The recent murder of George Floyd has raised many questions about the role of celebrities and companies with regards to social justice.
Colourism is the ‘preferential treatment of lighter-skinned individuals compared with their darker-skinned counterparts’. Whilst people of colour will suffer from institutional racism, darker skin individuals tend to be further discriminated due to how dark their skin colour is. Colourism often happens within Black and South Asian communities amongst others.
For the last decades, many beauty companies have managed to monetise the cultural desire for fair skin. In India, skin lightening sales are very lucrative, with biggest brand Fair & Lovely earning $500 over million in 2019. In Nigeria, the WHO claims that 77% of women use skin lightening creams.
These beauty companies are endorsed by many Bollywood actors including Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone who have both featured in skin lightening campaigns in India and across the world. In 2018, model Blac Chyna also went to Nigeria to promote Whitenicious, another skin lightening cream. Skin lightening across the Asian and African continents has been normalised to the point where advancement in life are dependent on skin tone, especially for women.
The #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement sparked numerous conversations about skin colour and the role of celebrities and companies with regards to social justice. Many have come out in support of BLM but have in return been criticised for their hypocrisy. Both Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone posted their support to BLM on social media, and yet have been part of skin lightening campaigns. Unilever has recently recognised the damage of their ‘Fair & Lovely’ branding and said they would drop the word ‘fair’ from their product, but not the product.
Skin lightening is the result of centuries of colourism and racism. Across the Asian and African continents, it comes from a dated belief that fairness equals value, ingrained in both the caste system and colonisation. When celebrities and companies endorse or create products that serve these dangerous assumptions, they perpetuate the problem, ultimately profiting from colourism and thus racism.
In the last few weeks, we have learnt that it is not enough to be ‘not racist’. We must actively try to be anti-racist and celebrities like Priyanka Chopra or companies like Unilever must act on the destructive products they are endorsing.
Evidently, whilst celebrities and companies perpetuate colourism, they are not the only culprits. Colourism does not only manifest itself in skin lightening, and stopping the sale of Fair & Lovely products alone, cannot solve the issue. In the UK, many of these products are actually banned but valuing fair skin can still be seen amongst our BAME communities.
As stated by Media Diversified, colourism is seen “daily whether through employment prospects, potential marriage partners or abusive treatment by family members and friends. For the diaspora, the mass of South Asian immigrants that have found themselves stretched out across the world, the closer you are to the default whiteness the easier it is to assimilate into the default which, in the long-term, means success”. It can manifest itself in a simple ‘do not stay in the sun too long’ comment. In the dating world, it can be a filter, for example shaadi.com‘s filter for ‘fair skin’ spouses (which it has now removed).
Colourism has severe impacts on society, but it also has huge consequences on people who, having repeatedly experienced micro-aggression, start believing that their worth is ultimately linked to their skin colour.
In light of the George Floyd murder, it is important that people of colour whether Blac Chyna, Priyanka Chopra, our families or ourselves question proximity to whiteness, and the negative stereotypes we might have, based on skin colour. These very stereotypes perpetuate anti-dark skin, anti-blackness within our communities. When we validate lighter skin, we validate white supremacy.
It is important that, collectively, people of colour reflect and remain critical of the bias they might have towards skin colour. As people who have collectively suffered from oppression, it is important to use these experiences to empathise, support and uphold black voices. Supporting the #BlackLivesMatter movement is not just a hashtag. It involves defying the assumption we have on dark skin or blackness in an attempt to be anti-racist everyday.
At JAN Trust, we have supported marginalised women for over 30 years. Our programmes have helped Black, Asian and minority ethnicity women find a network of support, founded on empathy, understanding and openness. Our work empowering these women often starts with dismantling the racism and oppression they have been subjected to, but we continue to fight for racial justice for all.