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Fair & Lovely is a brand of skin-whitening cream that's popular in India. Its TV commercials equate pale, fair skin with beauty and success. Those are stereotypes that many find to be racist. And now, as the Black Lives Matter movement spreads around the world, it has prompted a reckoning about skin color in India, as NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Chandana Hiran is 22, an accounting student in Mumbai. She's into reading, arts and crafts and recycling. She considers herself a feminist. But there's something else that's a big part of her identity, too.
CHANDANA HIRAN: I'm slightly dark. Like, I'll be called one of the dark-skinned people in our country.
FRAYER: Being slightly browner than average has made Hiran feel insecure all her life.
HIRAN: Even the smallest of things, like not wanting to wear brighter colors or just random people coming to you and saying that, oh, maybe you should apply something on your face. There is not a single Bollywood actress who could represent my skin tone.
FRAYER: Instead, Bollywood actresses star in TV commercials for skin-lightening creams. Priyanka Chopra from the U.S. TV hit "Quantico" stars in this ad for a product called White Beauty.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: New Pond's White Beauty gives you a radiant pinkish-white glow.
FRAYER: It shows a pale woman strutting with a handsome man on her arm while a darker-skinned woman watches them alone. This Indian pop song says men find white skin sexy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHITTIYAAN KALAIYAAN")
MEET BROS: (Singing) You're my darling angel baby. White kalaiyaan drives me crazy.
FRAYER: When Hiran was a teenager listening to these songs, she started using her mother's Fair & Lovely cream. It's the most popular skin-lightener in India, on shelves since 1975. Half of all Indian skin care products are whiteners. It's about a $500 million industry in India alone. So this was the backdrop when this spring, George Floyd was killed in the U.S. and calls for racial justice echoed around the world.
KAVITHA EMMANUEL: Can Indians support Black Lives Matter when we ourselves have so many prejudices?
FRAYER: Activist Kavitha Emmanuel says many of the same Indian celebrities now tweeting their outrage about racial discrimination in the U.S. are blind to it at home. Many of them starred in these ads for skin-whitening creams. Emmanuel runs a charity that counsels girls.
EMMANUEL: In our counseling sessions, this would keep surfacing, saying, you know, I am dark. It is not just about their self-esteem in terms of their looks, but it also affected their overall performance in life.
FRAYER: The TV ads are sadly realistic, she says. Darker-skinned Indians do face discrimination at work, at school and even in love. Some arranged marriage websites let families filter out prospective brides by skin tone.
Neha Dixit is an Indian journalist who's written about her own experience as a slightly darker-skinned woman. The euphemism her relatives used for her skin color is wheat-ish (ph), the color of wheat. She says all of this goes back to white British colonial rule and even farther back to a Hindu caste system roughly based on a hierarchy of professions.
NEHA DIXIT: So the upper-caste people who were powerful had fairer skin. And the lower-caste people - when they would work outside, those castes started having darker skin.
FRAYER: Those stereotypes have been reinforced over millennia, but modern ideas of racial equality and the Black Lives Matter movement are slowly making a dent. Chandana Hiran, the accounting student, stopped using her Fair & Lovely cream a few years ago and started an online petition to get the name of the product changed.
HIRAN: I started to realize that, OK, maybe the problem is not with me. Maybe I'm not supposed to look any other way, and I'm not supposed to feel insecure about my own skin.
FRAYER: Last week, Fair & Lovely's manufacturer, Unilever, said it's changing the name. Another big company, Johnson & Johnson, is discontinuing two of its skin-lightening products. No word on what the new name will be, but Hiran recently found an old tube of Fair & Lovely in her medicine cabinet.
HIRAN: Now it's going to become a souvenir, I think. I'm going to keep it.
FRAYER: The Fair & Lovely label is on its way out. But the question is how long these products, whatever they're called, will remain in India, along with the attitudes behind them.
Lauren Frayer, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF HANIA RANI'S "GLASS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.