The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Fair and handsome

If there’s one thing that unites the brown world, it's the common desire to bleach itself to whiteness. Aside from India, the areas that see a tremendous demand for fairness creams are Saudi Arabia, other parts of the Gulf, Africa, Malaysia, Thailand and the Far East.

Until recently, India had a slight technical edge over the Far East and Africa as markets, because most of the fairness creams here no longer use mercurous chloride as an active ingredient. Mercurous chloride contributes to long-term mercury poisoning. It’s a shade better than lead-based creams, common as recently as turn of the century in Japan.

Indian fairness creams use either common bleaching agents or a blend of ayurvedic herbs: some creams are melanin-blockers that prevent skin-tanning, some are temporary but effective bleaching agents, some use a modernised version of old-wives’ remedies.

I had no idea, though, that the ingredients of fairness creams were gender-sensitive. But our purveyors of white skin know better, especially since market research now reveals that 32 per cent (some estimates say 28-30 per cent) of the buyers of fairness creams are men, not women. In the interests of fairness, some cosmetics manufacturers have announced that the whitening ingredients in fairness creams are formulated to work on women’s skins; men need a different formula. And they’re getting it: this week, Emami became the first company to launch a fairness cream specifically for men, called Fair and Handsome.

Admittedly, it had never occurred to me that racism might be pressed into service as a way of achieving gender equality. Women in India have always known the value of a fair skin in a society that makes a fetish out of paleness. In the old, unliberal India, it meant immediate status as a beauty; less dowry to be paid; a better marriage. In the new, liberalised India, it means better jobs and great career options as your beaming racist employers open the doors wide in deference to your shining whiteness. Now the market research seems to suggest that dark-skinned men feel they’re missing out on something: Better jobs' More dowry' Whiter-than-white brides'

Of course, it’s still not a fair deal, pun intended. Men who’re buying into the fairness deal are looking for a small cosmetic upgrade; they’re still suckers, victims if you like of our deeply internalised racism, but what they’re seeking to purchase is a small improvement.

Women who buy those fairness creams see fairness not just as a desirable, achievable cosmetic upgrade, but as an absolutely necessary commodity, a life-affecting change.

All I have to suggest is a small refinement: why stay in denial about our collective racism' Have all prospective job-seekers evaluated, not by qualifications, but by shade card. Put in controls in the marriage market that would ban alliances between two parties who are not within at least three degrees of fairness of each other. Have “Shade Grades” in schools, so that pale-skinned kids don’t have to sit next to darker children. If you’re going to whitewash India, make it a thorough job.

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