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Not Your Little Slave: Emma Watson is white from a jar

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Hélène Christelle went from refugee to being a UN-boss and, with her foundation, is still encountering all kinds of borders. Vileine reports on her decolonisation mission.

It has angered feminists worldwide: Emma Watson used to advertise depigmentation cream “Blanc Expert,” aimed at the not-so-white Indian market.

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Ongoing issue.

“Oooooh Christella, how you’ve grown!” On a blazing hot afternoon, I was squeezed in a clammy embrace with my favourite aunt. Favourite, because a visit to her freed me from the long, lazy summer days of the summer vacations of my childhood. Admit it, the hysterically-running-on-the-playground-screams that ushered in the major holidays always made way for sitting around in the sandbox and boredom after a week. I freed myself from the embrace with a proud grin on my face, and my aunt added: “You’ve paled quite beautifully! What cream are you using?” My grin vanished.

Depigmentating face cream. If prescribed by a dermatologist, it is a cosmetic, meant for fading unwanted dark spots on the skin due to scars, acne or the mask of pregnancy (chloasma). However, excessive use can cause serious damage to a dark skin due to the ingredients of the cream.

Applying a lighter skin for a better life

This excessive use is what’s keeping part of the coloured female community under her spell for half a century already. Senegalese doctor and dermatologist Fatou Fall describes this light skin myth as a social problem. “Skin complexion matters [Many women believe that] women with fair skin are more successful, women with fair skin are the ones who stand out.” Applying a lighter skin for a better life. It sounds absurd, but it’s definitely a harsh reality in Senegal, where there’s a full blown cream epidemic. The country already prohibited the creams by law last year, but they remain on the shelves of local stores.

In the years following that summer at my aunt’s, I saw more and more of those jars emerge in African bathroom cabinets. It was a strange sight to behold as a child. Africans with black hands, but face as light as a caramel toffee.

Politics of colour

Despite the physical dangers, the harmful use of the creams continues to be a huge success with the target audience. How is this possible? An explanation can be found in the collective mental damage: the history of colourism. Colourism is a form of politics of colour in which a person with a dark skin is structurally disadvantaged compared to a person with a light skin. Colourism is in existence for years, not just in the form of white privilege (link in Dutch), but also among coloured women. For instance, there was the brown paper bag test among Afro-Americans. A light brown paper bag was at the basis of the decision of whether or not someone was eligible to become a member of a student association or a church.

The social reality described by Dr. Fall is not limited to the African continent. The creams are sold everywhere where women with a dark or coloured skin are present. One of the major markets is found in Asia, especially India, where the aversion to the dark skin has originated in the caste system. The darker the woman, the lower the social caste to which she belongs.

Just like how the prejudices about the dark skin have been spread across the globe, the depigmentation creams are sold everywhere. Remarkably though, they are not at all present in Western supermarkets. That’s why you look online for a jar of L’Oréal’s “White perfect,” or at the Surinamese and African toko. Selective marketing causes the fact that this problem is unknown to those who do not use the creams themselves. As mentioned earlier, many were surprised that exemplary feminist Emma Watson lent her face to an Indian depigmentation cream ad. Selling the creams is a bit of a dirty little secret of the world of cosmetics.

Dirty little secret

In March 2016, a new generation of dark women finally hit back by lashing out at the depigmentation brands. A group of dark-skinned women of African and Indian descent launched the on-line social media campaign #Unfairandlovely. With this campaign, they intend to emphasise the power of the dark skin and thus widen our perception of beauty. For the first time, in unison with #MelaninMonday, a voice that honours the dark skin can be heard on social media. Also for the first time, women with different backgrounds joined forces by acknowledging that they are fighting the same melanin battle.

#Unfairandlovely

The jars of cosmetics with their sugar-coated promises of the perfect white smooth skin are dominating the foreign image of beauty for years. Driven by the cosmetics industry, where beauty equates whiteness, consumers keep coming and the market’s existence is prolonged. It is time for cosmetics multinationals to take their responsibility in providing solutions. The creams are not just harmful to the physical health of the skin, but also to the mental self image of their customers. A solution can be found by engaging the dual marketing strategy. What is prohibited on Western markets due to health risks should not be offered abroad. We also have to drop our – sometimes conscious – ignorance of privileges concerning colour, as displayed in this case by Emma. Hailed as she is as a feminist, she forgot, in her participation in this advertisement, her coloured fellow women. Eventually, a comprehensive understanding of both coloured and white women is needed in which we view beauty triumph in all her diversity. Beauty is more than just white, more than just appearance, and it’s definitely not for sale in a jar.

This article first appeared in Dutch. Translation by Jamili Wetzels.

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