When Whitening Creams Met Black Lives Matter


Black Lives Matter according to the posts from Bollywood celebrities. Their history of endorsing whitening creams and commentary on darker skin colours illustrate a different story.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”. What happens if they have been complicit in perpetuating that same injustice and later speak against it? That is the very question we must pose to the Bollywood celebrities who have spoken in support of Black Lives Matter. Many of these celebrities have previously endorsed skin bleaching and skin whitening creams. They actively perpetuate the notion that brown skin is lesser than white skin. This is selective activism. This is commercializing dissent. This is about furthering an individual’s professional interest.

Of course, there is the possibility that they are genuinely concerned about the issues that the world is facing, within societies and economies. However, Black Lives Matter has become another trendy issue that these celebrities can capitalise on. It is what makes them relevant in the ‘west’. It has always been obvious that we all need to clean our own houses before we criticise others.

There are issues within India that need to be fixed before attempting to fix those that exist in America. I don’t recall any anger from these same celebrities when a vigilante mob lynched two Sadhus and their driver in Maharashtra. They have selectively chosen when they want to be considered an activist. I would suggest beginning with fairness products. You cannot truly believe that Black lives matter when you stand by products that consider dark skin to be a fundamentally bad thing.

Racism in India

There is heavy anti-Black sentiment within Asian communities. The racism within Indian society is ironic. If you are not white, or milky in complexion, then it is repeatedly perpetuated that it needs to be changed. I still have stark memories of how people were treated in India and my last trip was over eleven years ago. A white foreigner is practically worshipped, but anyone else is met with disdain, and suspicion. There is a vilification of those with dark skin, whether they originate from India, or are foreigners. You can even find it within Indian popular culture as there have been instances where prominent celebrities, including Karan Johar, who in this video publicly mocked another person’s dark skin. He was ‘roasting’ another individual in the industry, saying that “if [he] were any blacker Angelina Jolie would adopt you”, a rather distasteful joke to be making.

In 2013, a Nigerian was murdered in Goa, on the basis of a drug war. In 2016, a Tanzanian girl was beaten and stripped by a mob. In 2017, there were rumours about the Africans in Greater noida being drug dealers, just on the basis of their skin. These anti-Black attitudes have repeatedly turned violent. This othering effect goes against the fundamental ethos of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Police Brutality in India

The officers were eventually charged for George Floyd’s murder. These celebrities protest encounter killings in America, but fail to address the police brutality in India, so are their calls for protest still genuine? In recent years, there has been no shortage of reports regarding extrajudicial killings, few gain widespread attention like that of Kashmir. When there were protests during the Citizenship Amendment Act, dozens lost their lives, but still the protests in Minneapolis were deemed more worthy to these celebrities. Their silence in regards to troubles within India is, in fact, a form or complicity. Their tweets and posts are a performance and which shows there is little solidarity. Or, in some cases, a reminder that apparently All Lives Matter when that is not what Black Lives Matter stands against. This movement is not about saying that certain lives matter more than others, this is a movement about ending anti-Black racism, a racist culture that is fatal to Black lives.

The Skin Whitening Industry

In 2017, the skin-lightening industry was worth $4.8 billion, and is projected to grow to $8.9 billion by 2027. These products range from pills, scrubs, creams and injections that aim to slow the production of melanin. The whitening industry is clearly booming, turning over millions in profits every year, but that does not make them any less harmful. The World Health Organisation found that 40% of Chinese women use skin-lightening creams on a regular basis, 61% of Indian women use these products, while 77% of Nigerian women use the products.

However, these products are not efficiently regulated and many contain harmful ingredients. There are traces of mercury derivatives in some of these products which can lead to kidney problems. These products also contain hydroquinone. This ingredient may be familiar as they can be found in dark spot correctors, too. If used incorrectly, or in large quantities, there are side effects. When the ingredient is used excessively it can irritate the skin and achieve the opposite result that was originally desired.

Not all skin-lightening products are banned within the EU or the UK, but the majority of creams and products outside of the EU are banned, as they contain chemicals that are banned under safety regulations. These external products incorporate high levels of mercury and hydroquinone, they have the potential to poison, cause skin damage and heighten the chances for liver malfunction. These products are also formulated with corticosteroids that can only be prescribed in the UK. A corticosteroid causes thinning of the skin, heightens the probability of skin cancer, and can darken the skin.

Whitening Products in India

There is an obsession with having fair skin in India. This desire for fair skin also extends to immigrant Asian communities in the UK and USA. I am not immune to hearing an auntie talk about how fair my skin is or how dark a cousin I have never met is. There is the assumption that fairness is equal to superiority. These issues regarding skin affect marriage prospects and job prospects. When looking for a bride for a son, they ask for fair-skinned women, and it is just one of the effects of skin colour bias in India.

The film industry exploits this ingrained societal desire for fairer skin. The majority of leading Bollywood stars are fair skinned. As they sing and dance on deserts and beaches, they have barely gotten a tan, and it is clear that they try to remain as fair as possible. The lighting in these films are there to perpetuate how ‘great’ that feature is. The adverts these celebrities have a format that showcase how ‘desirable’ fair skin is. It starts with a sad person who has dark skin and they suddenly become a happy person who has fair skin.

Bollywood and Black Lives Matter

This is the cue for trying to gain points for wokeness, whereby celebrities who have been silent on atrocities in their own country and their own promotion of fair skin, pushed for Black Lives Matter. This vital movement that is occurring in the USA and the UK was essentially boiled to nothing more than a trend for these actors and actresses. There was no knowledge behind these posts, nor was there any understanding of Black experiences in these posts, because it was about looking up-to-date with global politics online. There are so many blatant similarities between the issues within the USA and the UK when it comes to Black lives when you compare it to Islamophobia in India.

Let me give you one example. Kareena Kapoor posted the Time Magazine cover on her Instagram, speaking of systemic racism in the USA, through one little hashtag. She really spoke volumes about the issues she stands against, doesn’t she? If you look at the rest of her account, there is no mention of the current racial issues occurring in India, and it is telling of how far her solidarity runs. There are no heartbreak emojis and hashtags about the anti-CAA protests, or anti-Muslim crimes, or the current workers’ crisis due to lockdown.

This is performative wokeness for celebrities. It is just as performative as the Hollywood celebrities in their tone-deaf ‘I Take Responsibility’ video. Priyanka Chopra showed her solidarity for George Floyd, too. I was surprised considering she decided to show her patriotism as India launched air strikes on Pakistani territory and then gaslighting a girl who decided to question her about it. I was also surprised because while she clapped for the USA from her balcony, yet she had nothing to say about the crises caused by the lockdown in India, even though the majority of her interviews focus solely on her Indian identity.


It would seem she, alongside other titans in the Bollywood industry, are only interested in advocating when they can gain something out of it and be considered a fashionable activist. They have the privileges and the resources to help. I understand some like to keep private about donations but there are moments, like this, where an Instagram post or a Tweet could really help. I don’t just mean a post of encouraging words but words that can educate, direct others to improve upon themselves and make a real difference. I see the same empty posts with cheery slogans but only few are there to help in tangible ways.

I have become very well acquainted with how the Bollywood industry, even the Hollywood industry, are really tone-deaf. They choose selective activism because they need it to not be cancelled. They are right in that regard at least. To be considered, or remembered as a success, and ensure your career lasts they want to look good in the public eye. There is no solidarity here. This is about bolstering the public’s perception of them. Although, when you have nothing to say on anti-Blackness in our society in India, then I know there is nothing meaningful you have to say about anti-Black racism anywhere else.

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