Context is important, and it is something that has been a little missing from the debate around Dove’s latest advert.
Since screenshots surfaced showing a black woman stripping off her skin-coloured t-shirt to reveal a white woman, a backlash against the company has ensued. But now, another part of the advert is circulating. It shows the white woman stripping off to reveal an Asian woman. Defenders of Dove argue that it cannot be racist because the full context of the advert means that white women aren’t positioned above women of colour. If anything, these commentators claim, the advert is trying to be inclusive.
It is true that if this version of the advert had been shared from the very beginning, the response may not have been as swift and sharp as it was. There was also apparently a second, longer advert – a 30 second TV commercial which showed seven women. The black woman in it, Lola Ogunyemi, has said that she had a positive experience with the Dove team and that she believes that the objective of the ad was to highlight that all skin is deserving of gentleness. But that doesn’t mean the original concerns aren’t valid.
Intent isn’t always important when it comes to racism. The advert is not “active” racism – i.e the black woman in it isn’t being literally harmed because of her skin colour, and the explicit goal of the advert is not to maintain the system of racism. But it is definitely “passive” racism, an action which contributes to the maintenance of racism, “without openly advocating violence or oppression”. Even including an Asian women in the video does not counter the fact that the deep-rooted, beauty industry-led systems which negatively position black women are at play.
For years and years, black women have been told our skin colour is unclean, dirty, something to be fixed. A solvable problem. It could be predicted that black women watching the advert would pick up an insinuation that by using Dove’s shower gel product you can “rectify” your skintone. The Asian woman is, of course, much fairer than the black model at the start of the advert. That message of going from dark to light, from unclean to clean still feels like the subconscious message. As recently as 2011, a Dove advert for a cream to treat dry skin positioned a black women as the “before” picture to a white woman’s “after”.
When she was a child, a black friend of mine was maliciously bullied at her boarding school in the UK by her teacher, and told she needed go and take another shower because she still looked dirty. Intent from Dove doesn’t matter all that much, considering their actions were still harmful and backed up a bunch of messaging and racism that has actively worked against black women for centuries.
Indeed, the idea of soap “cleaning” away black women’s skin to reveal lighter-skinned women beneath her hits very close to home when you look at both historic, and more recent adverts for skin lightening products.
Dove itself has a “whitening” deodorant aimed at women of colour, and Unilever, the company that owns Dove, owns a skin lightening brand. One day, I would love to sit down with an executive there and ask them to explain how they can continue to say that they’re “committed to helping all women realise their personal beauty potential by creating products that deliver real care” when they’re in cahoots with a company that markets skin lightening cream to dark-skinned women the world over.
Fair & Lovely was established by Unilever in 1975, in India, and before you say that skin lightening is similar to tanning lotion – it’s not. Skin lightening is deeply mired in some of the worst racist ideologies in the world. Its success is rooted in the creation of low self-esteem and lack of worth felt by darker-skinned people.
In Nigeria, where the sun beats heavy and pretty much all of the population is naturally dark-skinned, 2013 figures from the World Health Organisation showed 77 per cent of the female population uses skin lightening creams. And it happens in the UK too. Illegal lighteners which can permanently damage the skin, lead to kidney failure (as one Public Health England official I spoke to told me about a case in north England a few years back), or mercury poisoning, are sometimes used alongside brands like Fair & Lovely for maximum effect.
Skin lightening is pernicious because it’s true that in Western society and beyond, it’s easier to be lighter skinned. You’ll benefit from being viewed as more beautiful, having better job prospects and, in the US, facing shorter prison sentences. To keep their business, beauty brands who make them help to further embed these realities, shitting on millions of people and making them feel as though their natural skin colour is not good enough, not light enough, not bright enough.
So the next time a (probably white) person brings up the fact that this fuss over the Dove advert has been a mountain out of a molehill, just remind them that while the advert didn’t stop at a black woman stripping off to reveal a white woman, nor did it come out of a vacuum. It traces back to years of discomfort black women have with their skin tones, thanks to whiteness being the dominant beauty standard. We’re not being sensitive. Dove made a mistake, and they most definitely should pay in profits.
In the meantime, we should be looking into more ways to halt the sale of skin lightening creams, illegal or not.