As the Covid-19 surge occupies much of the news, there are also various social schisms that are vying for attention. The big one of this week was Thursday’s announcement by Hindustan Unilever that they will remove the words “fairness”, “whitening” and “lightening” from their line of products, and even remove the word Fair from their very popular Fair & Lovely brand.

While the move may be more symbolic, as there is no mention of discontinuing the product, just the change in messaging is still a big step forward. In India, many brands spend hundreds of crores of rupees to spread the deeply problematic message of fair being lovely, in a largely dark country. So, when the market leader changes track, it needs to be welcomed. At the very least, it will lead to an even wider debate.

The public discourse around the significance of the move has already thrown up a lot of issues. Sceptics have pointed out that it only denotes more political correctness. The marketing of fairness products will simply be less obvious, making it more difficult to call them out. Also on Thursday, Johnson & Johnson announced that it would stop its line of skin whitening products. In addition,they will add more shades to their Band-Aids outside of the current “skin colour”. Whose skin are we talking about anyway?

Many find it odd that skin lightening products are being termed as skin-care products, which they are not. But it’s quite lovely when a billion-dollar “whitening” industry, fuelled by a culture that primarily defines beauty by the colour of the skin, wants to be fair.

Colourist stereotypes

Maybe soon the cosmetic industry too will acknowledge that often such products and imageries feed racist and colourist stereotypes. Though it is worth reminding ourselves that the companies that sell products are not the root cause for this discrimination. They are only using the age-old prejudice to sell more creams and fancy dreams to entice more customers. We, the public, need to solve the problem of the obsession with fair skin that most of us carry.

While it is important that corporations show some responsibility towards social problems, it is fundamentally not an issue in which we should expect them to be ahead of public opinion. It will always be the other way round.

Credit: Sajjad Hussain/ AFP

But there are good reasons to take this moment seriously. The dominoes that probably led to the fall of “fair and lovely” started with the global rise of the Black Lives Matter campaign. It is important to remember that the movement itself tipped over into a wider social response only after the undeniably racist killing of George Floyd in front of the whole world.

It was only a few years ago that the #BlackLivesMatter had received little attention by many moderates and even less by the corporate world. George Floyd’s murder and protests changed all that with several major global corporations officially acknowledging and actively making significant amends in their own companies.

The shift in public opinion made the hypocrisy of a fairness marketing campaign in India, untenable for a global corporation. And while it may seem a superficial move, it does reflect something important.

Insidious impact

My deeper involvement with the colour bias started In 2013, when a Chennai-based organisation approached me to support their campaign, Dark is Beautiful. I knew for long that the impact of colour bias is far-reaching and insidious, but when many started to share their stories with me, it made me realise even more how deeply it affects the sense of self-worth and confidence. By default, I became the face of the campaign. Probably because most actors were becoming lighter with every film.

The campaign went viral and brought attention to this prejudice which had been normalised over the years. Last year I renamed it, for its tenth anniversary, and called it India’s Got Colour, to make it more inclusive and to celebrate diversity.

Having been on this journey for long, I know how difficult and slow change is. But the needle is moving and so on our part, we have to ensure it moves fast and in the right direction.