Dove, Nivea and a multitude of other companies aren’t making mistakes, they’re simply maintaining the order they feel most comfortable with.

What image comes to mind when you think of cleanliness? For me, it’s freshly laundered bedding, a complete house cleaning and the three minutes I spend exfoliating my body whenever I bathe. For others it’s crisp white clothing, a home with an open floor-plan and lots of nice, white marble counter-tops. Somewhere along the line, our concepts of cleanliness became — like so many other things — intricately linked to race and racism.

Think of how we (when I say we, I mean society at large) associate western civilization to cleanliness and order. Think of how we describe formerly and currently colonized nations south of the United States and Europe, despite clear evidence of their advancement, ingenuity and unique histories; and of how mostly white Europeans and their ancestors pushed out indigenous, local populations to create gated enclaves so that they didn’t have to mix with those they exploit.

Think of how we associate whiteness to cleanliness despite well-documented, historical examples of the lack of Western European bodily cleanliness, especially after the fall of the Roman Empire and during the Middle Ages. Sporadic bathing wasn’t uncommon, even amongst — or especially amongst — 17th-century French royals who rarely bathed and covered their body odor with powders, perfumes and clothing. The link of cleanliness to sanitation and prevention of illnesses and diseases didn’t enter Western civilization until the 1860s. The first use of soap that we know of was by the Babylonians, Mesopotamians and Egyptians around 2800 BC.

This legacy, however, became muddled by the colonization and enslavement of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) around the globe. White supremacy and capitalism became dominant powers which held us in an unceasing choke-hold and the narrative of Black and brown, unclean “savages” became the dominant reasoning and excuse for dehumanization, genocide, enslavement, assimilation and forced displacement. All of this history — including racist stereotypes about BIPOC — is deeply ingrained within us and exploited for the sake of financial gain by corporations — corporations and companies just like Unilever, parent company to British brand, Dove.

In their latest act of racial aggression (it’s 2017 — let’s be clear about what this was), Dove released a GIF advertisement featuring a Black woman removing her brown top to reveal a white woman in a light top followed by a Brown woman: 

Of course, this isn’t the first time that they let their internalized biases seep through into an ad campaign or a product (which has to be OK’d by multiple departments and people before reaching public eyes):

“Normal to dark skin”

Dove later released a disingenuous statement after swift and justified backlash for their atrocious work:

“Dove is committed to representing the beauty of diversity. In an image we posted this week, we missed the mark in thoughtfully representing women of color and we deeply regret the offense that it has caused.”

Marissa Solan, a spokeswoman for Dove, said on Sunday that the GIF “was intended to convey that Dove Body Wash is for every woman and be a celebration of diversity, but we got it wrong and, as a result, offended many people.”

Dove is hardly the only company to do this, there have been multiple, racist ads by the brand Nivea, such as these with slogans which read: “white is purity” and “re-civilize yourself” featuring a Black man throwing away his former, full afro’d head away(!?).

The notions that whiteness is firstly a marker of cleanliness, and secondly, a marker of civilization, isn’t simply a deeply ingrained racist bias, it is something I remember hearing and growing up with. When I was in primary school a white fellow classmate said I had to wash myself longer than him because my skin color was muddy. These aren’t accidental comments, these are spiteful comments children learn from their parents — racism is inherited.

The idea that non-white skin tones are less desirable or dirty isn’t accidental, it is an intentional construct of white supremacy. Capitalism and capitalists reap the benefits of white supremacy and keep it in place; they prey on the insecurities of their consumers. It is no accident that Unilever also owns “Fair and Lovely” — the popular skin-lightening/bleaching products used by darker-skinned people of color all over the globe. It is no accident that Blackness and brownness are considered as “dirty” and that companies like Dove perpetuate those ideas, they simply evolved from advertisements slightly less subtle than their own.

Notions of cleanliness are rooted in racism & white supremacy.

Because white supremacy and racist biases are inherited, I firmly believe that racist ads seem completely natural to white people putting them together because all white people are socialized to be racist and very few of them actively try to unlearn and dismantle their internalized biases or white supremacy because how would that benefit them? But it’s tiresome to be exposed to overt and covert racism on such a regular basis, especially when it hardly feels like a misstep the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth time around.

Dove, Nivea and a multitude of other companies aren’t making mistakes, they’re simply maintaining the order they feel most comfortable with.

 

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