As the fight against anti-Black racism, and calls for racial justice in all aspects of society continue to take place throughout the globe, beauty companies are being called out for advertising and selling skin-whitening products.  

In particular, the company Unilever has faced immense criticism for its brand, Fair & Lovely, one of the most popular skin-whitening brands in Asia.

In an open letter to Alan Jope, the CEO of Unilever, Nina Davuluri, former Miss America, criticized the company for continuing to market Fair & Lovely, and for profiting off of colorism. She wrote that by producing skin-whitening products like Fair & Lovely, Unilever is sending a clear message, “that people are less than because they are dark.”

Colorism refers to the preferential treatment of individuals based on their skin colour, favouring lighter-skinned individuals.

This type of light-skin preference has been extremely common throughout the globe amongst various ethnic and racial groups. Beauty companies have benefited from light-skin preference while filling the market with harmful skin-whitening products. In 2017, the global skin-whitening industry was worth $8.9bn, with majority of the revenue coming from Asia.

Activists have been calling out these Eurocentric beauty standards and the preference for light skin for years, but recently beauty companies are beginning to feel the pressure, and the tide is finally changing in small ways.

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For me, understanding racism begins at home. It begins with memories as a teenager of feeling embarrassed to wear a panjabi suit in a non-brown space or speaking my mother tongue around white people. It begins with being warned that hanging around with black kids is trouble. It begins with being called a ‘paki’ when I first wore a dastaar (turban) to school. It begins with casteism within my own family, relatives cutting-ties after I married someone they considered ‘lower-caste’ It begins with seeing my loved ones express anxiety over their brown skin and fearing the sun’s ability to make it darker. This week as we remember the 1984 attack on Darbar Sahib, I reflect on how this is all connected. I reflect on how India plays the same oppressive game and how Panjab is also one of the many that suffers from this global and structural oppression. It’s a deeply uncomfortable truth, because most of us in the West, through whatever degree of privilege, benefit from the constant oppression of those at the bottom of the hierarchy that this system is built on. The work of trying to dismantle it all, is an exhausting thought, where does one even begin? My Guru says, start from within. This picture is based on when my husband told me about the day his cousin painted herself with white paint because she didn't like the darkness of her skin. Nobody asked why she did it. Nobody questioned themselves on how they may have provoked it. She just got told off for making a mess. #blacklivesmatter #neverforget1984

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Amid the pressure, Unilever released a statement stressing that it is committed to having a portfolio that is “inclusive and cares for all skin tones, celebrating greater diversity of beauty.” In the statement it claims that the company is working towards embracing “a more inclusive vision of beauty,” which will be symbolized by changing Fair & Lovely’s name.

Recently it was revealed that the name would be changed to “Glow & Lovely.” In addition to the name change, the brand will remove words such as “fair, white, and “light” from its advertising.

This change however, isn’t enough.

The process of rebranding is an example of a performative move undertaken by a company that has monetized harmful notions of colorism and light-skin preference for years, without any remorse.

A more appropriate response to the backlash would be to ban skin-lightening products, as was done by Johnson & Johnson -- not to simply rebrand an existing popular line of products.

In its statement, Unilever did not apologize for running its toxic advertisements which have historically highlighted the benefits of fairer, whiter skin to millions of Indians within India and abroad.

Instead, the company says its message has been changing since 2014 “to a message of women empowerment”, but this simply isn’t the case when the main purpose of their product is and has always been to lighten skin, despite their attempt to claim otherwise.

Unilever is using the discourse of women's empowerment to present itself as progressive without sacrificing any profit.

In their tweets, the company claims that there are no skin-lightening agents such as bleach or hydroquinone, but this isn’t necessarily true.

Fair & Lovely still contains skin-lightening products such as Phenoxyethanol and Potassium Hydroxide, which are known to sensitize skin, and there has been no commitment to changing its formula in recent statements.

At the end of the day, Unilever can change Fair & Lovely’s name, but it is still a product meant to lighten one’s skin. It can claim otherwise, but skin lightening remains its primary usage.

Simply changing the name of a product will not get rid of the years of harm Fair & Lovely has caused, by feeding into the idea that light skin is superior.

This name change is a band aid solution meant to appease those who are rightfully upset.

Colorism is deeply ingrained within South Asian cultures and continues to prop up anti-Black racism by reproducing the idea that white skin is considered elite or better than darker skin. These types of notions often start at home, which is why it is up to us to do the work and reflect on how colorism has impacted our own perceptions of beauty, and to redefine these standards ourselves.

The fight to dismantle colorism requires more than a simple name change. We need to step up and voice our opinions and reflections about colorism and companies like Unilever who benefit from colorism, as many activists have been for years.

This fight is far from over.

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