This “Re-Civilize Yourself” Nivea ad appeared in print in Esquire magazine in 2011. Although Nivea issued a formal apology and pulled the ad from future displays, the damage had already been done. Featuring a clean-shaven black man mid-toss, holding in his throwing hand the head of a less “civilized” version of himself, Nivea’s ad reflects and reinforces the racialized standards of beauty rooted in a long history of dominant Western culture’s devaluation of blackness.
Oftentimes, race is primarily thought of in terms of skin color. But as Gandy points out, “race can encompass ‘cultural characteristics related to race or ethnicity,’ including ‘grooming practices’” (Gandy 2017). In fact, regulation of black hair is just one of the many ways white people ensured dominance over black bodies. In the U.S., slave traders would shave enslaved people’s heads “in order to strip them of their individuality and ties to their community” knowing very well that “Africans’ identity was inexorably intertwined with their hair” (Gandy 2017). Spanish colonists banned black and multiracial women in New Orleans from showing their hair in the 18th century because “their beautiful hairstyles were considered threatening to white women and attractive to white men” (Black Girl with Long Hair 2016).
Black hair has not only historically been controlled, but also devalued as a cultural characteristic of blackness. In the ad, the head possesses naturally-grown black hair, thus, the action of tossing the head away reinforces the undesirability of black hair. In addition, the message that the black man’s hair must be shaven so that he can “re-civilize” himself renders natural black hair uncivilized. This civilizing rhetoric mimics the European rhetoric used to justify colonial occupation in Africa that ultimately perpetuated a racial value hierarchy, in which blackness is always considered inferior to whiteness. Mercer points to these colonial attitudes in her explanation of the “logic of white bias,” which is rooted in the idea that “to cultivate is to transform something found ‘in the wild’ into something of social use and value, like domesticating a forest into a field. It thus implies that in its ‘natural’ given state, black people’s hair has no inherent aesthetic value: it must be worked upon before it can be ‘beautiful’” (1987, 38). In fact, beauty is defined along European standards Thus, black hair must be cultivated according to European beauty standards. As Gandy points out that “White America, by and large, has never bothered to understand Black hair, but rather has expected that we conform our hair to their Eurocentric beauty standards” (2017).
Ultimately, this ad privileges whiteness by devaluing black natural features and sends a deprecating message that black people must alter their appearance and adopt white standards of beauty to be accepted in society. The message of altering black features to fit Eurocentric beauty standards is further emphasized when contextualized in Nivea’s larger “Look Like You Give a Damn” campaign, which features two white men, and one black man, dressed in business suits and ties.
The portrayal of the men in professional attire reflects how Eurocentric beauty standards are normalized in professional settings. As we have discussed in class, the “white supremacist notion that natural Black hairstyles don’t belong in the workplace” has real material and psychological consequences for black men, but also especially black women (Gandy 2017). The fact that the black man in the ad is tossing away a version of himself with natural hair, suggests that he has internalized society’s devaluation of blackness.
If the purpose of the ad was to present a social commentary on racism, then Nivea’s ad could be rendered a work of genius. It managed to simultaneously historically contextualize racism towards black people, point to racism’s contemporary manifestations in defining standards of beauty, convey the resulting psychological consequences of racism, broaden notions of race beyond skin color, and invoke black hair politics. However, because the intention of this ad was to sell a product to black people by reinforcing a racialized standard of beauty that perpetuated the need for black people to purchase its product in order to fit into mainstream society, the ad ultimately demonstrated the racism still inherent in contemporary society.
Black Girl with Long Hair, “Why Black and Multicultural Women were Banned from Wearing Their Hair in New Orleans,” Facebook video. Posted March 16, 2016. https://www.facebook.com/blackgirllonghair/videos/10153534393113391/
Gandy, Imani. “Black Hair Discrimination is Real – But is it Against the Law?” April 17, 2017. Accessed June 2, 2017. https://rewire.news/ablc/2017/04/17/black-hair-discrimination-real-but-is-it-against-law/
Mercer, Kobena. “Black Hair/Style Politics.” new formations 3 (1987): 33-54