"What’s wrong with brownface?"
“Dark or white, you are beautiful.”
Admirable sentiment, isn’t it? What’s ironic is that it’s the tagline of a video commercial for a company that makes whitening lotions. What makes it more problematic is that they used brownface in the ad.
The ad for SkinWhite Philippines shows twins in their teens to 20s posing in various situations, one of each pair made up to look dark. When netizens pointed out on social media that this was brownface, SkinWhite replied that they meant everyone is attractive “whether they choose to be dark or white.”
That’s a stupid thing to say because we can’t choose our skin color; like many other physical attributes valorized by colonial mentality, it’s an accident of birth.
Why didn’t SkinWhite cast actual morenas for the ad? It would have made their “Dark or white, you are beautiful” message more credible.
People saw through the makeup and this deception reflected negatively on the brand. As Alexandria Perez commented on SkinWhite’s Facebook page: “Omg. Ang tanga po. Sana gumamit kayo ng talagang morena ano. Mahirap bang maghanap?” Rome Morales Infante’s comment was sarcastic: “May tanning creams na po ba skinwhite?”
The video lacks internal logic, said Kristinne Smk Santos: “Why do you promote that dark skin is beautiful while putting your whitening product to be used by someone who has dark skin? Where is the logic of it? I just can't find.”
The company’s advertising team should also check for consistency across all their marketing communication. In addition to the confusing ad, there is a mismatch between their ad copy and packaging. Their #BeYourBrightest hashtag implies that their products provide ‘brighter’ skin, whatever that is, presumably regardless of skin color. The soaps, however, are labeled ‘power whitening’ on the boxes. Is it ‘bright’ or ‘white’? They don’t mean the same thing. Make up your mind, SkinWhite.
As Andrea Atienza pointed out on FB, “It's like you guys don't understand your branding, your product, your market, and advocacy. You're so confused and your social media responses really show it.”
What’s wrong with brownface?
Like blackface, it perpetuates damaging stereotypes—that white skin is better than dark, that dark skin and non-Caucasian features are to be ashamed of and need to be corrected. This mindset is a manifestation of colorism, an attitude that privileges white or pale skin over dark.
This outcome of colonial mentality is so deeply embedded in our culture that there is a widespread urge to control skin color by bleaching and whitening, which has led to a demand for whitening products and services like bleaching and glutathione drips.
Colorism is manifested in the way morenas are ridiculed as ‘negra’, ‘maitim,’ or ‘pangit.’ Senator Nancy Binay, who has been the brunt of such insults, uses self-deprecating humor to defuse the cruelty. But it does hurt her, as she said in an interview in 2013: “I’m bothered. Kasi, bakit nagiging isyu yong kulay ng balat ko? Di ba ho, borderline racist na yong comments?”
An example of brownface in media is the 2011 television show ‘Nita Negrita,’ starring actress Barbie Forteza’s with crudely darkened skin. It was strongly criticized for equating dark skin with poverty and for caricaturing dark-skinned people. The show was a fiasco and ran for only six months.
By employing Caucasian-looking models made up in brownface, Skin White is complicit in reifying colonial mentality. Ads like theirs erase dark-skinned people from the conversation by making them out to be less worthy that they cannot even play themselves in an ad.
Celebrity Angelique Manto tweeted, “This whole SkinWhite fiasco only goes to show that there’s still no full grasp on the equality that colored/dark-skinned people are trying to achieve. We are not a fad you jump on to, to increase brand engagement or sales.”
One good outcome of the ad, albeit accidental, is that it spurred public discourse on the topic. It increased awareness about colorism and brownface, their manifestations and links to identity, and ill effects on society and individuals.
White culture has robbed us of so much—our ancient script, texts, stories, rituals, and more. We have to claim them back and make them our own again, including our color. Our brownness makes us uniquely ourselves; we should not pin our identity on colonial standards. We must decolonize beauty standards and contest the mentality that Caucasian is better.
And, as Binay pointed out in her interview, “Majority of the Filipinos ay ganito ang kulay, e,” yet many still hanker after paler skin, taller noses, thinner lips. Ironic, sad, and totally unnecessary.
As a people we are still so damaged by colonial mentality. We need to construct a decolonized culture, and communicating about flashpoint topics enables the change. / FB and Twitter: @DrJennyO