Dove should have known better, which makes this ad misstep even more jarring

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In a Dove ad, a dark-skinned woman reaches down and lifts up her shirt (and apparently the rest of her skin/costume) to reveal a smiling white woman.

I’ve been using Dove since I was a teenager, because it was pretty much the only soap that didn’t irritate my eczema-prone skin.

When Dove released its popular “Real Beauty” marketing campaign 13 years ago, I praised the company for celebrating women of all races and shapes. In Dove’s world, cleanliness simply didn’t know superficial boundaries. That was an excellent thing.

But a recent Facebook ad for Dove that implied black women are inherently dirty has drawn ire. And rightfully so. In consecutive frames, a fresh-faced, ebony-hued woman takes off her brown T-shirt, magically transforming into a fresh-faced, alabaster-white woman. The women’s hairstyles and slim figures are also nearly identical, making this messaging even more jarring.

It appears Dove is in the business of marketing a skin-bleaching elixir rather than a gentle-cleansing bar soap.

Dove removed the advertisement Saturday and tweeted that it “missed the mark in representing women of color thoughtfully. We deeply regret the offense it caused.”

But the internet has refused to give parent company Unilever a break. Part of the reason is that in 2011, Dove also featured an ad with three women — one black, one possibly Latina, and one white. They stood in that order from left to right; the word before was written above the black women and after over the white woman.

Here we go again.

The responding memes haven’t minced words. Some have been informative, showing a graphic of Unilever brands urging black consumers to boycott them all. In fact, by Monday morning, the hashtag #boycottdove was getting a lot of traction.

Some were quite hilarious in their depiction of all matter of black women becoming white women.

This is what black people do, sometimes, when something is so hurtful. We try to make a joke out of it.

The majority of the response was straight confusion. How can such an influential, well-heeled company make such a tone-deaf blunder? How can it be so insensitive?

The answer is simple. Centuries-old messaging of white is good and black is bad.

Soap — once lye-based — lent itself to this kind of marketing because it is a cleaning agent. Black is dirty. White is cleanliness. In a society where black people were property, a soap that scrubbed  the black off someone had the potential to make millions. And it was an image the affluent could relate to in a humorous way.

Then you had the development of terms such as “slapping the black” or “beating the black” off black people.  These hate-filled declarations were first uttered by slave masters.

But in time, much like the use of the n-word, they have become common sayings in the black community. Sometimes uttered in anger. Sometimes uttered in jokes.  Last week, I was watching the 2000 movie Love & Basketball and dreamy Omar Epps told a young woman eager to spend time with him in his room that his mom would “beat the black off of him” if she found a young lady in his room. The young lady flirtatiously responded, “that’s a lot of black.”

On the surface, the fashion industry says it embraces people of all hues, but it unfortunately loves to juxtapose really dark-skinned people against really fair people. Part of it is because stark contrast makes for interesting art.  But the not-so-subliminal messaging compares exotic (very dark) to the accepted (very fair.) The “other” messaging is very clear.

This is not an invitation for non-people of color — many of whom like to write me about the gratuitous use of the n-word in black culture — to complain about black folks being too sensitive, or our resistance to assimilation. Because this only gives them the mental permission to brush our concerns aside and these thoughtless and painful incidents will continue.

Here is where all of us need to acknowledge that this messaging — subliminal and/or blatant — remains at the core of the beauty industry. These ideas bleed into marketing and advertising. And that ultimately informs how we see ourselves,  how we see one another, and how others see us.

If we continue to brush these concerns aside, we won’t learn from our mistakes. It won’t matter what kind of strides we make in beauty — including awesome advancements like expanding the definition of nude to include shades of copper chocolate and embracing all body types — because it will only take one person’s bad idea and a cast of culturally insensitive executives to undo years of groundbreaking work around diversity.

Just ask Dove.

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