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Amidst Anti-Colourist Movement, Hindustan Unilever Drops ‘Fair’ in ‘Fair & Lovely’

The Black Lives Matter movement has led to a resurgence of conversations about India’s role in promulgating colourism within its own borders.

New Delhi: Hindustan Unilever (HUL) announced on Thursday that it will be rebranding its flagship brand ‘Fair & Lovely’ by terminating the use of the word ‘Fair’. According to a press release, the new name of the HUL product line is “awaiting regulatory approvals” and should be changed in the next few months.

On June 19, Johnson & Johnson had also announced that it would stop selling its ‘Clean and Clear Fairness’ line of products in India, among other skin-whitening products sold in Asia.

This move comes in the wake of the ongoing anti-racism and anti-colourism movement in the United States and across the globe — the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement has led to a resurgence of conversations about India’s role in promulgating colourism within its own borders.

HUL claims that it has been an advocate for women’s empowerment over the past decade. The company cites a shift toward using words like “glow, even tone, skin clarity and radiance” instead of “fairness, whiteness and skin lightening” to advertise their products as an example of its commitment “to celebrating all skin tones”.

HUL’s ‘Fair & Lovely’ cream was launched in 1978. Since then, several products claiming to “brighten the skin” such as those by L’Oréal, Garnier and Emami have saturated the Indian market. They have been endorsed by many mainstream Hindi cinema actors such as Deepika Padukone, Katrina Kaif, Sonam Kapoor and Shahrukh Khan.

Celebrities such as Priyanka Chopra Jonas have been criticised for their performative social media activism in support of the BLM movement while endorsing these colourist products.

Celebrities, nationally and globally, like Kajol, Sridevi and Mindy Kaling, have been accused of undergoing skin-lightening surgery to appeal to the demands of their industry and audiences.

Also read: Skin Lightening Is a Dangerous Obsession – and One Worth Billions

The normalisation of fair skin via Bollywood and regional Indian cinema has resulted in an almost national preference for lighter skin in other streams of life such as matrimony. Following a petition signed by more than 1,600 individuals, India’s popular matrimonial site, shaadi.com, removed the colour filter on its website overnight, calling it a “blindspot”.

However, India’s battle with colourism runs deeper than the mechanics of a capitalist fairness cream industry. In a news report by Al Jazeera, former Lok Sabha MP Udit Raj said, “Colour prejudice is an offshoot of the bigger evil of casteism in India.” Lighter skin has been historically equated to an indicator of power, wealth and caste privilege in India.

Also read: The Indian Hatred for Dark Skin Comes From Caste Bias

Unilever, HUL’s holding company, has previously been under fire for their environmentally unethical practices in Kodaikanal, exposed by rapper Sofia Ashraf through a 2015 viral video titled “Kodaikanal Won’t”. The multinational corporation agreed to a settlement with its workers the next year only to be accused of “environmental racism” in 2018 via a sequel viral video.

Also read: Watch | In ‘Kodaikanal Still Won’t’, Artists Call Out Unilever’s ‘Environmental Racism’

HUL was also criticised by the Advertising Standards Council of India of misleading advertising to promote its ‘Fair and Lovely’ and ‘Lifebuoy’ products. Its 2007 television advertisement featuring Saif Ali Khan, Neha Dhupia and Priyanka Chopra was highly criticised for its promotion of colourism.

More recently, India’s casual dismissal of the engrained societal colour prejudice was highlighted by former West Indies cricket captain Darren Sammy. Sammy expressed his disappointment with his cricket colleagues for addressing him by a racial slur under the garb of affection.

What followed Sammy’s public appeal to his former teammates led to a nationwide campaign of gaslighting the victim of racism. Several civilians came to the defence of India’s colourism in the comments, telling Sammy that the slur was used “as a joke”, claiming that he had “misunderstood” his teammates.

Ayushi Agarwal is a student at Emory University and an intern at The Wire. She tweets at @ayushiag.