but there is a subsidiary of this which is far more detrimental in our country - colorism.

One of the many things that is admirable about black culture is the way they seem to embrace their color and celebrate their beauty and differences. There is so much pride associated with the color of their skin which is a result of the sense of community and the unique culture that they have created. In India however, dark skin is not something to be celebrated or even tolerated, but instead something that must be rectified.

Business has been booming for the infamous brand Fair & Lovely over the last 55 years. Unfortunately, in our culture, fairness is associated with beauty, prosperity, marriageability and so on. Having fair skin seems to open up a lot of doors to an Indian, or at least that’s what we’re told, and made to believe. The success of the skin whitening industry is therefore no mystery. The general public believes in the importance of fairer skin. Even worse, they are taught to be unhappy with their natural shades, and that in order to be reach fulfilment, they must “bleach themselves”.

So the big question is, why? Why are we as a society so obsessed with getting as close to white as possible? Why do we not give our own shades the appreciation that they deserve?

I. Caste/Religion

“Colour prejudice is an offshoot of the bigger evil of casteism in India,” says Udit Raj, leader of the Indian Justice Party.

The caste system is no longer as prominent as it once was in India, but certain groups still give this a lot of importance. The upper castes were said to be descendants of the Aryans, who were believed to be a genetically superior group. Naturally this placed them above the lower castes, whose genealogy alienated them as inferior and “untouchable”.

Simply put, Aryans were described as better in every possible way. Their purity and nobility was combined with sharper, handsomer features, as well as lighter skin color. Meanwhile, the “shudras” or the slaves were characterised by their dark skin. This skin color came to be associated with inferiority, ugliness and subservience. Thus, color became a marker of social status and such classification on the basis of skin color is one of the oldest forms of discrimination.

In terms of religion, many of the great Hindu scriptures have stories of battles between gods and demons or in other words, good versus evil. In the Ramayana, one of the most well known epics, the fair-skinned Ram triumphs over the dark skinned Ravana. Stories like this subconsciously, engrain the superiority of the color white into the minds of followers.

II. Rulers/Colonization

Both the Mughal rulers and the British colonizers had fair skin. This variance in color was one of the most noticeable differences between the foreign invaders and the locals. The whiteness of the ruler’s skin was associated with wealth and superiority. Higher administrative posts and positions of authority were given to the British, while the Indians were employed for menial tasks and submissive labor. Skin color became a representation of a person’s financial status and position in the hierarchy. Colonizers were of course feared and hated, but at the same time envied and respected. “Fair skin became a symbol of power and wealth and those who equate beauty with it are subconsciously hankering after a higher status; those who are shunning black are, perhaps, rejecting the slavery that it connotes whether in India or in the US.” – Udit Raj.

III. Media/Advertising

Even years after India got its independence our ideal of beauty is still westernized. The benchmark of beauty is whiteness. We are constantly bombarded with advertisements which idealize the perfect skin, free from dark spots or blemishes. There are many social media platforms which create filters to take pictures with. A filter essentially puts a sort of screen or effect over a persons face, thereby slightly altering their appearance to make them look better. And sadly, a large portion of these filters simply make a persons face fairer and lighter thereby making the person feel prettier. Fair & Lovely has received a lot of backlash in the past as the product used to be even more injurious to self confidence than it is today. There was a time when every package of cream came with a “Fairness Meter” – an actual scale showing swatches of skin shades from dark to light, for customers to track their “improvement”.

Multiple Targets, Multiple Products

What many people find most concerning about this form of racism in India is that it seems to target the already disadvantaged groups such as women, lower castes and tribal people. However, although these regressive beauty ideals are more focused towards women, men are also facing the same pressure of these beauty standards nowadays. There are so many products in this market for both men and women such as Fair and Handsome, Garnier Men, Garnier White Complete, Ponds White Beauty, Olay Natural White, L’oreal White Perfect, Nivea Day Care Fairness Cream, and the list just goes on. Each and every one of these products perpetuates internalized racism, and promotes anti-blackness sentiments.

Negligible Progress

Following the BLM movement Johnson & Johnson decided to discontinue their skin whitening product in all countries including India. Hindustan Unilever Limited (the company which produces Fair & Lovely) has always been criticized for the feelings off inadequacy that it creates amongst women. Subsequent to the added pressure of the recent occurrences, HUL recently decided to make a change, and the product Fair & Lovely was renamed Glow & Lovely.

However, changing the name doesn’t change the purpose of the product. This change in terminology was purely reactive to the BLM movement, and does not make any difference to the thousands of customers who still feel the need to whiten their skin. It does not change the inadequacy that customers are made to feel. A change in the name of the product is like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.

The Bigger Issue

We Indians as a community are very set in our ways. This is a much deeper subconscious bias that lives in all of us. We have been groomed and programmed by our various environmental influences to believe that white skin is superior. Therefore, the unavailability of Fair & Lovely is probably going to be met with stubbornness, and the competitors of this brand are likely to be given a golden opportunity to dominate this ever-existent market. If only J&J and HUL step out, there will be another hundred brands to step in and take their place. The regressive belief system will not be shaken whatsoever, and the beauty industry will continue to monetize on this unnatural standard of beauty that they have created.

The worst consequence of colorism in India is the effect on a person’s self-worth. Matrimonial advertisements all over India, routinely specify the need for a “fair” bride or groom. Voicing judgmental and disheartening predictions about a girl’s future – be it in marriage or her career, is a common practice in our society. The color of a person’s skin is made to seem like it to has a direct impact on every other aspect of his or her life.

In such a negative society with constant images of “perfection” to live up to, body positivity and confidence is challenging enough. Old Fair & Lovely advertisements used to depict fair skinned girls excelling in their careers as models or air-hostesses, as opposed to the dark-skinned ones who could not accomplish the same. But to make matters worse these regressive ads seem to hold some bitter truth, and this is reflected in the way people are treated on a daily basis. “You can love what you see in the mirror, but you can't self-esteem your way out of the way the world treats you.”- Gabrielle Union

This is an incredibly large issue at hand, and naturally the mentality of an entire nation can not change overnight. Breaking age old stereotypes, so deeply imbedded in the minds of our people, seems like an impossible task. But small, steady moves towards stopping the skin-lightening industry in its tracks, will be a step in the right direction. We need the common man and woman to realize that their self worth is in no way related to the color of their skin. Once they realize this for themselves, we as a community will begin to see each other as people rather than colors.

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