Soap has its own sordid chapter in America’s ugly history with racism. Back in the 19th and 20th century, soap companies would produce utterly racist-as-fuck ads with the message that white skin was clean and pure while dark skin was dirty, gross and in need of a powerful cleaning that only their soap was capable of providing. The ads would often depict a black person, at times children, turning white with the use of the solvent. That part of America’s whitewashing history is why many were up in arms over the weekend when a screenshot of a “racist” Dove ad went viral. Now the company is apologizing for their screw-up.
In the screenshot, a smiling black woman in a brown top removes her shirt and magically transforms into a redheaded white woman with fair skin. The screenshot was taken from a three-second ad that Dove debuted on Friday via Facebook. What the screenshot failed to show was that the redheaded white woman removes her shirt and transforms into a third woman, who appears to be of color.
Still, Dove — owned by Unilever — has issued an apology for the tone-deaf ad, writing on Facebook:
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. The feedback that has been shared is important to us and we’ll use it to guide us in the future.
For what it’s worth, the black woman in the ad has also come out in defense of Dove. Lola Ogunyemi wrote in The Guardian the commercial was meant not to make her appear inferior, but to use each woman’s differences to “highlight the fact that all skin deserves gentleness.” The Nigerian beauty adds that she seized the opportunity to star in the ad because she wanted to change the narrative surrounding dark-skinned women. Growing up dark-skinned, Ogunyemi heard she was “so pretty for a dark-skinned girl” and that woman with her skin color would look better if they had lighter skin.
This repressive narrative is one I have seen affect women from many different communities I’ve been a part of. And this is why, when Dove offered me the chance to be the face of a new body wash campaign, I jumped. Having the opportunity to represent my dark-skinned sisters in a global beauty brand felt like the perfect way for me to remind the world that we are here, we are beautiful, and more importantly, we are valued.
Ogunyemi says her experience with Dove was “positive” and that all the actresses on the set understood what Dove was aiming for.
Still, there is a history here. In 2011, another ad before and after-ed darker skin. Dove’s intention may not have been to carry on the tradition of racist soap ads, but this is the likely result when companies want to practice diversity but fail at inclusion. To reference actress Gabrielle Union’s tweet, “Who had a seat at the table making these decisions?” Because unless Dove has a black person at these meetings and brainstorms, stumbles like this will continue to happen.