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Part II : White is Beautiful ‘Cos …?!

Updated: Mar 13

‘Black is ugly, white is not. White is normal and black is not’

This is the racially insensitive messaging by hair care brand, TRESemmé that underpinned a marketing campaign hosted on the website of South African Health & Beauty retailer group, Clicks, promoting racist stereotypes about hair.

📷 Ndumisoumiso Silindza

#Clicks #TRESemmé #Unilever (parent company) - could you not see how comparing black hair unfavourably to white hair where you clearly describe straight blond hair as ‘normal’ and black hair as ‘frizzy & dull’ – could cause offence in a post-apartheid South Africa?

📷 Twitter

It was only when I delved a little deeper into the story and stumbled across the shocking reality of the pencil test, that I myself wholly understood how truly offensive the ad was?!

I hope that the following extract from an article published on global business digital platform, Quartz Africa, adequately describes the pencil test and helps you better understand why this controversial ad received massive backlash, manifesting in protest action; ultimately resulting in all TRESemmé products being pulled from the shelves by some of South Africa’s biggest retailers:

During apartheid, if a person’s skin tone didn’t immediately indicate their race, racial heritage was often classified in line with the results of a pencil test. A person was classified as white if a pencil was slid into their hair and fell out. If the pencil got stuck in their coils, they were labelled Black; and following this classification, would be designated as a lesser class citizen.

Clicks, TRESemmé, Unilever – do you now understand why you got it so wrong? It seems that much remains to be done to change the perception of corporate culture whose default setting in this day and age, seems to still favour whiteness.

And no, I will not accept your grovelling apology because I do not think you understand how toxic your actions really were and quite frankly, I think it’s a load of hogwash?!

And now what I really, really want to say … (as I mentioned earlier that I’d step up and speak out as outspokenly and honestly as I can):

Team #TRESemmé – WHAT WERE YOU THINKING? Did you put any thought into this at all? For the next time round, a bit of advice, if I may – careful thought is a must and beware the hazards of group-think!

#Unilever – you should have known better as this isn’t your first gaffe! One would think that you would have learnt from the #Dove lotion catastrophe in 2017. Yet another racist advert

commissioned, this time on Facebook showing a black woman turning white after using Dove lotion. How is it possible to get it wrong (oh so wrong!) over and over again?!

#Clicks - it is you that has broken my heart into little pieces, strewn it across the floor and trampled all over it! With a diverse leader at your helm, you should be able to better navigate the multi-cultural landscape we live in today. You should be an inspiring example for positive change by championing diversity and inclusion.

Note to the CEO of Clicks:

Dear Vikesh,

It is critical now more than ever to lead by example, to help Clicks to think differently with a greater breadth of perspective and wider representation. Driving action by challenging ‘the norm’ and cultivating a diversity of thought, will help you make better decisions that contribute to the fight, OUR fight for all things being equal … and it will most certainly prevent any further self-sabotaging behaviour!

Final note

I have watched from afar with much pride alongside the rest of the world as South Africa has made remarkable progress building a true rainbow nation - the embodiment of freedom and equality.

With these #hairwars, I fear we have taken a GIANT step backwards, as it is clear the enduring impact of race and race-related characteristics remains even though it’s been 30 years since apartheid was abolished. Yes, we may still grapple with change but the fight against racism and discrimination must go on - at this time and always.

Recently, there seems to be a new and pressing urgency to address racial injustice; therefore it is crucial we continue to challenge and change racist attitudes and behaviour with a renewed sense of determination, if we are to (ever) realise our shared vision to build a stronger and fairer society.

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1 Comment

Shirley Asiedu
Shirley Asiedu
Nov 16, 2020

Cosmetics companies today need to be so careful. In my opinion, each should actively do test runs of draft advertisements by a diverse panel of consumers and really listen to how they feel about the content; in fact, let's go further. Tease out honest opinions. A racism stress test shall we say.

In this age where mental health and "how one feels about oneself" is of such importance and relevance, no way would (or should!) Unilever be able get away with activity that really does negatively impact the emotion, mental health or well-being of any human who comes into contact with any of their campaigns.

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