How to Think About Vaseline Skin Whitening Facebook App


Vaseline's latest marketing campaign, largely targeted at south Asia but accessible globally, will probably make you uncomfortable. It's a Facebook application that whitens the skin of photos that users upload of themselves. 

Jezebel opened fire on the app, saying it "crowdsourced racism." Certainly, modern humans' desire to make their skin darker or lighter is a rather icky reminder of the pigmentocracy that exists in many countries (like my own birth country, Mexico). "If this is the future -- one of user-generated prejudice and do-it-yourself-loathing -- I almost miss good old airbrushing," wrote Jezebel's Anna North.

But the issues around skin whitening (or darkening) are not as simple as they might seem. When Matthew Battles, editor of, posted the item to Google Buzz (yes, people do use it), an unusually worthwhile discussion broke out. Quiet Babylon blogger Tim Maly, in particular, wondered whether there wasn't room for a more subtle treatment of the issue than Jezebel had given it.

Navneet Alang, York University Ph.D. student in English and This Magazine columnist, came through with a comment that provides a fast summary of how deep the roots of the Facebook app really go.
I've been thinking about this since I heard about it, but it's important to note that the preference for fair skin pre-exists the colonial encounter by a couple of thousand years. It starts with the Vedas and then carries on through poetry and music (which were largely inextricable in 'Indian culture'). In fact, to call someone 'meri gori' - which transliterates as 'my fair-skinned one - is another way of saying my sweetheart or whatever. 
The class/labour issue is definitely all there, but so is caste, which isn't the entirely the same thing as class (i.e. its dynamics function in a sphere that isn't just socio-economic). Oh also, the colourism is also linked with the Aryan/Dravidian divide that is also largely the North/South divide which is also a Sanskrit-derived langauge vs. Tamil-derived language divide and so on and so on... 
[T]his isn't just a question of race or imperialism or eurocentrism, but is a lot more layered and messy. Which just makes it a thousand times harder to change.
Last note: I put my relatively tanned face through the whitener and I could hardly tell the difference. I'll post pics shortly.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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