Viewpoint by Sharanya Kanikkannan
NEW YORK (IDN) – Like so many Indian girls, I learned at an early age that light skin was feminine, precious, and desirable.
Pink tubes of Fair & Lovely cream—a product that comprises 40 per cent of the skin lightening market in India—were a staple of my childhood, tucked away in dressing table drawers in every home and displayed on the shelves of every corner store. Looking back, I wonder why so many adults failed to imagine a world where girls were more than a “pantone” shade on a plastic tube.
Today, as debates over skin lightening products fill the news in the wake of worldwide anti-racism protests that followed George Floyd’s death, I wonder why international organizations have stood out of the fray—even organizations as powerful as the United Nations’ Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, known as UN Women.
Over the last few months, the international advocacy organization I work for, AIDS-Free World, has asked UN Women to stand up to colorism by severing its public-private partnership with Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch multinational that produces Fair & Lovely.
We were spurred to action by UN Women’s announcement of an alliance with Unilever in Tanzania, ostensibly to promote women’s agency, health, and safety. But the alliance is not new. In 2017, UN Women and Unilever came together to found the “Unstereotype Alliance,” which was described as an initiative to “unite leaders across business, technology and creative industries to tackle the widespread prevalence of stereotypes that are often perpetuated through advertising.”
As someone who grew up watching ad campaigns by Unilever insisting that love, acceptance, fame, and fortune came from changing your skin color, it was bitterly ironic. Were we now supposed to now accept Unilever as our champion?
In the wake of the anti-racism protests, Johnson & Johnson announced that it would swap its Fine Fairness line with Bright Boost creams. The French cosmetics giant L’Oreal said it would remove the words “white/whitening, fair/fairness, light/lightening from all its skin evening products.” And Unilever, which is responsible for an array of skin lightening products, declared that Fair & Lovely would now be sold as Glow & Lovely.
This type of corporate action—refusing to acknowledge responsibility while taking credit for cosmetic changes—is standard behavior. As activists call today for companies to pull their skin lightening potions, the industry has mostly chosen to “rebrand” the products.
Unilever’s corporate cynicism is perhaps not a surprise. Fair & Lovely, like its competing brands, earns its parent company hundreds of millions of dollars every year. What’s a little colorism when profit margins are at stake? But what truly shocks the conscience is that Unilever has also been able to “bluewash” its image, by securing support from the United Nations’ entity for gender equality.
Unilever skin lightening products “cause mental anguish and create a social stigma around darker skin and adversely affect the earning capacity and job prospects of darker-skinned women,” we wrote to UN Women in February. “By promoting and praising Unilever, UN Women by extension is condoning skin lightening creams and disregarding its responsibility to protect the rights of women.”
Three months later, as so many voices were making clear that colorism and racism could no longer be tolerated, what response did we receive?
“UN Women … believes that collaboration with the private sector is essential to achieve the rights of women and girls,” wrote Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women’s executive director. While “we understand the concerns you raise,” the partnership with Unilever has both “advantages” and “risks,” which are “inherent in private sector engagement.”
UN Women’s official stance is to bargain the dignity of darker-skinned women against the benefits of corporate partnership. It’s hard to believe that the behavior of UN Women is more hypocritical than that of Unilever.
In India, organizations like Dark is Beautiful are pushing back against colorism. Nina Davuluri, a former Miss America and activist of Indian descent, put it well: “Every time a company produces a skin whitening product,” it is “sending a message that people are less than because they are dark,” she said in a stirring Instagram post. “They are not enough because of the color of their skin.”
Colorism is not an isolated indignity. Nearly every black and brown community, nearly all of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as diasporas in every country in the world, struggle with colorism as a corollary of racism and sexism. These systems limit us and destroy our dignity, the most fundamental of our rights as women and as human beings. Without dignity, there is no end to the abuses that we can be forced to endure.
When UN Women throws dignity to the winds and chooses to side with deep pockets, where does that leave us, the world’s women? [IDN-InDepthNews – 13 August 2020].
Photo: Sharanya Kanikkannan.
IDN is flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.