It’s currently en vogue to declare that black lives matter (and make no mistake: they do), but it’s far less comfortable to discuss how anti-black racism manifests throughout the world. Colorist beauty standards are not only closely correlated to socioeconomic success here in the United States, but are well documented in countries throughout South America, Africa and Asia. In India, in particular, the caste system that determines socioeconomic status is also closely linked to skin color, as indicated by a 2016 genetic study by the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad.
“The Brahmins (upper caste population) in Uttar Pradesh are the ones with the fairest skin,” according to the iTech Post, which reported on the study’s results. “And, Manjhis (lower caste population) are the ones with the darkest skin.”
So, there should be little surprise that skin lightening creams—marketed as “fairness creams”—are a huge market in India. Despite potential side effects as severe as kidney, liver and brain damage, the sale of hydroquinone-based creams is expected to become an over $31 billion industry worldwide as of 2024. Neither should it come as a shock that like America, India hires its biggest celebrities—typically Bollywood stars—to help shill these not only colorist but often dangerous products.
This was the uncomfortable truth that went viral this week as various Indian celebrities, including crossover star Priyanka Chopra, issued statements in support of Black Lives Matter.
“There is so much work to be done and it needs to [start] at an individual level on a global scale,” read a portion of a post on Chopra’s Instagram. “We all have a responsibility to educate ourselves and end this hate. End this race war here in the US, and around the world. Wherever you live, whatever your circumstances, NO ONE deserves to die, especially at the hands of another because of their skin color.”
Chopra’s mention of skin color would prove ironic when Twitter user @aluminiummaiden included the actress in a May 31 thread listing popular Indian actors who’ve appeared in ads for fairness creams, juxtaposing the ads with the actors’ social media posts decrying racism.
The thread went viral, as not only several followers but multiple news outlets picked up the story. But in the case of Chopra, who became famous in the U.S. while starring in ABC’s Quantico, the controversy wasn’t new. In December 2018, New York magazine’s The Cut ran and then swiftly deleted a fairly vicious takedown piece of Chopra following her marriage to fellow actor and musician Nick Jonas which called out, among other things, the actress’ participation in promoting colorist beauty standards in her native India. While the original article wasn’t long for this world, Medium blogger Seema Hari continued the conversation, calling Chopra “a highly successful perpetrator of colorism, racism and bigotry in her own country.”
In a December 2018 post titled “Dear Priyanka Chopra, endorsing colorism and discrimination is not ok, it never was and never will be,” Hari, also of Indian descent, chronicled Chopra’s participation in skin-lightening advertising since winning Miss World in 2000, alleging that Chopra herself has also lightened significantly since winning the title. After beginning a career in Bollywood, Chopra appeared in lightening ads and commercial spots for both Ponds and Garnier well after she’d already gained star status in India.
“Moreover, it wasn’t like this bigotry was the norm that she subscribed to out of passivity,” Hari wrote. “Many morally sane Indian actors and actresses had already called out these skin lightening products and declined endorsement deals with these companies. But at the wise age of 31, Priyanka decided to pocket millions from yet another brand willing to pay, encouraging skin color-based discrimination and intentionally destroying the confidence of millions of dark-skinned Indians...
“And she didn’t even stop there,” Hari continued. “When asked about these endorsements, she continued to defend her choice of endorsing skin lightening creams in interviews saying that she chose her endorsements very carefully, and only chose to endorse Ponds ‘White’ beauty because it didn’t make false promises of making someone white ‘overnight’ and the cream also gives you a ‘pinkish glow’.”
To be fair, Chopra had addressed the issue herself in Allure’s April 2017 issue, where she joined the likes of Meghan Markle, Tessa Thompson, Zazie Beetz, Tamika Mallory and several other well-known women of color in discussing the sometimes contradictory politics of multicultural beauty. Chopra then said:
[My skin] is as complicated as I am. When I was growing up, I didn’t see anyone on TV who looked like me...
Everyone in America wants to get a tan, and everyone in Asia wants to get their skin lightened. I straddle both countries. Girls there are told that they’re too dark or dusky and that lighter skin is better. Because I’m a darker tone, I had issues growing up as a teenager.
Pressures exist and it’s on us to make those pressures not seem important to girls. I’ve achieved what I’ve achieved and skin color has nothing to do with it—in fact, it might have been an asset. I like the color of my skin very much.
It’s so primitive that people are judged on the basis of the color of their skin. I mean, it’s skin. We all have it.
Chopra addressed the issue again in a September 2017 cover story for Vogue India, where she admitted to being “very conscious of the color of my skin” as a teenager and confirmed having used lightening products herself because “because [in India] you’re prettier if you’re fairer.” Acknowledging only one of her multiple appearances on behalf of these products before she was an internationally known celebrity—though Hari alleges the latest was as recently as 2014—Chopra expressed regret, saying:
A lot of girls with a darker skin hear things like, ‘Oh, poor thing, she’s dark.’ In India they advertise skin-lightening creams: “Your skin’s gonna get lighter in a week.” I used it [when I was very young]. Then when I was an actor, around my early twenties, I did a commercial for a skin-lightening cream. I was playing that girl with insecurities. And when I saw it, I was like, “Oh shit. What did I do?” I started talking about being proud of the way I looked. I actually like my skin tone.
As Hari pointed out, using multiple visual examples as proof, Chopra was less than completely honest. “Out of all the celebrities promoting color discrimination, Priyanka is the only repeat offender, endorsing multiple brands,” Hari wrote. “As explained earlier, it was not one innocent slip up, but big multi-year endorsement deals with different brands spanning TV, print and online marketing spots over a decade.”
Still, Chopra is far from the only Indian actress to appear in these ads, and therefore not the only one to slightly side-eye when they then speak out in favor of Black Lives Matter, however helpful and well-meaning their public support may be. But one cannot ignore the irony in publicly decrying racism when one has actively participated in one of its more nuanced, yet nevertheless deeply pervasive aspects; one that inherently determines proximity to blackness “bad,” “ugly” or in any way less-than, no matter the ethnicity. As @aluminiummaiden conceded, “It’s not that their views can’t change or that they shouldn’t speak up for what they want, it’s about selective and performative activism especially when they have at some point propagated a colorist attitude in their own country.”
With that in mind, as we reckon with the multiple layers upon which anti-black racism functions around the world, it’s fair to ask that those celebs who choose to speak out also consider even any unwitting role they may have played in perpetuating bias—bias that can trickle down from the pages of magazines to encounters with police on city streets. Because in order for black lives to matter, black skin has to, too.