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Public Memory Isn’t Short!

Public Memory Isn’t Short!

On 25 June this year, world’s 3rd largest fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) company Unilever which operates in 190 countries with over 400 brands tweeted “We’re committed to a skin care portfolio that's inclusive of all skin tones, celebrating the diversity of beauty. That’s why we’re removing the words ‘fairness’, ‘whitening’ and ‘lightening’ from products, and changing the Fair & Lovely brand name”.  

Around 2 billion consumers use Unilever products every day. Positioned for the last 45 years as a cosmetic cream that lightens skin colour, India’s top selling Fair & Lovely brand is said to generate nearly Rs 4100 crore annual revenue for Unilever’s Indian arm Hindustan Lever Limited. In the past, media reports had highlighted how many “objectionable” Fair & Lovely ads had to be stopped. For instance the father of a dark complexioned girl is shown to lament that she is not a son. Fair & Lovely comes to her rescue: her personality gets transformed on using the fairness cream and she becomes an air hostess.

It is not uncommon for FMCG companies worldwide to adopt various marketing tactics to woo customers and India is no exception. As public memory is proverbially and really short, even if some product had faced resistance including quality at one point of time, it is soon forgotten when publicised and presented in a new “avatar”.  So, is the Unilever’s latest move in response to a global backlash against racial prejudice or to make the brand more “inclusive and diverse”?

Although meant primarily for women, creams that promise to lighten or brighten skin are equally patronised by men. That about 6300 tonnes of skin lighteners were sold globally last year by the world’s biggest personal care companies shows their popularity. Recently, US healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson, too had suddenly discontinued its skin-whitening creams amid the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests.

Yes, it was a month back on May 25 that 46-year-old African American George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during an arrest for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. Remember the video showing a police officer pressing down his knee on Floyd’s neck till he died after pleading he was unable to breathe led to massive outrage and violent protests that erupted across the US clearly depicting the deep frustration among masses over continuing racial inequality.

George Floyd was not the only African American victim of racial bias in recent times. In the wake of widespread incidents of police brutality, the Black Lives Matter Foundation was founded in 2013. It was in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman who had shot dead 17-year-old Travon Martin an African American who was on his way home from a convenience store in Sanford, Florida. The Black Lives Matter movement is said to be "an ideological and political intervention” as Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted.

Writing in her book “The Race Whisperer - Barack Obama and the Political Uses of Race”, Melanye T. Price, Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Political Science at Rutgers, New Brunswick, says that nearly a week after George Zimmerman was found not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin, the then US President Barack Obama’s remarks at the White House Press Room took everyone by surprise. For the first time since the beginning of his presidency and five years after his historic election in 2008, Mr Obama, after extending his prayers to the Martin family, stood in front of the American people and spoke plainly. He shocked most observers by taking on the popular refrain that “Trayvon Martin could have been . . . me 35 years ago.” He then went on to talk personally and poignantly about his own experiences with racism as a way of explaining or translating African Americans’ frustration to the larger American audience. He also pointed to intraracial violence as a serious problem for young Black boys. In the end, he didn’t offer any sweeping policy changes or major pieces of legislation; he saw them as essentially futile, given the kind of remedy needed. Instead, he suggested that the problem of race and racial prejudice would be repaired only through efforts to deal with the anger of young Black boys and the efforts of all Americans to do some serious soul-searching about their own prejudices.

Reports indicate that in 2014 there were deaths of numerous African-American people and in a number of cases the death was due either chokehold used by policemen or gunshot from a police officer. Thereafter peaceful protests as well as riots have followed under the banner and hashtag of Black Lives Matter. In 2015 too protests were organised to highlight the injustices faced by Black women and Black transgender women. Notably, 21 transgender people had been killed that year in the USA and 13 of them were Black. In the US and UK, every year since 2017, Black History Month is celebrated in February and October respectively.

Post George Floyd’s untimely demise, not only have several leading beauty brands in the US posted statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement but even pledging considerable funding and offering up resources on activism, aimed at tackling social problems such as racism and inequality.

Back in India, with uncertainty and economic recession caused by the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic, businesses have been attempting to reinvent and reengineer themselves to face the new challenges. Beyond effective planning and coordination, there is an imperative need for our business conglomerates to look beyond a cosmetic change. A small increase in corporate social responsibility funding can go a long way towards the well-being of our biggest assets – our children. 

So, for just a moment let’s look at the most vulnerable section of our population, that is children, who represent about 38 to 40% of India’s total population.   As per Census 2011, India, with a population of 121.1 Crore, has 16.45 Crore children in the age group 0-6 years and 37.24 Crore in the age group 0-14 years which constitute 13.59% and 30.76% of the total population respectively. 48% of the child population in the age group 0-14 years is female and 74% of the children (0-6 years) live in rural areas where as the rural population constitute 69% of the total population of our country. The cause for immediate are the children in conflict with the law housed in child care centres across India. According to official statistics, about 35,849 cases of juveniles in conflict with the law have been registered in the year 2016, showing an increase of 7.2 per cent over the 33,433 cases of 2015.

The Supreme Court of India has already taken note of the situation wherein 35 children have reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 in a government-run shelter home in Tamil Nadu and sought a status report from the state government on the steps taken to protect the remaining children.  The apex court has also directed Juvenile Justice Committees of High Courts in other States as well to obtain information about the protection of children from the dreaded virus in shelter homes.   There are roughly 4.7 lakh children lodged in about 10000 child care registered institutions across the country but there could be several more in unregistered shelters too. Many are in dire need of institutional help in terms of funds and staff.

Apart from Government funds, maintenance of such shelter homes corporate funding can help over the challenges.  Yes, it is a radical change in our mindsets that merits serious consideration. 

(Published on 29th June 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 27)