For decades, enlightened Indians have railed against fairness creams, and helplessly watched their sales graphs grow. But now this market segment, which feeds off and reinforces the racist binary of light and darkness deeply entrenched in society and reflected in the caste hierarchy, faces the most impersonal correctives — globalisation and commerce. In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has spilled out of the US, Johnson & Johnson have exited the face whitening category in Asia and the Middle East and ordered a drastic recall of products which were either sold as or perceived as whitening agents. Neutrogena Fine Fairness and Clean & Clear are the first product lines to be affected, and distributors have been ordered to immediately ship back or destroy their inventories. These products are also being removed from J&J websites.
In the US, corporates which persisted in selling products associated with racism, while welcoming the movement triggered by the killing of George Floyd, are being accused of hypocrisy, and there is a rush to cleanse the stables by erasing, repositioning or updating products. J&J has erased the fairness segment and updated Band-Aid to reflect different skin tones. Last week, PepsiCo’s Quaker Oats committed to rebranding its Aunt Jemima line of pancakes and syrups, which are sold with the image of a smiling black woman from the era of segregation, if not of slavery. And meanwhile, a campaign burgeons against Unilever’s Fair & Lovely, whose niacinamide inhibits the production of melanin, and which is sold all over Asia.
In half the world east of Eden, the popularity of fairness creams has stood testimony to how deeply ingrained racism is in cultures that are not white, but aspire to be so. It is also reflected in the enthusiasm with which India has rebuffed international attempts to equate race with caste, a concept informed by varna, which literally signifies colour. Who would have thought that markets would be the deal-breaker of an ancient and ugly tacit understanding that pervades so much of the Old World? But outside the segment of fairness creams, racism remains the name of the game. Whether it’s carrom or chess, White plays first. In all fairness, to equalise the question of primacy, why not consider the toss of a coin, which only bears the colour of money?
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