Nivea’s ‘White is Purity’ ad renews history of racism in beauty

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This week in advertising was nothing short of an epic fail thanks to Pepsi and Nivea, who released two of the most culturally insensitive ads we have seen in quite some.  

From Kylie Jenner stopping racism with a Pepsi and Nivea’s ad entitled “Purity is White,” it seemed as if ‘Post Racial America’ had taken a step back, fallen prey to growing concerns around race relations and conflicts in this country.  

Although Black Twitter quickly reacted to the disrespect, the Nivea ad in particular brought back memories of our past battles with the color of our skin being deemed something less than acceptable, and perpetuates the historical pattern of “dirtying” our identity.

The tone deaf Nivea ad is just another slap in the face by a long history of cosmetic and cleaning products that have deemed black as either being not beautiful or a subset of beauty not meant for mass consumption. Whiteness has been the beauty standard in America, yet beauty and cosmetic trends just starting to take a shift, with more options available for different skin tones and complexions.

This isn’t the first time Nivea crossed the line in what they determined as being acceptable in terms of beauty. In 2011, in a campaign entitled “Look like you give a damn…Re-civilize yourself,” a black man depicted as well-groomed and cleanly shaved is seen throwing the mask of another black man (presumably his own) with a beard and afro.

This ad caused a great deal of controversy as it pushed respectability politics as the norm and the idea that natural hair was not a thing of beauty. The notion of “re-civilizing” was a nod to the fact that black beauty and culture wasn’t seen as a thing of civility in this country.

Nivea apologized, of course, to only be back in the same racial cesspool six years later. Racism and anti-blackness in ads is nothing new, and new ads are eerily close to those of our ancestors’ past.

It was in the late 1800s and early 1900s that several racists ads ran, including illustrating a white child saying to a black child, “you dirty boy, why don’t you wash yourself with Vinolia Soap.” Another ad for “Cooks Lightening Soap” contained a white woman washing a black child while a group of black children watched outside the window seeing their color coming out white. Images like these have been forever engrained in our ancestry to be used as a tool of anti-blackness in an effort to suppress us from ever being viewed as ‘clean’ in this society.

Further support of this notion came a few years ago when the movie The Help depicted what it was like for black maids in Jackson, Mississippi. In one scene, the white employers discuss building a separate bathroom and placing it outside on the porch so that “Abilene” wouldn’t have to use the one in the house, as black folks were seen as dirty and carried different diseases than white people. The Dove “Real Beauty” campaign started back in 2011 and received major applause for portraying women of all sizes, shapes, and colors, however, as quickly as the applause came, so did the jeers when they posted an ad which appeared to push the message that a black woman turning white was what cleanliness looked like.

Cleaning products like soap weren’t the only industry to push the ‘white is right’ propaganda.

The cosmetic industry, a space where Nivea also thrives, has for years pushed beauty as a white thing, or at minimum, something for lighter-skinned black women to assimilate. L’Oréal and Harper’s Bazaar magazine both caught a lot of heat for lightening Beyoncé’s skin, one for an ad and the other for a magazine cover. This process of skin lightening is an obvious tool to appeal to the white majority, who are the top consumers of both products.

The Cadbury company once caught backlash for a chocolate ad stating, “Move over Naomi, there is a new diva in town,” in reference to supermodel Naomi Campbell’s skin color. Naomi spoke out against racial conjecture, and backlash forced the company to apologize to her. Cosmetic companies like Almay have also been criticized for not even making products for women of color, even though they make up a large portion of the consumer demographic.  

But there is hope.

Black-owned or black-oriented beauty brands and companies have created a market for themselves and often have their own retail sections, although much smaller in many drug stores and places that sell cosmetics. Several brands that have been leading the charge to ensure people of color have products that work for them like Shea Moisture, Carol’s Daughter, Miss Jessie’s, Black Opal and several other smaller companies.

Even supermodel Iman forged her way into the beauty industry with a cosmetic line dedicated to people with different skin tones and complexions. The shift toward specificity in products has brought about an evolution in the way we see beauty standards and has changed the way society has defined it. Major brands like MAC, Covergirl Queen Collection, and Fashion Fair have become more aware of this concern, focusing their advertising, marketing, and product lines on beauty outside of white normalcy.

Cultural insensitivity to the tattered past of black people in this country is nothing that we are going take lightly, and we can’t simply ‘get over it.’ Ads like this serve as a constant reminder of how much further we have to go to not be seen as a lower standard based on the color of our skin.

Let this serve as a reminder to Nivea, and any other cosmetic company, that whiteness has never been our goal, and we are quite comfortable accepting beauty in the skin we are in. There is nothing more pure than that.

George M. Johnson is a journalist and activist based in the Washington, D.C. area. He has written for, TheGrio, JET,,, and The Huffington Post on topics of health, race, gender, sex, and education. Follow him on Twitter: @iamgmjohnson.