OK, let’s get to it.
This TV commercial for a Chinese laundry detergent is out and out racist – disgustingly racist.
The detergent commercial airing in China made me so angry that it took me a week to gather my thoughts.
The ad for Qiaobi laundry detergent shows a black man entering a room and attempting to flirt with an Asian woman. He is carrying a pail of paint, wears dirty clothes and has a soiled face. She feeds him a detergent drop and stuffs his body into a top-loading washer. When the cycle completes, a fair-skinned Asian man in a clean white T-shirt emerges to the delight of the woman.
Shanghai Leishang Cosmetics Ltd. Co. said it strongly shuns and condemns racial discrimination but blamed foreign media for amplifying the ad, which first appeared on Chinese social media in March but was halted after it drew protests following the international uproar.
“We express regret that the ad should have caused a controversy,” the statement issued late Saturday read. “But we will not shun responsibility for controversial content.”
“We express our apology for the harm caused to the African people because of the spread of the ad and the over-amplification by the media,” the company said. “We sincerely hope the public and the media will not over-read it.”
While we’re being honest, let’s also admit that too many Asian people, including those who have recently immigrated to the U.S., harbor negative images of African Americans.
When I first saw the ad, I viewed it with my African American co-workers and I was aghast as they were. I was also embarrassed because it confirmed what many believe – many Asians from Asia have racist attitudes towards Africans in general, African Americans specifically.
Some will try to excuse the attitude to the fact that Asian countries are largely homogeneous and have very little interaction with Africans or African Americans. To be fair, most foreigners are viewed with suspicion in those Asian countries, but those sentiments are most expressed towards Africans and African Americans.
But why does this prejudice exist?
In most of Asia, light skin is a sign of beauty. Skin whitening products about. Women will go to great lengths to avoid being out in the sun. Heaven forbid they get a tan. Some of it is cultural. Dark skin, or tanned skin, is a sign of the lower class: the class of workers who have to work outdoors, on the farm, in the fields, on construction jobs, tending the elephants or water buffalo, cleaning up the refuse of the upper classes.
Light skin means you are probably rich enough that you don’t have to work in these menial jobs for a living.
And while we’re talking straight here: Light skin in some countries mean you probably have some caucasian blood in your past, be it Spanish, Portuguese, British or American. Even though these nationalities can have people of all races, white is the popular image of the colonial master – the so-called, self-anointed upper crust of humankind. In the words of British poet Rudyard Kipling, Europeans and “Americans” (nee Whites) need to take up the “White Man’s Burden” to save the souls of the “half-devil, half-child” people of color.
The commercial is not the first time racist attitudes came to the fore. As the Los Angeles Times reminds us of Darlie, a toothpaste popular in parts of Asia, formerly known as Darkie. In the 1980s when the product was introduced, commercials featured a smiling black minstrel in a top hat.
“The Darkie-Darlie name swap was more or less imperceptible to the average Chinese consumer and was mostly a move to keep English-language media from criticizing the company,” wrote the N.Y. Times. “Today, the toothpaste is still marketed as ‘black man toothpaste.'”
Darlie is made by Colgate-Palmolive, an American corporation, who wouldn’t dare air a similar commercial in America but deems it OK in Asia.
While it may be tempting to blame the racism in China on the U.S., let’s not underestimate the influence of the media images emanating from American pop culture.
Wall St. Journal columnist Jeff Yang writes:
In fact, a study jointly conducted by researchers at Washington State University and Towson University found that attitudes among high school students in China toward African Americans were generally more positive than their stereotypes of Americans in general — with the exception being students who had extensive exposure to U.S.-based media, who were more likely to perceive African Americans as “poorer,” “less moral,” “less polite” and “less intelligent” than other Americans. The researchers ultimately concluded that the results “can be explained by how African Americans are portrayed more negatively in American media.”
It is not to say that racism doesn’t exist among the Chinese and other Asians and I certainly don’t want to excuse the commercial makers for their ignorance, but let’s just say that the African American image does not fare well in the movies, TV programs and news stories created here (as a portrayal of America) and consumed abroad.
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And that brings us back to why we spend so much time bemoaning the lack of diversity in the movies and television. The America the world sees through these media is not the America we live in.
It is no accident that when foreigners and recent immigrants refer to the “Americans,” they are really referring to Euro Americans (White Americans). As I have often said in my posts, words matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the picture of our country needs to more reflective of reality.