Black men have to deal with a lot of inextricable and damaging stereotypes, but the idea that we’re savages who can’t even be trusted to groom ourselves when the occasion calls for it is among the most offensive of them. And that’s the very idea being supported in a new ad from Nivea, which encourages men of color to “re-civilize” themselves and “look like [they] give a damn.”
The ad, which we spotted on Good not too long ago, features a smartly dressed man (white point-collar shirt, dark denim, a sweater that looks like it was knitted specifically to fit his forearms) shot-putting the decapitated head of another man who had the audacity to grow out an afro and a full beard. The message here is clear: If you’re black, embracing a tonsorial style that isn’t close cropped and clean-shaven will make you look like a total beast and no one will ever trust or hire you. You’d better run to CVS and get some Nivea products before your chance for a good life washes down the drain! Offensive? Absofuckinglutely. True? Not at all.
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To be fair, Nivea has another ad that asks white men to “look like [they] give a damn,” which features a guy in a suit holding the similarly severed head of another guy with shaggy hair and a full beard. But that ad says nothing about re-civilization. The message there seems to be that white men already have a chance to be productive members of society, and they only need to trim a little scruff off here and there to maximize their potential to do so. In other words, they’re already civilized, they just don’t look like it.
But black men, according to Nivea’s brand messaging, are inherently uncivilized and can only become civilized if they forsake what comes out of their hair follicles naturally. And that’s simply not true. Different hairstyles may communicate different things, but having a certain hairstyle (just like having a certain skin color) doesn’t encode certain behavior. And that’s probably the most offensive thing about this ad — it suggests that if you change how you look, you can also change who you are.
If it seems like I’m taking this personally, it’s because I am (or at least I was until today) a pretty loyal user of Nivea products. I’ve used Nivea shampoo to wash the unruly curls that sit in an afro on top of my head, and I shave every morning with Nivea’s Sensitive Skin Shaving Gel. Nivea products are reasonably priced and generally work well. And I’ll be damned to the ninth circle of hell before I ever use a single one of them again.
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Growing out my hair hasn’t precluded me from getting a job or doing it well. Letting myself get a little scruffy on weekends doesn’t mean I can’t tell which spoon I’m supposed to use for the sugar bowl at brunch on Sundays. Add as much as I love fashion, there are days when I dress like I don’t give a damn, largely because sometimes I just don’t. But I’m not any more likely to shoot someone in cold blood on those days than I am on days when I’m wearing a coat and tie. And neither is anyone else.
If Nivea’s racist marketing people think black men need to change their appearance to effectively change their lives, that’s on them. But expressing that sentiment in a major national ad campaign is, to borrow an adjective, uncivilized. And there’s not a single beauty product that’s going to change that.