UPDATE (June 2nd): Nicole Bonnah has written a reply to this piece, you can find it here. After you read that, here you can find my final reply.
On May 26th, The Shanghaiist broke the (SinoAfrican) internet by bringing a Chinese ad to the attention of its mainly American audience. The ad – which you can watch below (Youku see here) – is a commercial for a Chinese detergent called Qiaobi and has been deemed as ‘highly racist’ or the ‘most racist advert ever’ by a whole host of American media outlets like this, this and this.
In the video, a paint-splattered black man catcalls a Chinese woman and approaches her confidently as she lures him with her finger. As he attempt to kiss her, she places a detergent bag in his mouth and shoves his body into a washing machine.Once the machine cycle is done, a young (robotish, if you ask me) Asian man emerges as clean as can be. At no point during the short ad, are we the audience aware of the status of the men in relation to the woman. Is the black man her boyfriend, fiancee, or husband? My original reading! Or is he only the painter, or maybe an ‘immigrant worker’ (as one of my Chinese friends saw it)? Is the young and clean machine-made Asian man the replacement for the black guy? Where will he replace him, in painting, or in a relationship?
Amid the outcry, users of diverse Chinese online platforms have reported that the ad is running on national television and before the movies at Wanda Cinemas (owner of AMC theatres). Contrasting versions report that the ad is no where to be found both in offline and online media environments on the Mainland. Latest reports (May 27) claim that the ad has disappeared from Chinese social media platforms.
There are a few ways in which one can read and interpret this ad – I will come back to these readings some paragraphs down. Meanwhile, after cringing in horror and anger when I first saw the ad, I became even more irritated to read the ways in which the ad was decoded by American writers, and the ways they explained it to their (Western) audiences. In short, the discussion was totally kidnapped by the (hegemonic) way of discussing issues of race that Americans are so eager to export/impose. Don’t get me wrong, I think that the ad is fucked up in every single, possible aspect. In nicer words, it is profoundly (and maybe naively) insensitive and very very problematic. As the most recent manifestation of a century-old trope it is indeed ‘racist’. But I don’t necessarily see it as evidence of a ‘Chinese’ racism, or a culturally specific form of racism. And this is what troubles me.
Having done research for the last 6 years on African presence in China, and being very interested in all kinds of SinoAfrican exchanges, I’m often suspicious of people/students arguing that China is a ‘racist’ society (esp. when they’ve never been to China). ‘Really, how do you know that?’ I usually reply. Again and again, people point to incidents like the detergent ad. (By the way, this is not the first online incident relating to blackness in China. It may be, however, the one that has gotten the most play ever).The ensuing explanation is often short – as if the instances were always self-explanatory – and concludes that Chinese are ALSO ‘racist’ and that there’s ‘racism’ in China. At this point, I usually go into ‘I can’t overemphasise’ mode, overemphasising indeed the importance of understanding that ‘racism’ (and the same goes for the constructed category of ‘race’) is a context-based multilayered phenomenon, with uncountable ramifications (e.g. specific hybridisations with class and gender), that needs to be understood against the lived realities of diverse social contexts. In other words, there’s no one kind of ‘racism’, and ‘racism’ (whatever you may call that) is culturally specific.
The way I understand ‘racism’ (and feel free to lambast me for this, if you need), is as a covert, systematic, and persistent (e.g.that is almost inescapable) form of discrimination embedded in social institutions (like the mighty American police, in case you were looking for an example), that grants privileges to one group while denying them to others. Racial prejudices, and isolated forms of discrimination, although central to ‘racism’ are not inherently always ‘racist’. The ‘-ism’ here, at least for me, denotes a set of systemic practices. These practices, embedded in the ‘-ism’, are just not present in China (and I have countless evidence to prove this). Any foreigner (whites included) that has lived in China knows that there are plenty of racial prejudices and forms of discrimination (not only against foreigners) and that they are usually very overt (as you now know), rather than covert. Often, as I tell my students, people claiming that there’s racism in China seem more interested in showing (in a justificatory way) that there are ‘racist’ societies outside the Euro-American world. Interestingly, they are usually rather lazy (or incompetent) to point towards evidence of deep-sited, systemic, practices of ‘racialisation’ as those pervasive in, say, the land of freedom and justice, the US. Indeed, from my conversations with multiple non-Western foreigners in China throughout the years (many of them from Africa), I have argued here that while many feel that some Chinese people dislike foreigners, ‘there is no structural racism’ in China. Many foreigners that arrive in China assuming that they will confront the types of racism they have confronted elsewhere (or that construe certain Chinese practices as ‘racist’), soon find their views changing.
In short, the ad is not evidence that Chinese society (whatever that means!) is ‘racist’ but rather that many people in China are still very ignorant, naive, or plainly idiotic. No systemic practice in China (Sorry, me dear China bashers).
Now coming back to the ‘readings’ and ‘explanations’
Often, when discussing these incidents, you get a whole bunch of academics (me included) and pundits that quote the long-standing historical perceptions on skin colour in China. The simple explanation of this is a China 101 from my Mandarin class some years ago: in (historical) China they appreciated fairness in skin because higher classes would normally stay away from hard (under the sun) labour. Peasants were normally darker and that leads Chinese people to discriminate against dark-skinned people. ‘So, you’re like a peasant’, my 101 teacher told me when I complained about something that I perceived as discrimination while hailing taxis in Beijing (note for American readers: I’m ‘brown’, but my privilege makes me ‘white’ in Mexico). The implication of this is something many Chinese pride themselves on: that China cannot be ‘racist’ but merely ‘classist’. While I believe that ‘racism’ as I explained above does not happen in China, I’m afraid that in cases like the detergent ad the class/dark skin explanation may not be enough. While respecting historical and culture specific developments, I’m troubled by the simplicity of this explanation. It plainly falls short to describe something that is indeed way more complex, and it often comes across as a childish denial. “We don’t like you because you’re brown. It’s not your fault, it’s the sun, right?” “Because you’re brown, we think less of you,” one of my good (and racially aware) friends used to ‘joke’ (don’t worry, I took revenge :)).
In addition to this, there’s one other often invoked explanation when it comes to incidents like the detergent one. Here, the story line goes: ‘it’s not about Africans, the Han were historically contemptuous of dark-skin people in the southern imperial frontiers’. There’s a plethora of stories about the so-called Kunlun (slaves) and debates about them either being South Asian or African. When I hear this, I think of incidents like this – in which a women calls a black man with whom she’s fighting a ‘zebra’. Isn’t there a vicious/malicious intentionality in the video? The story line continues: ‘Han disdain for southern dark skin was at some not-very-clear point in history transposed onto Africans’. That ‘not-very-clear point in history’ is (look no further) COLONIALISM, and Chinese intellectuals contact with Western racial theories (e.g. Kang Youwei and Liang QiQiao).
It’s true, issues of racial prejudice in China are informed by deep-seated class issues, but also, and let’s not fool ourselves, by global (colonial and postcolonial) imaginaries of racial superiority (e.g. white supremacy). So, as you may imagine, the iterations of something that looks like ‘racism’ in contemporary China, emerge out of a complex global media environment, rather than being a ‘class’ (or a necessarily ‘Chinese’) issue. Here, the often invoked media element is ‘Hollywood’. Every foreigner in China has a story of a Chinese friend explaining how afraid he/she feels of black (or Arab) people thanks to American movies. This was my Mandarin 101 class ‘racial explanation’ number two: “Chinese are not ‘racist’, they are just naive and confused thanks to Hollywood’s historical representation of people of colour,” or so the explanations goes. Difficult to buy! But this one is a bit more complex, and it’s not only about Hollywood. Watch this, and this and cry. Indeed, this one also goes back to issues in contemporary global imaginaries that keep selling whiteness as something desirable and blackness/brownness (‘otherness’) as the binary opposites.
Here is where the detergent ad makes a very complex turn/tweak (that makes the whole thing so difficult to grasp). It opposes blackness to a Chinese ‘whiteness’ (some Chinese people on my WeChat call it ‘yellowness’) thus inputing a ‘different’ answer to this (colonial racial) equation: the black individual does not serve the purpose of whiteness becoming the correct way of being (ontology). Rather, it presents the Chinese man as the correct, perfect, clean answer. This is not new, there have been other instances of using non-white ‘foreigners’ (or Chinese of mixed heritage – see the case of Lou Jing) to reinforce the boundaries of Chineseness in ethno-nationalist discourse. Indeed, the ad can also be read as a great example of policing Chineseness, and the policing of Chinese femininity (obviously, more readings may emerge, as the ad makes more global rounds). There have been other historical instances in which Chinese men have policed women’s sexual practices when they related to black men (e.g. the Nanjing anti-African protests). Indeed, as China grows confident in her new role as emerging/consolidating global power, the mixture of her anxieties mixed with traces of widely circulating ethno-nationalist discourses in the country, could lead to the emergence of more, rather than less, things like the detergent ad.
Having said this, I still believe that cases like this can also be seen as productive in the sense that people in China could learn about these global sensitivities. Gauging from those Chinese netizens who have condemned the ad, in the process of China’s ‘going out’, Chinese people will have to deal with more multicultural politics (hopefully not in the American fashion) and learn about the complex and problematic histories of colonialism that inform global mediascapes. So, I’m afraid that soon scholars and pundits won’t be able to invoke Chinese disdain for peasants (e.g. class issues), or the Hollywood inflicted damage (e.g. racist American ideoscapes), as the root cause for iterations of global racist expressions in China – such as the Qiaobi ad – and will have to hold some people in China somehow accountable. Not without, however, understanding/respecting the specificity of ‘Chinese’ views and practices.
By the way (in case you don’t already know),
The Shanghaiist also noted that the ad was a blatant ripoff of a series of Italian laundry detergent ads screened in the early 2000s.
Adding to the detergent storm, HKFP noted that the Chinese ‘cleansing’ blackness ad is a ‘century-old joke’, part of an old trope in racially insensitive advertising. They did some serious Reddit research and unearthed an almost ‘century-old’ (1920s) Swedish commercial with a variation of the ‘joke’.
Also, HKFP brought these two 19-century images out from the depths of Reddit and claimed that advertising has not really changed in more than a hundred years.
In the 1990s, the well know Czech political satire show ‘Ceska Soda’ used the trope in an attempt to mock xenophobic behaviour in the Czech Republic. (In the original post, I had claimed that this was an ad. A reader has kindly noted that I was wrong and pointed out to the political satire show).
Below, some of the initial online reactions: