Business is absolutely booming for the skin-whitening industry, but there is a storm brewing. The name of the game is to suppress the production of melanin, the primary determinant of skin color. Such practices may be fueled by colorism – discriminating against, or treating someone less favorably because of one’s skin pigmentation – and run the risk of having detrimental psychological and physiological impacts on the end user, and unhealthy political consequences for society.
In September 2013, Abundant Sun Ltd and Cleary Gottlieb Steen and Hamilton LLP, a leading international law firm, brought the documentary Dark Girls, produced and directed by D.Channsin Berry and Bill Duke,to the United Kingdom. It is a film which addresses the damaging impact of colorism within and beyond the African-American community. This intra-racism is not reserved just for those visibly of Black African descent. Around the globe, in order to avoid unfair discrimination, people resort to skin-bleaching practices, which should come with serious health warnings.
Why do people do it? It is believed because of the socially and politically constructed notion that the fairer one’s skin is the more beautiful, intelligent and wealthy one is. And it’s not just women who bleach; men are it as well.
Colorism Plagues Communities Around the World
Controversial Jamaican artist Vybz Kartel produced his own line of skin-bleaching products, saying in 2011: “When black women stop straightening their hair and wearing wigs and weaves, when white women stop getting lip and butt injections and implants … then I'll stop using the 'cake soap' and we'll all live naturally ever after.” However in June 2013, he appears to have done an about face by encouraging youngsters to stop bleaching.
It may be that African-American women get the brunt of colorism by virtue of the fact that they are so dark. But it is crystal clear that colorism is neither a phenomenon reserved for African-Americans nor are they the largest consumers of skin whitening products on a revenue basis. Japan leads the way there, with China and India contributing to 13% growth year on year.
By 2018, the skin-whitening industry is projected to evolve globally into a $20 billion business. In Asia, especially in Japan, it is almost impossible to buy any kind of skin cream without it having an active ingredient to ‘brighten’ one’s skin. However, avid consumers of such products span Tokyo, Mumbai, Shanghai, Lagos, Kuala Lumpar, Manila, New York and London. Yet the industry is coming increasingly under fire, and is being presented with major corporate social responsibility and business ethics issues.
In July 2013, an article entitled Recall in Japan Blemishes Skin-Whitening Industry, tells of how a Japanese company Kanebo had to recall a skin lightening product. It is approximated that as many as 15,000 consumers were left with white patches as large as 2-inches in diameter, a side effect of the agent Rhododenol, which is used to brighten skin. The company is now faced with paying medical costs of their customers. It lost 6% of its market share, which had risen by 4% in the same period.
Recently in Thailand, the corporate practices of Unilever and Vogue have been brought into question. Unilever broadcasted a commercial, directly correlating the lightness of one’s skin and the level of one’s education, which got pulled. Based on the article Thailand race row reignited by Unilever ad for skin-whitening cream, clearly there is a history of colorism in Thailand.
Within the same week, Vogue in Thailand published an image of Naomi Campbell of its cover. Naomi appears markedly lighter in the magazine’s depiction of her. The artist in question, in his defense, claimed that he always uses pastels in his photographic artwork, as officially stated by Vogue’s CEO.
Intent Is Immaterial
However, anti-discrimination legislation says that intent is immaterial, and being ignorant of one’s impact is no defense for behavior perceived as offensive. So, one may argue that corporations should be aware of, sensitive to and respectful of the issue of colorism. Ultimately, encouraging skin-whitening or simply being oblivious to the existence of and the ill effects of colorism is unacceptable, and can amount to racism.
Two days before the UK Premiere of Dark Girls, Naomi Campbell asserted that the Fashion Industry is guilty of racism:
She and Iman Abdulmajid state, “not using black models is racist” and are genuinely prepared to take on the industry. The way designers book models in 2013, they continue, is appalling and should no longer be happening in this day and age.
Bringing Colorism to an End
Bringing the issue of colorism to the mainstream light is long overdue. A week after Dark Girls UK Premiere, Dr. Jude Smith Rachele, co-founder and CEO of Abundant Sun and Reno Eddo-Lodge and journalist, had the pleasure of speaking on the subject on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour, where they discuss the practice of skin-whitening also referred to as skin-bleaching.
The campaign’s objectives are manifold. First it is challenge the validity of colorism. Second is to raise awareness, to educate people globally about the history of colorism and the negative impacts it has had on the health and wellbeing on individuals and societies. Third is to encourage responsible business practices and consumerism. Fourth is to lobby for greater regulation and removal of products which are not only harmful to people and the environment, but which also reinforce racist attitudes and social stratifications based on skin color.