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Unilever and Johnson & Johnson Retreat on Pushing Lighter Skin

Nina Davuluri, the first Indian-American to win the Miss America pageant in 2014, has been working to fight colorism for years — particularly after she woke up the day after her victory and said she read an Indian newspaper headline that said: “Is Miss America too dark to be Miss India?” She has been working on a documentary since 2018 that set out to explore why so many cultures believe lighter skin is better and how it affects people’s lives.

“Colorism is a form of racism — not all of it, but part of it,” Ms. Davuluri said. “Ultimately, companies are creating these products that do prey on these archaic notions of colorism and they’re also paying celebrities millions of dollars to advertise for these whitening products.”

She created a petition this month calling on Procter & Gamble, Unilever, L’Oreal and Johnson & Johnson to stop making skin whitening products and what she deemed racist ads, and instead create inclusive products.

“You have to have accountability to recognize that you can’t just say this in one part of the world — it really has to be a holistic standpoint from your entire company,” she said, referring to the companies’ public statements about equality.

In India, colorism has also long been reinforced by a much older tradition: matrimonial ads. Alongside categories like education and caste, skin-tone options like “fair,” “dusky,” and “wheatish” would often appear in newspaper advertisements as parents sought matches for their children.

Shaadi.com, one of the world’s largest matrimonial sites, recently came under fire after a user, Meghan Nagpal, discovered the “skin tone” filter on the site. The company initially said it was simply providing a service many parents wanted, prompting outrage in a Facebook group for South Asian women. One of the women, Hetal Lakhani, started a petition, which led to the site taking down the filter.

The filter was “non-functional and barely used,” the company said in statement. “We do not discriminate based on skin color and our member base is as diverse and pluralistic as the world today is.”

The recent changes give Ms. Lakshmi hope that things are moving in the right direction.

“Things are getting better,” she said. “Ending these creams, stopping the advertisements, and just not referring to people based on these kinds of things is going to go a long way. Hopefully, my daughter’s generation will grow up free from the shackles of color prejudice, at least to some degree.”

Contact Priya Arora at priya.arora@nytimes.com and Sapna Maheshwari at sapna@nytimes.com.




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