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Fair and foul: the racist skin whitening ads [The Fiji Times, 19 March 2002]


Day after day, in a country that is full of dark-skinned people, advertisements plug a particular cream that is supposed to make your skin “fairer”.

Of course, consumers are free,  to buy or not buy.   Of course, television viewers and radio listeners are free to switch off when these ads come on.

But people, usually could not be bothered.  They watch.  They listen.  They read.  And their subconscious minds (as advertising psychologists well know) absorb the hidden messages, which feed on feelings of insecurity.

And it is not about facts either. Medically, these creams do not make your skin fairer. Temporarily, while the cream is on, the skin may take on a slightly lighter complexion.  The skin will revert to its normal colour, if the cream is not used.

Surely, that is not a problem.  For many people, using cosmetics (lipstick, moisturisers, eye shadow, etc) may make them feel better, whether they “work” or not.

The racist messages in the ads

But what about the  nasty racist unspoken messages which come part and parcel with the advertisements for this cream?

One ad shows a pair of identical twins, completely alike.  One uses the cream, is shown becoming fairer, full of laughter and joy, and portrayed as being attractive.

The darker twin, who does not use the whitening cream, is shown gloomy and unhappy, evidently unattractive.

The ad clearly suggests that fair girls are attractive; dark skinned girls are not.

In another ad (locally produced with local characters)  two girls are auditioning for a modeling job.  One girl is selected, and the other is not.

The rejected one, who most viewers would classify as already attractive, is given the message that she was not fair enough for the job.  She starts using the whitening cream, and soon after also gets a modeling job.

The message is clear:  dark-skinned girls are unlikely to get jobs.   Use the whitening cream, become fairer, and you will get jobs.

Why should Fiji be bothered? Our history of racism.

Now why shouldFijisociety be bothered at all by these messages? Do these messages have any truth?

Are dark-skinned women considered not as beautiful as white skinned or fairer people?   Are dark skinned people less likely than fairer skinned people in getting jobs?

Progressive people and societies would like to claim that there is no truth in these messages. But unfortunately, for centuries, these prejudices have prevailed, all over the world.

TakeIndia, where these particular ads for the cream originate. Historically, the light-skinned people were found in the north ofIndia, mixtures of people originating from the Aryans.  The darker skinned people, like the Dravidians, were driven south by the invaders from the north.

Lightness of skin was generally associated with the upper classes, with the well off.  Darker skinned people generally were the lower castes, the not well off.

Historically, the darker skinned people inIndiahave been systematically oppressed and denied full citizenship and even basic human rights.

Even to this day, the lower caste harijans inIndiaface horrifying brutality for daring to demand full political rights and public services (education, health) and access to jobs, or even for daring to drink from the same well as the upper castes.

And to this day, in nearly all communities of Indian origin, wherever they are in the world (includingFiji) people with fairer skins are considered more attractive.

We all know, don’t we,  of families with daughters, where the fairer ones easily find marriage partners.   The darker girls, however beautiful they may be in form, face, personality, qualifications and intellect, are not considered to be good catches.  Look at the ads for marriage partners.

And Heaven help an Indian girl, who is not only dark skinned (nastily referred to as a karia kalutti) but has the sad misfortune to be born into a poor family, unable to buy masses of gold jewelry which she can take with her to the in-laws.

Not just an Indian problem

Is this just an Indian problem?  Not really.  Racism has been and continues to be a world-wide problem.

In European countries likeBritainandFrance, the nobility and upper classes were light skinned, while the peasants were darker, from working out in the sun. If you  weren’t  white enough, you dabbed on white powder to make yourself whiter.

Not too long ago, dark skinned people from Africa andAsiawere forced into slavery or harsh indenture in colonies overseas, without the full rights of citizenship that whites took for granted for themselves.

And in most colonies (and in Fiji), your rights rose in proportion to the amount of white blood you had.  Not too long ago, any kailoma was a rung above Fijians and Indo-Fijians.

The world over, the white people were the ones who controlled empires, colonies, multi-national corporations, and international organisations like the World Bank, IMF and the World Trade Organisation.  The non-whites generally occupied the lower rungs.

What about whites with tans

Aah, you might say, what about the whites who desire tanned skins?  Does this not prove that people just want to have different colour from what they are born with?

Unfortunately for this view, whites inNew York,London,ParisorMelbournedesire a tan only as a status symbol, indicating the ability to have a holiday in sunnyBahamas, Jamaica,HawaiiorFiji.

These tanned whites would jump out of their skins, if they suddenly turned into black Africans or South Indian Madrasis.

Look at the stars ofHollywood, dominated by whites.  Only a few decades ago, the world was astonished to see black Sidney Poitier billed as a movie star, having a sexual relationship with a white woman.  In the black American south, he would have been lynched.

The Hollywood and Bollywood stereotypes

Look at the movie stars from Bollywood, seen daily on the Sky channels, and also  advertised ad nauseam in the daily newspapers, TV and radio stations.

Unlike the majority of Indians (who are dark-skinned) the Indian movie stars are virtually indistinguishable from whites (and hence also now have great success in world beauty contests).  Yet more reinforcement of the idea that white is beautiful.

It is only today that the international stature of Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, Tiger Woods, Will Smith, and the dozens of other black super stars, make color discrimination seem unbelievable to the gullible young.

But black stars in general have to struggle for worthwhile roles in movies and television.  And people in mixed marriages do not find full acceptance in either community.

The reality unfortunately is that the successes of the few, have not eliminated the racism against the many.

Racism is pervasive

The evils of color racism are still very pervasive the world over, regardless of the successes of non-white individuals.   “Whites” look down on non-whites.  The “yellows”  look down on the others.  The “browns” look down on the “blacks”. etc., etc., ad nauseam.

Liberal, progressive people the world over, would like to see the end of all discrimination, based on colour, race or creed.

It is sad therefore, that daily theFijipopulation is bombarded with messages which reinforce colour racism.

If you are dark, you are not attractive.  Whiten your skin.  Buy this product. You will become attractive.

If you are dark, you are not likely to get jobs.  Whiten your skin. Buy this product. You will get the job.

Impact on dark-skinned people?

But what happens to the self-esteem of dark-skinned people, when the cream does not turn them white?   When they find that no cream is ever going to turn them white?  When no cream ever gets them that job?

In a normal healthy society, such racist ads may not be of any great consequence.

But add grinding poverty, add coups and political disenfranchisement, add physical insecurity arising from violent robberies on the road and in the home.  Should we be surprised at the suicides reported daily in our newspapers?

No.  The advertisements for this cream are not “fair and lovely”. These advertisements are pretty foul.

But our generally apathetic public, trying to survive in a disintegrating society, is unlikely to rake up any energy about racist advertisements.

No arm of government wishes to exercise “moral suasion”.

In any case, the responsible businessmen, probably light-skinned, are not going to let social concerns get in the way of their fat profits.

And these racist ads will continue, day after nauseating day.

Won’t they?

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