Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Is Vaseline’s Skin-Lightening App Racist?

When I read danah boyd’s post on Vaseline’s skin lightening Facebook app, I was a bit disappointed; her post touched on all of the important issues surrounding the concept of skin lightening, but then landed on the premise that the debate around them, and more specifically the Vaseline app, are taking place primarily in (presumably white) American circles.  Here’s a quick background: Vaseline creates a skin lightening app for Facebook, targeted to India, where skin lightening creams are popular (they’re also popular in the Arab world–Cheb Khaled’s “Baida” anyone?–and elsewhere).  Outrage ensues, much of it coming from Americans.  The story hits the media–more outrage from Americans.  danah writes:

As people start finding out about this App, a huge uproar exploded. Only, to the best that I can tell, the uproar is entirely American. With Americans telling other Americans that Vaseline is being racist. But how are Indians reading the ads? And why aren’t Americans critical of the tanning products that Vaseline and related companies make? Frankly, I’m struggling to make sense of the complex narratives that are playing out right now.

In one sense, she’s very much right:  White American liberals do have a tendency to assume racism and jump on it, and in any case, we absolutely should be listening to Indians on the subject.  An all-white conversation of skin lightening is a bit disingenuous.  It’s all to easy to say that the desire for lighter skin is rooted in colonialism, whilst ignoring the fact that such views are perpetuated generations  later.  People of color are those affected by these products, and though views found within various communities are incredibly diverse, no discussion on the subject is complete without them.

But she’s also wrong, in a sense:  Though the discussion does seem to be trending in American media, there have been plenty of narratives in the English-language Indian media, the Arab blogosphere, and the Indian blogosphere on the matter.  You just have to know where to find them (or as Ethan Zuckerman might suggest, perhaps you need a guide).

One issue that has been mostly left out of the discussion is the fact that the vast majority of skin lightening/whitening products are made by Western (and often, American) companies (others are made in local markets, or in Japan).  Vaseline, Fair & Lovely (owned by Unilever), and Dove (known in the US for promoting body acceptance) seem to be the big three, and market to the Subcontinent, as well as Africa, the Middle East, and other parts of Asia.

The advertising of these products often feels racially-charged as well.  One advertisement I recall from Saudi channel MBC4 shows a woman with dark but clear skin getting turned down for an on-screen media job.  She uses Fair & Lovely, goes back for another interview and lo!–is hired on the spot, thanks to her lighter skin.  Though the conversations around the products may vary, I don’t know if there’s any genuine disagreeing that this particular ad is racist.  (Hilariously, my drama club students in Morocco parodied the ad in a skit, having the woman instead turn into a green monster upon using the product).

In any case, here are a few non-American perspectives on the app, and on skin lighteners in general:

Bonus reads: Indian vogue takes on colorism and India’s unbearable lightness of being (groan).

3 Comments

  1. Not much has changed on the advertising front as far as MBC4 commercials go either- there are two that have been played while I’ve been here: one for a dancer who is auditioning and only does well after her face is lightened by creams. Another where a young man is painting a portrait of a young girl where she has spots on her face, but when she returns for a second sitting he has to lighten the spots in his painting because her face is magically clear and lightened by the creams so he proposes!!!

  2. Heyy Congrats!!!!…. One small victory over Unilever!!!! They have taken off the “Vaseline Men Be Prepared” app from facebook, finally!!! yayyy!!! now only if we could get them to stop their racist advertisments in Asia and Africa………… and stop marketing their con products that claim to whiten skin!!! Most of all, if people could stop thinking their skin color makes them different!!!! :) and… how have you been??? still busy wid your project???

    join the campaign: http://www.change.org/petitions/view/unilever_please_stop_marketing_racist_products

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