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:
Sure HKFP did some research on the origins of this type of racist exploitation but that still doesn’t let the Chinese advertiser off the hook. Asians/Asian Americans/black Americans/Africans have a shared history both from genetic origins to more recent colonization and racial discrimination. The Chinese view themselves as the Middle Kingdom yet seek European approval to the extent that they will even emulate their hatred. They forget the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Opium Wars, the cries of Yellow Peril. Right now they’re hard at work seeking to isolate intelligence genes to make genius Chinese – they’re taking DNA samples from Chinese and people of European descent but no blacks. The Chinese can do better. Not all Chinese are bigots and it’s important to remember that. But it’s also important to call out the race haters for what they are: self-hating bigots. Chinese need to have positive exposure to black intellectuals as well as the average, law abiding black/African person. Then they’re realize that the Chinese and blacks are actually the same.
yeah Joseph, I think your comment basically just proved his point
I will only comment on the Czech video – both you and HKFP got it wrong, it’s not a commercial but it’s political satire that attempts to mock xenophobic behaviour in the country 20 years back. If you look closely, you will see the detergent resembles Ariel from Procter & Gamble. P&G would never air anything like this. It’s from a well-known show Ceska Soda.
Thanks for this. I’ll verify and make any necessary amendments. Appreciate!
Pingback: Why the racist Chinese ad may be just as racist as you think – Black Lives in China
Pingback: [Opinion] Why the racist Chinese ad MAY be just as racist as you think | Africans in China
I’m not sure if I’ve grasped your entire argument RE Chinese society as non-“racist,” but a few comments. I like your distinction between systemic racism and racial discrimination, though I would gently quibble over “racial” in the latter on the same grounds you mention (“race” as constructed category). I wouldn’t go to war over that at risk of losing the important distinction between human cognitive tendencies (to categorize and discriminate) and racism as a set of systemic practices, as you put it. However, and I’m not sure if I’m putting words in your mouth, shouldn’t we evaluate China’s systemic racism based on internal inequities/practices/economies of social worth/opportunity? Of course I’m thinking of systemic obstacles faced by lesser “national minorities.” China does have preferential policies, which would seem to represent some form of recognition of the problem. Again, I won’t go to my grave defending racism/racialization as the necessary framework for understanding these conditions, but I feel that it’s relatively easy to dismiss anti-Black/African prejudice as an indication of a non-racist society.
Interesting! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Isn’t the Chinese one a ‘system’ of producing ‘ethnic difference’ within one single imagined ‘race’? I agree, I wouldn’t try to use the racism/racialisation framework for that. I would go more into the construction of ‘internal’ difference. As far as I know, some time in the 1950s, there was process of application to become an ethnic group and when they chose the final 56, hundreds were left out.
But coming back to the idea of evaluating China’s system, I’m no expert but I think that it is indeed similar in the sense that hegemony (be it Han in China; white elsewhere) produces inequities and so on. So, yes, both are systems of classification, one intra-national, the other global/colonial.
Reblogged this on BALOBESHAYI and commented:
Might not agree on all but there are some informed points here
Pingback: [Opinion] On why the racist Chinese ad MAY NOT be as racist as you think – Sihle's Apple Crunch
Pingback: [Opinion] On why the racist Chinese ad MAY NOT be as racist as you think – from Africa to China
Pingback: [Opinion] Why the racist Chinese ad MAY be just as racist as you think – from Africa to China
Pingback: “Know thy self” – Sihle's Apple Crunch
Pingback: “Racist” or “not-racist,” the better question is whether racism is being (re)-produced or deconstructed in China | Node to Node