[Compilation] Opinion and analysis pieces about the notorious #RacistChineseAd
The opinions and analysis below are chronologically organised
1. On why the racist Chinese ad MAY NOT be as racist as you think
By Roberto Castillo for AfricansInChina.Net
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 attempts 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 in Australia 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, scholarly, 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-seated, systemic, practices of ‘racialisation’ as those pervasive in, say, the land of freedom and justice, the USA. 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’
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 a ‘brown’ Mexican, but my privilege makes me ‘white’ in that country). 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.
2. Why the racist Chinese ad MAY be just as racist as you think
By Nicole Bonnah for Black Lives in China, PARTLY as a response to this opinion.
An advert for Chinese detergent brand, Qiaboi, has garnered widespread attention recently on social media platforms and outlets across China and overseas, after The Shanghaiist published what they deemed to be an “incredibly racist advertisement”.
The commercial has reportedly appeared on Chinese television and during the advertisement slots before screenings in Wanda Cinemas this month but was first uploaded and criticised by American Expat and musician, Christopher Powell. There is definitely more than enough social engagement going on right now concerning whether or not this advert is truly representative of a deep-rooted “racism” in China, but I have decided to offer my two-cents, if you will indulge me for a moment or two.
The offering of my two-cents, is partly in response to Roberto Castillo’s recent opinion piece, titled “[Opinion] On why the racist Chinese ad may not be as racist as you think #SinoAfrica” and also in part to the four-part documentary I am producing about the Black Experience of individuals and groups in China titled #TheBlackOrient. I am offering a differing perspective but hope to add value to further dialogue around this subject.
Both Castillo and I agree that the advert is “profoundly (and maybe naively) insensitive and very very problematic” – Yes, it is “indeed ‘racist’” but when it comes to analysing what kind of ‘evidence’ this advert provides or alludes to in terms of representing a culturally specific form of racism or “Chinese racism” is where we part ways.
I’m a black woman who has been living and working in China for three years. As a journalist here, I’ve taken great interest in the growing black and African presence in China and have researched this and defining differences between black “expat” life and black “migrant” life. I have interviewed a number of black people from the continent and diaspora, and having listened to countless black narratives, I am often suspicious of people arguing that racism doesn’t exist in China.
I do not argue that China is wholly a racist society, however I believe that racism is well and alive in a number of different arenas throughout China. I do not necessarily believe that racism should be critically analysed as “context based” either – this would open up a pandoras box of accessing who’s eyes and ears are beholding and defining these “contexts”. Evaluations of racism using this practice would undoubtedly be formed based upon positions of privilege or under-privilege, I do however understand the importance of acknowledging how multilayered and complex racism is and has become.
Considering racism to be “culturally specific” and so redefining what ‘racism’ is or resembles is dangerous territory. Yes, culturally, Chinese prefer lighter skin as it is traditionally acknowledged as a sign of wealth. Yes – “peasants were normally darker” in China which leads to discrimination against People of Colour or darker-skinned people, but the same can be said for parts of Africa, the Caribbean, India and so on. The classist theory, Castillo is right, will not suffice. And if the advert is simply invoking Chinese perceptions about class/dark skin, why was an African man cast, rather than a ‘dark’ native Chinese man from one of the many ethnic minority groups here in China?
Racism is not always covert, nor systematic or persistent. Racial prejudice or isolated acts of racial discrimination is a part of the make-up of racism and is not always institutionalised but can manifest itself in a number of ways. This includes, expressed thoughts and deeds that perpetuate ideals of Eurocentric beauty, superiority and the subjugation and discrimination of those that do not meet these ‘ideals’.
Overtly expressing your dislike for my broad nose and “dirty” skin because your cultural frame of reference deems my aesthetics so, does not make this kind of statement any less racist then if expressed covertly, behind closed doors, which was then systematically used with intent to deny me a privilege that someone else would later be offered. This is a rather simplified example but none the less, in principal, conveys my point.
Racial prejudice in China as a result of colonial and postcolonial “Imaginaries” of racial superiority doesn’t just look like racism – it is. Just like imperialist views of the East and Africa as primitive nations can be added to the many “global imaginaries” people contend with – naivety, and being “confused” as a result of this, would and does not stand as a legitimate rationale to maintain sentiments of racial prejudice or superiority over another.
The granting of privileges to one group while denying them to others transcends the systematic practices of institutions and does not entirely define what ‘racism’ is. Isolated forms of discrimination are indeed central to ‘racism’ and are too, ‘racist’ – the denial of a job as an educator because you’re black, the lack of freedom to walk down the street without being the subject of racial slurs, to be denied entry to a social space because your the ‘wrong’ colour, to be subject to tighter vetting/screening in work and social settings to that of your ‘white’ counterparts, to be dehumanised and represented as a stereo-typed caricature in an advert – ALL racist.
Many of the Chinese individuals who have kindly agreed to feature in my documentary have all been asked outrightly – Do you think racism exists in China? The prevailing answer is yes, the cause and impact, multilayered. Ignorance and lack of exposure are the themes that commonly raise their heads, however views that Africans, are dirty, smelly, uneducated sub-human criminals (often in the face of evidence that proves otherwise) cannot be reduced to an explanation rooted in “people in China are still very ignorant, naive or plainly idiotic”… [KEEP READING HERE]
3. Reply to: Why the racist Chinese ad MAY be just as racist as you think
By Roberto Castillo for AfricansInChina.Net
Nicole, as I told you in a previous conversation, I truly appreciate that you took the time to engage with some of the ideas that I shared on my blog. Here, I intend to give you a formal reply. I will leave it at the level of ‘post comments’, but feel free to reply as you find more convenient (if you want to reply at all).
Also, as I told you on Twitter, I agree with most of your ideas and I do not find that our pieces are in stark opposition but rather in a fruitful conversation. Rather than parting ways with you here, I am hoping to get our ideas and understandings closer. So, here I offer ‘my two-cents’, as you say, on certain aspects of your piece that called my attention (or that made me feel something). It is important to note, however, that I fully respect your insights, and appreciate your experiences in China. Here, I only intend to share with you what I think, in a fraternal way, rather than explaining/arguing that things are like this or that. I am also looking forward to see the work that I hear you have been doing.
For the sake of clarity, I have divided this reply in six sections.
First, I do believe that you dissected some of the things I wrote and approached them separately. Thus, at times taking them out of context, in order to make your argument. I am not fully against this, but I hope that by having extracted the paragraphs and quotations below, I have not done that to your writing.
Second, when I say that ‘I am often suspicious of people/students arguing that China is a ‘racist’ society’, I am referring to those – as noted in my post – that have never been to (or have little experience in) China. It is not uncommon to find people that arrive in China with many preconceived ideas (prejudices), and narratives about racism are amid these preconceptions (I partially did this 10 years ago). As Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong argue in this SMCP piece, people tend to generalise about a ‘Chinese tendency to be racist’. By me saying that I am suspicious 1) I am not absolutely denying the possibility that ‘racism’ could exist in China; 2) I am highlighting the fact that many people have prejudices about China and that I am not necessarily alright with that – at least not when I teach, or write.
I understand that you have it that China is not a ‘racist society’ but that ‘racism is well and alive in a number of different arenas throughout China’. I partially agree with you. Certain practices that could be read as ‘racist’ emerge in the experiences of different individuals (despite the darkness of their skin) in their journeys throughout the country (I have personally experienced this). Often, as you may agree, these practices affect and impact on the lives of foreigners (I personally did not get some jobs because I am not white). What strikes me from your discussion is your suggestion that ‘racism’ does not need to be critically analysed as ‘context based’. I read this as: racism does not need to be contextualised, correct me if I am wrong. It is almost impossible for me to accept this premise. It goes against my most fundamental beliefs about the need for different/multiple voices to fight oppression and hegemony (I hope not to sound academic/militant here but the need for critical contextualisation has been clear to me since before I got into academia – and it may as well be the reason why I abandoned my journalistic pursuit).
Having said this, I like to think that I understand where you are coming from when you talk about opening up “pandora’s box”. There is always the risk that people with more power would define/shape/lead the definition/interpretation of what anything is (i.e. as in when white people try to explain away racism in the ‘West’, I will come back to this below). I hope I am correctly interpreting your fear. In my understanding, in particular when we live in transnational spaces, this risk is higher if we do not fight to highlight the importance of contextualising.
Indeed, I find your (partial) rejection of the need for context in this case a bit paradoxical. My reading of your piece is that you are actually trying to provide certain context. Weren’t you trying to explain/argue whether or not ‘racism’ exists in China? (Or whether or not the ad is representative of deep-rooted ‘racism’?). To me, you are attempting to contextualise what you have found in China (e.g. the ad and other practices) using your background and your experiences as a ‘Black British’ woman and mixing them with your experiences in China. This is what I value most in your piece. However, since you are a journalist, it kind of troubles me that you may not recognise the need to contextualise such problematic issues as the ones we are discussing.
As I hinted in our tweet exchange, my take here is that if we fail to contextualise the racial prejudices and discrimination that (may) lead to what you call ‘racism’ in China, then, what are we talking about? Especially when this conversation is ‘global’.
If ‘we’ do not make an attempt to critically contextualise what you call ‘racism’, then what is ‘racism’? How are ‘we’ supposed to know what we’re talking about? And this ‘we’ is the bunch of people from different cultures/languages that have read both our pieces – and that are thinking through these issues right now. Is ‘racism’ self-explanatory/self-evident (globally)? Does it need no explanations? Is it a ‘given’ that ‘we’ all understand? Is it, then, something that exists by itself in ‘nature’ beyond all social constructions (how many times have I heard white people saying that ALL human societies are ‘racist’?)? And if so, how do ‘we’ understand it? Is there only one way to understand it? Who defines what is racism constituted of (or what qualifies as ‘racist’)?
If we do not provide context to certain practices that may be decoded by some people as ‘racist’, then are we supposed to import explanations from other places (e.g. other ‘contexts’) like Britain and the US? Wouldn’t this be ‘Eurocentric’? Yes, I know that I am taking this a bit too far, but there is a reason. I believe that if we do not attempt to contextualise we run the risk of allowing ‘Eurocentric’ (and by this here I don’t necessarily mean ‘white’) views to tell/impose a single story of what constitutes ‘racism’. The same goes for anything else that goes without contextualisation. I have been through a fair share of discrimination in my life to let things be explained by one single story/answer.
Now, contextualisation is not ‘evaluating’, as you seem to imply. To provide context is also not to ‘justify’, ‘defend’, or ‘splain away’, as an award winning journalist (Oh me God!) seemed to suggest on Twitter. To contextualise is to do away with monolithic explanations in the name of multiplicity and heterogeneity. Contextualisation serves to reject the Universal in light of the specific. In this day and age of hyper-communication and transnationality, I believe the work of contextualising to be of paramount importance. I cannot overemphasise how much I believe that by contextualising we are more likely to protect against powerful, hegemonic, voices taking over. So, if ‘racism’ is not a given and it is a social construction as I hope you will agree, then it follows that in different societies this complex and multilayered phenomenon would have ‘specific’ characteristics. Why not try to unveil/unearth/understand them in their specificity? Should we allow our anger (from ‘racist’ experiences elsewhere) to take us into a higher moral ground from where to judge other ‘culturally specific’ forms of ‘racialisation’?
Contextualising is important because if I try to contextualise your ‘rejection’ of the importance of context, then I may be able to understand that some people coming from histories oppression would be sick and tired of ‘contextualisation’ – especially when this ‘contextualisation’ has been historically performed by the oppressing group and used as a justification. Here, I am thinking of some white people in Australia (don’t know if it’s the same in Britain) when they attempt to ‘contextualise’ (in a justificatory sense) and diminish the violent, brutal and destructive history of their presence in the continent/island, in order to appease their own guilt (or to distance themselves from guilt). Had I grown up exposed to this type of ‘contextualisation’, I would certainly also reject contextualisation outright: ‘Enough’, I would cry. But when we go to other lands (or move in transnational settings), when we get immersed in other cultures, things are a bit different. Especially, when you go somewhere outside the ‘West’. I hope that you can see that in this case, I am not trying to ‘contextualise’ – in that justificatory sense – Chinese racial prejudice, and obviously I am not trying to appease my mind here. I am trying to understand the Chinese cultural context to see what happens, why it happens, what forms this may take in the future, and how to bloody fight this!
Anyway, I think it is enough with contextualisation (for the moment).
I do not want to get into definitions here. I have provided what I think is my understanding of ‘racism’ and I fully understand that you may have some things to ad to that. That is the beauty of exchanging ideas (Actually, I think that if we put our ideas together, we will get a more solid/robust argument, rather than a contrasting one). So, when you claim things like:
Racism is not always covert, nor systematic or persistent. Racial prejudice or isolated acts of racial discrimination is a part of the make-up of racism and is not always institutionalised but can manifest itself in a number of ways. This includes, expressed thoughts and deeds that perpetuate ideals of Eurocentric beauty, superiority and the subjugation and discrimination of those that do not meet these ‘ideals’.
Racial prejudice in China as a result of colonial and postcolonial “Imaginaries” of racial superiority doesn’t just look like racism – it is. Just like imperialist views of the East and Africa as primitive nations can be added to the many “global imaginaries” people contend with – naivety, and being “confused” as a result of this, would and does not stand as a legitimate rationale to maintain sentiments of racial prejudice or superiority over another.
Although, I find myself mostly in agreement, I have certain qualms. I strongly believe, for instance, that racial prejudice and racism are not the same thing. I noted this in my piece. Simply put, we all have prejudices and they do not always amount to (or transform into) racist views. Yes, when the expectations embedded in prejudice become institutionalised or internalised, then we can talk of an ‘-ism’. But that does not always happen. In the case of China, these types of prejudices (that we now call ‘racial prejudices’) date from before European contact and are exemplified by the ways in which the Han (which didn’t call themselves ‘Han’, then) imagined ‘otherness’ at the borders. As you may know, these prejudices got revamped and built into a more solid body of ‘knowledge’ (I like to think of it as a ‘body of stupidity’) after Chinese thinkers tried to accommodate Western racial theories with Confucianist hierarchies and ethnocentric perceptions of Chineseness.
I, as well as you, have interviewed (talked to) a number of black (and brown) people in China, and I have also listened to different narratives and experiences. Many of the people that I been working around and befriending have it that in China, once you learn the language and are able to perform ‘Chineseness’, things change. Prejudice (which I think is mainly an ignorant response) fades in both directions once you learn to communicate with Chinese. This is reported by most of my contacts and it is something I underwent my self while living in the country. Now, I am not saying that prejudice magically disappears once you speak Chinese, but things change – generally for good, ask around! Prejudice is different to racism in that it may transform, change, or even disappear (at the individual level). Racism, on the other hand, is – as you know – much more resilient and does not go away (easily), as American and European histories of (murderous and violent) racism show. In other words, prejudice tends to disappear when people meet and befriend (NOT in Europe? Well, maybe not). I wish racism could just fade like this.
Also, I have always felt that going to another country to impose your own views, even when they emerge out of your own struggles against oppression, is itself oppressing. I do not know what goes on in your circles, but if I have learnt something from Africans in China is that while many of them find issues of racial prejudice and discrimination, they are usually very careful when it comes to qualifying these practices as ‘racism’. This is a perception, I must disclose, that I found more amongst Africans that have lived many years in the country. From my conversations with both young and old, newcomers are more prone to interpret certain practices as ‘racist’.
All this makes me think of your point of racism being ‘well and alive in a number of different areas throughout China’. I wonder: when was the moment when you decided to qualify those things you saw in China as being ‘racist’ (or as evidence of ‘racism’)? Is there a process behind this statement? Did you get to this point after number of years/experiences? Did this feeling emerge early on in your sojourn in China? As you claimed in an interview for The China Africa Project, ‘being a Black British woman makes you be particularly sensitive to certain issues’. Did you allow some space for those issues not to take over your experiences and, more importantly, your interpretation of things you saw in China? Or, did you decide to use your British experience ‘lens’?
Subtext reading without context: Is the black male a ‘helper’?
I found your readings of the ‘subtext’ very interesting. As I told you during our brief exchange, I believe that in terms of reading subtexts (which is a 2nd or 3rd level of semiotic analysis), our backgrounds and experiences are crucial, and determine what we ‘read’. They provide a context to the ways in which we ‘decode’ meanings embedded in any cultural object (e.g. the ad). Here, I will go back a bit to the discussion on ‘contextualisation’. I believe that your reading of the ad (e.g. ‘that he is the “help” in the house and is over-stepping his boundaries) cries for some contextualisation. As I told you, my original reading was that he is the husband, boyfriend, or fiancée. This may emerge out of my own research. For the last 6 years, I have been working around many Africans that have married Chinese women and many live in nice apartments like the one in the ad. My question here is: without paying attention to the Chinese context (e.g. Black males are marrying Chinese women in many cities) how accurate is a reading of the subtext that places the black man as a ‘helper’? In the Chinese context, I would say, not very accurate. The ‘policing of Chinese femininity’, a point in which we both agree, is not interested in preventing Chinese woman from having affairs with the ‘help’ (btw, there’s no black helpers in China), this policing is more interested in telling Chinese women: ‘do not marry Blacks’, or ‘the ascending glittering Chinese man is your portion and what is good and right’, as you rightly put it.
As you may know, encoding and decoding (and ‘preferred readings’ and so on) are crucial stages in the process of communication. Cultural objects (like the ad) are greatly affected, thus, by the context in which they are produced, consumed, etc. A reading that places the Black man as the woman’s partner is the result of thinking in contextual terms. If I was a ‘Westerner’ that has never been to China, maybe I would have bought into your ‘help’ reading. You may disagree with this, and this may be due to diverging forms of decoding the ad… but you have to agree that a context-based reading makes more sense than a decontextualised one.
Here I want to comment on the following: ‘the choice to use an African man was a purposeful one and a reflection of the growing Afro-Phobia in different Chinese districts’. I am not going to dispute your view. You may as well think this. But really, a growing ‘Afro-phobia’? Why call it ‘Afro-phobia’?
You and I both know – as many a China watcher – that a lot of things have changed for foreigners in the country in the last couple of years, and most of them NOT for good. I am not an expert, but some people talk about a conservative backlash throughout the country. Some others even talk about the reactivation of behaviours last seen during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ (Mao forbid!). My friends in the English education sector in China report the radicalisation of measures of control in terms of content dissemination, as they had not seen in years (witch-hunting included). There are myriad factors involved here: among the most important, the crisis of over-production that the country is undergoing. In China, every time there is a crisis like this one, ethno-nationalistic fervour arises (gently stirred by the Party). Xenophobic attitudes and practices are often associated with these periods. (I went to Beijing a couple of months ago and, in all my years in China I have never sensed more tension against foreigners than this time. I did not sense the friendly environment I was used to when I lived there in 2009ish).
My point here is two fold: first, why talk about ‘Afro-phobia’ without considering a possibly wider phenomenon of ‘Xenophobia’? (Note: I’m not claiming that there is Xenophobia in China). Second, since you argue that this Afro-phobia is ‘growing’: What is the evidence behind this statement? You seem to suggest that practices such as job denials or ‘racial slurs’ are evidence of this ‘growing’ Afro-phobia. These things have been happening for a long time, and while they are horrible, I hardly see them as evidence of something ‘growing’. Here, I want to highlight that it is not only ‘black’ people that fail to get teaching jobs. This also happens to many non-white people, although, in all honesty we must highlight that there are a lot of ‘blacks’ and ‘browns’ actually teaching English in China (Yes, sometimes remote China, but still China). The way many Chinese see this, is that you fail to get the job because they are looking for a ‘white person’, not because you are ‘brown’ (I got this explanation a couple of times). Also, you did not bring this one up but the problem with taxis drivers not wanting to take black people is also often presented as ‘exhibit A’ of ‘racism’ in China. This also happens to non-black foreigners, a lot, and it is mostly a prejudice. So, how do you gauge this ‘growing’ Afro-phobia? I wonder.
Western media often frame these (and other) incidents as evidence that the Chinese are particularly ‘racist’, or that there is a specific form of ‘Chinese racism’. For me, this is profoundly problematic not only because it tries to justify racism in the ‘West’ by saying: ‘Oh, look, it also happens in China, and it’s a Chinese “form”‘; but also because it blurs the long standing historical racist practices and policies discriminating against Chinese. I am not sure that these incidents in China are symptoms of ‘Afro-phobia’ rather than perhaps (but most likely) some type of Xenophobia mixed with a whole host of other factors. I truly believe that there is no evidence whatsoever to claim the existence of a systematic form of ‘Chinese racism’. In a similar vein, I do not see any evidence as to an ‘Anti-African immigrant’ campaign in Guangzhou, as has been claimed by some academics. Talking about ‘Afro-phobia’ and ‘Anti-African campaigns’ always sells (and will attract media attention*) because it does two (tricky) things: first, it casts Chinese as ‘racist’; and second, Blacks as ‘victims’. This, needless to say, serves the purpose of both satisfying ‘Western’ fantasies about a ‘racist China’ (I call this #RacistChinaPorn), at the same time as it soothes/appeases the guilt of some people in the ‘West’.
I doubt that making claims such as the ‘growing Afro-phobia’ one is of any help to the general discussion and, more importantly, to the improvement of the issues we’ve been discussing here. Certainly not helpful if what you want to do is provide a clearer, comprehensive perspective on what is going on in China, as I like to think we do. (Actually, ‘Afro-phobia’ may work better to describe what is going in India, although I am not acquainted with the situation there). I personally believe that telling a more comprehensive, complex China (and Africans in China) story benefits us all and pushes forward in the struggles against different forms of oppression.
I really appreciate your engagement in this conversation, it has been a learning process for me.
* Because these narratives fit perfectly with the ‘China pollutes’, ‘China the despot’, ‘China the neo-coloniser’ narratives that racist fear-mongers in the West have historically spread about China (and without much self-critique of their own implication).
Ps. Yesterday I overheard this: “We always blame China and the Chinese for copying, not being original, not having the capacity to be original. So, why is it that in the case of this ad we don’t take the same approach? They’re just copying, it’s not theirs, then it’s not their fault.” – While I don’t necessarily agree with this, I thought it was an interesting comment on the ways that global discussions approach the ‘China thing’.
4. Black people in China organise round table to discuss #RacistChineseAd
5. Outrage over the #RacistChineseAd: what did we learn?
Roberto Castillo’s Reply
And 8 (early) things I learnt from the #RacistChineseAd row
6. Barry Sautman & Yan Hairong say #RacistChineseAd doesn’t make China racist
By Sautman & Yan for SCMP
By now, there has been a fairly comprehensive discussion of the racist ad produced by the detergent company Qiaobi that depicts the laundering of a “dirty” black man into a “clean” Chinese. Beyond condemning the ad, those of us in China should also call for its perpetrators to be sanctioned under Article 9 of China’s Advertising Law, which forbids ads containing discrimination based on nationality, race, religion or gender.
One key aspect of the discourse has yet to be treated, however – its political uses. One of us has been interviewed about the ad by journalists for several “top” Western news sources. The main question posed was whether it shows that “the Chinese are racist”.
As of 2010, there were 43 million companies in China. Not all advertise, but even if only 2 per cent do, that’s almost one million companies. Many firms have issued a multiplicity of ads. Arguably, no conclusion about racism among the 1.4 billion Chinese can be made based on a single ad. When racist ads or statements appear in the Western media – and there have been plenty – no one claims they show “the Americans”, “the French”, and so on, are racist.
That said, the question of whether a racist world view is more common among Chinese than among other people needs to be answered, if only because Western media foster that impression. The idea of unique Chinese racism has spread to such an extent that “Are the Chinese Racist?” is one issue taken up in the recent, useful book by Marte Kjær Galtung and Stig Stenslie, 49 Myths about China.
A few recent surveys relate to this question. A 2008 World Public Opinion survey done by the University of Maryland among people in 16 countries concluded that the Chinese rank among the top with the greatest support for the importance of equal treatment for different races and ethnicities, second only to Mexicans. China also has the second-largest majority who disagreed that employers have the right to discriminate based on race or ethnicity, and are among the largest majorities that favour their government making efforts to prevent racial and ethnic discrimination.
A 2016 Amnesty International survey about refugees found that among people in 27 countries, Chinese were the most welcoming: almost half said they would welcome refugees to stay in their homes, compared to one in 10 among the whole sample.
In a study a few years back, scholars in Kansas, United States, and those in several Chinese cities applied the standard psychological instrument used to measure ethnocentricity. They found that Kansas university students were much more ethnocentric than their peers at the Chinese universities.
These surveys do not “prove” Chinese on the whole are less racist than other peoples. They do indicate, however, that it is spurious to imply, without substantial evidence, that racist views are more common among Chinese, not to speak of insinuating that Chinese in general are racist.
What much of the discourse in the West about the racist detergent ad has sought to do is most likely for political reasons. If, instead, the issue is being framed in that way to self-aggrandise Westerners, it is ironic. Europe is where African and African-descended people are particularly subject to violent racist victimisation.
According to the newspaper Die Zeit, more than 130 people, some Africans, were killed in racist street violence in Germany from 1990 to 2008. A study by US criminologist Richard Arnold noted that in Russia, in 2012 alone, racist skinheads killed 187 people. Such violence is far from rare in several other European countries as well. Attacks in Europe, as well as against African students in India and Malaysia, contrast with what African students in China have told us; they are generally able to move about in relative safety.
In discussing the racist detergent ad then, not only should generalising be eschewed, but the ad itself and the relationship of Chinese and people of African descent must also be seen in its larger context.
Barry Sautman is a professor in the Division of Social Science at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology. Yan Hairong is an associate professor in the Department of Applied Social Sciences at Hong Kong Polytechnic University
7. US media outrage over detergent ad is pot calling the kettle black
“Chinese television commercial was certainly offensive and racist but criticism from America – which was founded on slavery – is a bit rich”
By Alex Lo for SCMP
The Qiaobi detergent TV commercial on the mainland is indeed racist and offensive. Yet, even more interesting, is why it seems to provoke outrage only in the US media and not anywhere else in the world.
US and English-language news media have been quick to report on the commercial, yet few bother to tell their audiences that the long version with the black actor that went viral online was never broadcast; only the shorter version was shown without him.
Americans are quick to condemn.
The popular Vox.com waxed indignant: “This ad is blatantly racist… it’s also a reminder that attitudes over race and skin colour in China can be very bad.”
CNN editorialised along a similar vein.
By now, you have probably seen the viral version. A muscular black man whistles and winks at an attractive young Chinese woman. She calls him over, puts a detergent packet in his mouth, and pushes him headfirst into a washing machine. She then sits on the lid while the man shrieks and the washing machine spins. Moments later a young, Asian-looking man emerges in clean clothes, and the woman grins.
I don’t know about you but I find the Idris Elba-lookalike black actor far sexier and attractive than the effeminate lady boy that came out of the washer.
Still, what’s intriguing is the US news media blasting China for being racist towards blacks, and the commercial is being offered as Exhibit A.
That’s a bit rich coming from a country that was founded on black slavery, whose devastating legacy still haunts the current generation. Thirty-seven per cent of prison inmates in the US are African-Americans, though they make up only 13 per cent of the total population. Blacks on average live five years less than whites. A typical white family has a net worth of US$134,200, while a black one scrapes by with slightly more than US$11,000. US police killed at least 102 unarmed black people last year; unarmed blacks are five times more likely to be killed by police than unarmed whites. Such awful statistics roll on and on.
What you have is a politically correct media that helps to hide the underlying racism running deep in American society and projects it on to other countries.
China has racial problems. But murderous racism against blacks is not one of them.
8. Context matters: The racist laundry ad was ignorant, but so were the reactions
I am as black as black could ever get, I am from the factory of black people; sub-saharan Africa. But I was not offended by the Chinese laundry commercial which recently caused such an uproar among netizens, at least when I decided to take off my liberal western saint’s spectacles. For those who have not seen it, the commercial in question portrays a nice looking black man trying to seduce a Chinese woman. After kissing him, the Chinese woman pops some detergent into his mouth and quickly pushes him down into the washing machine, and then the black man is transformed into a ‘cleaner’ pale Chinese man. Ignoring the plot plagiarism for a minute, I think it is important to discuss what happens when symbols are interpreted outside the context they are created. Those who might have tried to ask questions of their Mainland Chinese friends about the commercial might have realized one common theme, namely that the commercial was worthy of one thing: a laugh and that is it, nothing more, but why?
Overnight, the Western media and western-influenced netizens had jumped on their high horses condemning the Chinese for being racist. The west for a moment felt good that they now had an equal competitor for racism – well, I have some bad news. No-one in this world can yet to compete for the trophy of racism with the West.
The outcry among netizens was indeed a ‘clash of ignorances’. The ignorance of the Chinese in using racial stereotypes whose connotations outside China they did not understand, and the ignorance of the West in quickly judging Chinese affairs through a western lens. Race carries totally different connotations in China than elsewhere. In the West, with its history of colonization and slavery, I understand why people get so sensitive about racial issues. Take for example how hair is politicized especially in Great Britain, and a comment or a simple question which seems to enquire about someone’s hair, especially short kinky hair, might cause an uproar.
But if this same enquiry happened in China, one needs to step back and get the context right. In China this is just a question of curiosity, and carries none of that racialized ideas that would cause an outcry in the US or UK. I tend to spend more time with kids in Hong Kong, and it’s not uncommon for kids to call each other names like, ‘fat pig’, or to refer to their more tanned friends as black. And this is all that it means, it simply means fat pig or black kid, nothing more. It does not reflect any superiority complexes or some repressed unconscious secret Ku Klux Klan within, using Freud’s terms, if you may.
Are there racial classifications and hierarchy in China? Yes, there are, but they are totally different from the western notions of race. Many Chinese can’t even differentiate between a dark Sri Lankan and a dark Zimbabwean like me, not to mention how much time I take unsuccessfully explaining to a Chinese friend the difference between a South Indian and Will Smith. “Come on, look at the hair”, I would say, and she would take a closer look but she just would just shake her head, afraid to disappoint me, seeing how much conviction I had about racial issues.
I took another 15 minutes at a local university trying to explain the differences between Latinos and Caucasians within an American context but they just could not see any differences between any of them. I would argue that the racial hierarchy that might exist in the Chinese context is mainly influenced by the earlier upper class/peasant life styles in early China, with lighter skin being more admirable not because they saw whites, but because they saw the Chinese upper class; the rich, who spent more time indoors and therefore had lighter skin than the peasants who spent all day tilling the fields.
Western whiteness was equally as ghostified and undesired as every other non-Chinese look. Yes, there has been some aspiration to whiteness recently but this is not as we might imagine. Whiteness is a symbol of wealth, not because white people are considered to have money, no!, but because the richer Chinese have been historically lighter in skin. If you do not trust me yet, here is another example. If a black person goes to China, most Chinese might have racial prejudice if they assume they hail from Africa, as Africa symbolizes poverty; no money. This is not because they are racist, but something else. If that black person reveals maybe that they are from the beautiful country, as they call America, all of a sudden the experiences of that black person would be different. They expect that they have money and that they should treat them with more respect.
If a white person, whom they would have assumed is from the beautiful country, later reveals that they are from Feizhou (Africa). First the shock that there are white people in Feizhou, then the respect bar drops like a hot brick. Chinese people are classist: money determines how one is treated. Period! Yes, the global market plus advertising has been playing a bigger role in shaping skin desirability among the Chinese but these desires carry relatively different connotations from those that the west imagines.
Many times, my black friends claim that the Chinese are racist because they will not sit next to them in the train or because they pinch their noses when they sit next to them or are just awkwardly ridiculous. Well, these things happen, but not only to black people but to everyone who is a foreigner in China, no matter your color, even if you are a green person, you can expect to face the same treatment as every other foreigner in China. And just to add, foreigners eat different foods and yes, their sweat smells differently and pinching one’s nose, as much as it shows ignorance, does not reflect any racism. As a side note, I believe the domestic migrants in China face even worse discrimination and harsher consequences from prejudice, and yes, it has to do with how much money one is assumed to have.
In the end, contextualization is very important. Seeing Chinese issues through a western lens does nothing but show how much ignorance is rampant in the west. There is as much ignorance in China as there is in the west, and the explosion around the laundry commercial was just a result of the ‘clash of these two ignorances’: the Chinese being ignorant of what the racial notions they are playing with may mean outside their context and the Western-influenced being ignorant of how things are differently understood in China. The West should probably get off their high horses, there is not any competitor fit enough to fight for the racism trophy, the west is still the champion.
If there are any traces of racism in China, they are a result of the global market, but what we often misinterpret as racism is simply classism. Words or images without context mean nothing, images viewed in the wrong context cause more harm than good. The N word means different things in Nigeria than what it means in America, and these meanings are constructed historically and socially, and making the mistake that when a Nigerian uses the N word it means the same as the American use might cause other consequences of a clash of ignorances. The word kaffir means something totally different everywhere else than its meaning in South Africa. Words and images mean nothing in themselves, but the meanings we ascribe to them gives them meaning, and rarely do we have the same concepts when we show the same images or say the same words, and that is why contextualizing every image is very important in the 21st century.
9. The notorious Qiaobi: behind the scenes of an “ad controversy” foretold?
A Chinese detergent company’s TV ad, which was reportedly screened on China’s TV stations and before movies in Wanda cinemas in May, has generated international attention. The commercial for Qiaobi 俏比 washing powder began to draw attention on 26th May when it was spotted by the online publication Shanghaiist, and then uploaded on Youtube, where it hit 2 million views in just one day. And this happened not for its positive qualities: BuzzFeed was the first to “honour” it with the title of “the most racist ad of 2016”.
The ad story was soon covered by international media sites – including BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera – and commented on by netizens all over the world, also through reaction videos. As a result, the debate also took off on Chinese social media: the notorious Qiaobi ad –redubbed as “the most racist ad ever” – not only was under the world’s scrutiny, but it was also being read as a mirror of racism in the country (in a political way). On 27 May, Mr. Wang – a representative of the company that owns the brand – said that the ad actually never intended to promote racial discrimination, and that foreign media were possibly being too sensitive about it. The following day, though, the company formally apologised with a Chinese-language statement published on the brand’s Weibo account, which caused another wave of indignation.
The 50-second ad opens on a young Chinese woman loading her top-load washing machine, while a cheerful accordion tune is played in the background; some laundry liquid detergent and colourful boxes are displayed behind her (the brand names have been deliberately blurred). A young black man passes by her flat; when he sees her, he stops at the entrance and starts winking and whistling at her from a distance. Because his face and t-shirt are covered with paint (moreover, he is also holding a brush and a can of paint) it is logical to assume that he has been decorating the interior of a flat (or, less probably, hers). She invites him to come nearer – a move that he visibly appreciates – suggesting an imminent seduction, but just as they are about to exchange a kiss, she places something that looks like a green mint candy in his mouth. Immediately, but less gracefully, she shoves him into the washing machine: then she sits on it and waits.
At this point, the music stops: the sound of the man screaming is clearly discernible from the background noise of the washing machine spinning. On the visual code, the advertised product is revealed: Qiaobi laundry gel balls (contained in the colorful boxes depicted before). Once the spinning cycle is over, the Chinese woman opens the washing machine and a young Chinese man emerges from the drum, in front of her astonished – yet pleased – eyes, and to an energetic, gripping tune. The Chinese man is wearing a flawless, clean white t-shirt, and he hands back the detergent ball she had placed into the black man’s mouth (which we now recognise as the advertised product). He winks at her, and, in doing so, a cartoon-style sparkle magically appears. The last scene of the ad depicts the packaging and the product, and a cartoon-style animated dolphin – the pictogram of Qiaobi’s logo. The pay-off: “Change starts from Qiaobi” (gaibian cong Qiaobi kaishi 改变从俏比开始) appears on the screen, and a slightly altered version is announced by the voice-over: “Change is just a Qiaobi laundry gel ball” (gaibian zhishi yike Qiaobi xiyi rongzhu 改变只是一颗俏比洗衣溶珠). The closing shot shows the national hotline number to call for further information.
When I first watched the commercial I immediately recognised it as very similar to – yet different from – two previous ad campaigns for the machine fabric dyes by Coloreria Italiana, namely: “Coloured is Better: What Women Want” (2006) and “Coloured is Better: la Vendetta” (2007). As Mr. Aldo Biasi – the president of the advertising agency – explained to me in a telephone interview, these ads were originally circulated on some minor Italian websites on Women’s Day. The creative idea of transforming a scrawny white husband into a buff black man made an explicit use of race-based sexual stereotypes and had a deliberate ironic intent. In Mr. Biasi’s opinion, this is not the case of the Chinese ad, which he described as “a blatant ripoff with an offensive twist”. The Qiaobi ad not only follows the same storyline but, for the first half, even uses the same background copyrighted music (including the diegetic screaming sound!): this makes it quite difficult to believe that neither the company nor the creative team had never seen the original ads before, as they claimed. The company’s official statement makes no reference to the ripoff, but some Weibo-users pointed their fingers at its reprehensible, careless attitude in blatantly copying another campaign, and even expressed skepticism towards the “professionalism” of the team who created and produced the ad. These are important details that need to be contextualised in the light of China’s official discourse on developing creative advertising, that is being promoted by the authorities to boost a national creative industry and improve the qualitative standards of advertising – also through a new system of professional accreditation.
The main substantive difference compared with the Italian ads is that the reversal of the racial transmogrification- from a black (African) man to a fair-skinned (Chinese) man. This is precisely the aggravating factor that fuelled the allegations of racism and fury online, mainly outside China. Some viewers recognised in the Qiaobi ad the distinctive features of commodity racism, a “creative strategy” that is nothing new in the West – as the infamous campaigns forPears’ Soap in 19th Century England demonstrate.
In China though, as explained by Prof. Liu Junhai, racial sensitivity among advertisers and the public is lower than in Western countries. This race-related ad controversy is unprecedented in the country, and the rather banal reason is that the Chinese advertising world is characterised by the almost exclusive portrayal of the Han 汉 people (even though the Qiaobi ad is not the first to depict a black person).
Interestingly, the black man doesn’t appear in the short version of the ad: the “innocuous” version depicting only the Chinese man and the product (unfortunately now unavailable) is actually the one that was screened on China’s satellite TV stations. The longer version gained attention when the independent photographer Benoit Florençon uploaded it on Youtube. In the light of the Chinese government’s recent campaign to clean up e-commerce and online ads (also as a response to the Wei Zexi incident), it might seem surprising that the ad was not stopped earlier.
Apparently, on 5th March this year, the brand’s Weibo account published the following soft-porn-sounding pre-campaign anticipation: “This is the story of a ‘love triangle’ between a black uncle, a little fresh meat, and a sexy goddess” (Zhe shi yi ge jiangshu hei shushu, xiao xianrou, xinggan nvshen de ‘sanjiao lian’ gushi 这是一个讲述黑叔叔、小鲜肉、性感女神的‘三角恋’故事). This teaser provides some useful clues for decoding how the protagonists have been typified (and stereotyped) in the ad. The three nicknames come from Internet slang and equally evoke some sexual connotations: heishushu 黑叔叔 (literally: “black uncle”) is used in this context as “black daddy”; xiao xian rou 小鲜肉 indicates a young guy with fair skin and innocent looks; xinggan nüshen 性感女神 indicates a sexy woman who is beautiful and seductive.
The primary function of advertising, elementary as it sounds, is to persuade consumers to buy a certain product (or service). Nonetheless, this might be quite challenging for a relatively new, small start-up like the Shanghai-based Leishang Cosmetics Co., Ltd.: neither the company nor the Qiaobi brand are especially well known to Chinese consumers, as demonstrated by the basic questions on the product posted by prospective buyers on Baidu, the scarcity of content provided on the brand’s website, and the unimpressive number of followers of its Weibo account. As China’s laundry care market is characterized by mounting competition, the company decided to position itself through the launch of a new product: the laundry gel ball, promoted as “a healthy and trendy new experience” (jiankang shishang xin tiyan 健康时尚新体验), in contrast to traditional liquid detergents. The target audience consists of young consumers, who do their purchasing online. The word “change” (gaibian 改变) in the pay-off, therefore, should not be interpreted exclusively as linked to the racial transmogrification, but also to the new product and washing habits of the Chinese. Needless to say, the end of breaking through the market doesn’t justify the means. However, it constitutes another detail that needs to be taken into account.
Giovanna Puppin is Lecturer and Programme Director of the MA Media and Advertising, Department of Media and Communication, University of Leicester. She researches Chinese advertising and promotional culture, with a focus on issues of representation, identity, and power. Picture and video: Youtube/Qiaobi.
10. Ignorance of race not equivalent to racism
By Li Anshan 李安山
Recently, a detergent ad appeared on Chinese TV that depicts a Chinese woman placing a black man in a washing machine, and when she opens the lid, she finds that his color has been “washed away,” revealing he’s actually a Chinese man underneath.
The ad has been denounced as racist in China and abroad, and there has been heated debate online among members of the google-email group named “chinese-in-africaafaricans-in-china.” As a Chinese scholar, I would like to share my thoughts with colleagues.
After more than 30 years of opening-up, China is still facing serious challenges in its dealings with the outside world. Ignorance is persistent, and some Chinese harbor prejudices toward not just Africans but people from other continents as well.
As a historian, I look to history for a broader perspective. The Chinese have by no means been free of prejudice and discrimination against foreigners. Historically self-centered and conceited, the Chinese have looked down upon outsiders and used condescending labels for the people who lived in surrounding lands. China’s name in Mandarin is zhongguo, meaning “Middle Kingdom,” implying it is at the center, and those who lived outside of it were dismissed as “barbarians.”
To the extreme, foreigners have been called gui, meaning “devil,” with the connotation that they are inhuman or evil. Blacks have been called fannu, or “barbarian slaves;” hei gui, meaning “black devils,” and Kunlun nu, or “Kunlun slaves.”
White people have been called yang guizi, meaning “foreign devil;” hong mao gui, meaning “red-haired devil;” fangou, “barbarian dog;” and gui lao, “devil man” and gui po “devil woman.”[i] Keeping this in mind, we can see that in the ancient time, Chinese prejudice has not been confined to blacks but also includes whites or any cultural others.
We have to admit that ethnocentrism is a universal phenomenon in Europe, the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australasia that is rooted in the cultural environment of the people. Contrary to William Graham Sumner’s notion of the term, ethnocentrism is an attitude or action of a human group who regard themselves as normal, beautiful and clever while looking down upon others.
Ethnocentrism is common among people who are isolated and incapable of achieving mutual understanding, and it was especially evident in ancient times. People always think the highest of their own kind without exception. The Romans looked at all non-Romans as barbarians, and the Greeks regarded themselves as the most civilized. Like the Chinese, the Indians thought they were living in the center of the world at one time. Africans were also prejudiced against whites. According to Ibn Battuta, Malian cannibals did not eat whites since “eating a white man is harmful because he is not ripe.” Winnie Mandela, the former wife of Nelson Mandela, told us in her book that the first racist she met was her grandmother, who thought white people’s pale skin and blue eyes were the symptom of some disease. There are similar cases today.
Ethnocentrism is understandable in a situation where people lack contact and an understanding of others. It is another thing when ethnocentrism is converted into racism, which was harnessed by modern colonialism to justify the military, political and economic domination of foreign people.[ii]
The overwhelming majority of Chinese people are ignorant of Africa, and there are quite a few misunderstandings. But we have to be cautious about labelling “the Chinese” as racist, since there are different cases of ignorance, misunderstanding, prejudice and racism. Ignorance alone is not equivalent to racism.
In an interview with The Atlantic, Ghanaian student Zahra Baitie recounted her experience in China and discussed the Chinese attitude toward Africans. She said that although there are good relations between China and Africa on governmental level, “on a person-to-person basis, ignorance, misunderstanding, and intolerance still persist……” Yet she stated “I never felt discriminated against or antagonized, but rather was treated with warmth and friendliness. Because I spoke Mandarin, I could often understand what people said about me, and they were rarely disparaging or maligning.”[iii] This observation of the Chinese attitude toward African is verified in other cases.
Yiwu, known as China’s biggest commodity city, set up a Foreign Dispute Mediation Office in order to settle up disagreements in business. The office uses volunteer mediators from different nations. A Senegalese businessman named Tirera Sourakhata and his African colleague volunteered for the program.[iv] The website Guancha reported the story of this successful African businessman who speaks French, English, Arabic and Chinese serving as volunteer-mediator in Yiwu market and the comments from readers were overwhelmingly positive.[v] Readers showed ignorance and curiosity obviously, but there was not discrimination.
Another incident perfectly illustrates the difference between benign ignorance and malicious prejudice. An old lady in Shanghai Madame Zhu picked up an abandoned black infant and brought him home. She thought his black skin was merely dirty and tried to wash him clean. When she found this was not possible, she was scared and thought he had some illness, so she took him to the hospital. The doctor told her that the child’s skin is black.
She named the child Zhu Junlong and brought him up through kindergarten, primary school and middle school with various difficulties. In 2014, Zhu Junlong received a Shanghai hukou, or household registration, and Madame Zhu adopted him as her son. Zhu loved the child as her own though she initially did not understand that he was even of a different race.[vi]
Regarding the attitude towards other people/culture, there are many positive and negative cases today. As the nation becomes increasingly open and ordinary people are exposed to other cultures through global media and interpersonal exchanges, the widespread ignorance that is often mistaken for racism will become a thing of the past.
Note: [i] Zhou Zikui, a Jinshi (a successful candidate in the highest imperial examinations) in the late Ming Dynasty even thought that xiyang ren (the Europeans) cannot be called yi (barbarians), can only be termed qin (birds and beasts), because barbarians were still human beings, and Europeans were not human beings.
[ii] Li Anshan, “African Diaspora in China: Reality, Research and Reflection”, The Journal of Pan African Studies, 7:10 (May, 2015), pp.10-43.
[iii] Zahra Baitie, “On being African in China”http://www.theatlantic.com/china/archive/2013/08/on-being-african-in-china/279136/. Accessed on 2 Feb. 2015.
[iv] Chen Lan, “Foreigners help foreigners like non-foreigners.” Zhejiang Legal News, 24 June, 2014. http://zjfzb.zjol.com.cn/html/2014-06/20/content_76949.htm?from=timeline&isappinstalled=0. For English report, see http://szb.ywnews.cn/html/2015-02/11/content_6_6.htm; http://newscontent.cctv.com/NewJsp/news.jsp?fileId= 280958, Accessed on 24 Feb., 2015.
[v] “Senegalese merchant turned out to be a foreign mediator for the dispute mediation commission in Yiwu”, http://www.guancha.cn/video/2015_02_04_308534.shtml, Accessed on 24 Feb. 2015.
[vi] “Shanghai old woman raised an abandoned black boy for 15 years with love beyond family bond”, http://world.huanqiu.com/photo/2014-06/2736818.html. Accessed on March 12, 2015.
11. Response to “Ignorance of race not equivalent to racism” by Li Anshan
By Gregory Scott and Luyolo Sijake for the From Africa to China blog
After reading Professor Li’s piece “Ignorance of race not equivalent to racism”, we, as people of African descent from highly racialized societies currently living in China, felt it necessary to address and respond to some of the issues raised in the piece. In addition to being a response to Professor Li’s piece, the purpose of this article is to draw attention to attitudes and behaviours that are present in China that embody the foundations of racialism. Through this article, we also aim to emphasize the urgent need to address ignorance and racism in China, phenomena that by no means simply fade with time and greater exposure to other groups. We present the view that racism and ignorance are in fact fundamentally interconnected. As foreigners who have had various positive experiences in China, we write this article principally in the spirit of mutual understanding.
The core of Prof Li’s article rests on the idea that a clear distinction should be drawn between ignorance and racism. It is certainly the case that groups from all parts of the world hold incorrect perceptions of people they are unfamiliar with, but the problem is that these misconceptions, this ‘ignorance’, necessarily shapes the way in which people treat one another. So when a commercial like the Qiaobi detergent commercial re-enforces the notion that all people of African descent are dirty and not acceptable as they are, it is not difficult to connect the dots between this view of ‘black people’ and their mistreatment, or discrimination against them. Whilst curiosity itself is benign, ignorance is always bad. Even though it is true that ignorance of race isn’t necessarily equal to racism, it is undeniable that ignorance has underpinned some of history’s worst racially driven atrocities. Are these acts to be excused, citing ignorance as the justification?
It was unfortunate to see that most references Prof Li chose to make to the African continent and its people were negative. As done in the detergent advertisement, the stock photo used for the article further perpetuates a particular stereotype often used to portray the entire African continent. The photo icon that accompanies the article on Wechat shows a malnourished boy with unidentified sacks in the background, implying, among other things, that the African continent can be summed up as being in a perpetual state of abject poverty. In fact, Africa is the world’s fastest-growing continent with 5.6% GDP growth per year, and GDP is expected to rise by an average of over 6% per year between 2013 and 2023. Over one-third of Sub-Saharan African countries posted 6% or higher growth rates, and another 40% have grown at 4% to 6% per year. This is a clear sign of growing prosperity.
It is no myth that Africa has and continues to suffer from a range of problems due to ethnocentricity that have led to hostility towards foreigners and has even caused tensions among different groups on the continent. However, to frame ethnocentricity in Africa by using the example of Malian cannibals as a comparative case to the great ancient empires of Italy, Greece, India, and China is frankly insulting. There was no lack of affluent empires in Africa prior to the advent of European colonialism and subsequent unending expropriation of resources. Mali, home to Timbuktu, is a good example. In its golden age, the town’s numerous Islamic scholars and the extensive trading network made possible an important book trade to which the Sankore Madrasah campus contributed greatly. This established Timbuktu as a globally renowned scholarly centre.
In addressing ethnocentricity in China as it relates to appearance, in particular, it would be misleading to assert that Chinese people today view themselves as the benchmark for beauty. Everywhere you look, western symbols of success, power or beauty are glaringly present in the cars people drive, clothes they wear and the way they seek to appear physically. There are arguably no persistent prejudices harboured by newer Chinese generations towards people of European descent. At the time of the ‘reform and opening up’, these prejudices may have been palpable, but 30 years later one can see that European culture has influenced China immensely.
It would appear that all things European have become the touchstone by which many things are judged. Almost every status symbol in modern China is American or European. As one walks down the street in Chaoyang district, Beijing’s richest district, one can see many different models of Audi and Porsche roar past you on the street. Here one often walks by women using Louis Vuitton and Chanel bags, donning jewellery bought from NYC-based jewellery store, Tiffany’s. Prejudice towards Europeans has been transformed into a pursuit of status and power through the obtaining of everything European and American. Plastic surgery is also more and more common in China. Jawline restructuring, nose realignment, and double eyelid surgery are common procedures undergone by more affluent Chinese women often in pursuit of a typically European appearance. So even in the world’s second-largest economy, with a population of over one billion incredibly hardworking, beautiful people, the beauty standard has been imported from nearly 4000 miles away.
It is also in areas that should have nothing to do with appearance where people of African and even Asian descent, among others, are the victims of mistreatment or discrimination resulting from “ignorance” amongst Chinese people. This is exceedingly evident in the English teaching market in China where eloquent ‘non-white’ English speakers and highly qualified English teachers are often denied jobs in favour of less or equally competent ‘white’ people who often times aren’t even from English speaking countries. Judging someone’s ability based on their colour is one of the clearest forms of racism that exist. Here we clearly see the key problem in how ‘ignorance’ translates directly into discriminatory behaviour. The fact that Chinese parents make decisions about their children’s education based on how someone looks as opposed to their credentials should be concerning. Are we to say that this too should be excused as an act of ignorance? The conclusion drawn in the article that racist acts by Chinese people should somehow not be considered racist is clearly questionable.
It thus follows that the way in which Chinese people view and refer to people of African descent cannot be compared to the way in which they refer to ‘white’ people. Sternberg, Grigorenko & Kidd (2005) states, “Race is a socially constructed concept, not a biological one. It derives from people’s desire to classify.” The term “heiren” in Mandarin Chinese is a term often used by Chinese people when referring to people they deem to be of African descent. The inherently racist term “hei ren” conflates an entire continent of nearly one billion people with 54 different nations, 3000 distinct languages, and a global diaspora that includes an additional 200 million plus people spread throughout the world on nearly every continent and refers to them with the over reductive term “hei ren”. Rarely are foreigners of European descent referred to as “bai ren” (white people) but rather as “lao wai” or “wai guo ren”, simply “foreigner”. Despite these terms having xenophobic origins they are far more respectful of the variation that exists amongst ‘white’ people, who are nearly one billion of the world’s 7 billion plus people – the same proportion as black people on the planet.
The conclusion in Prof Li’s article that the misconceptions held towards people of African descent will dissipate with the passing of time and greater exposure to different people is deeply problematic, it would, in fact, make more sense that these attitudes become exacerbated with greater exposure. We have only to look at societies like the USA and South Africa to understand that even where different racial groups have been in contact for centuries some of the most inconceivable misconceptions and deep-rooted forms racism persist. We write this article in the hope that these kinds of misconceptions, myths, and fallacies will not shape the future that lies ahead in this increasingly globalised society.
12. “RACIST” OR “NOT-RACIST,” THE BETTER QUESTION IS WHETHER RACISM IS BEING (RE)-PRODUCED OR DECONSTRUCTED IN CHINA
By Derek Sheridan for Node to Node
The scandal of the Qiaobi ad has come and already largely passed. If scandals have replaced collective rituals as moments of social reproduction (as my old professor at Chicago John MacAloon claimed), then the debate over the ad has done its work in bringing back to life the online community of commentators, scholars and practitioners following , studying and practicing relationships between Africa and China. But like other online scandals, the discussion has already begun to move onto other topics. The details of the advertisement have already been widely summarized: a Chinese woman places a Qiaobi detergent capsule in a black man’s mouth (it is implied but ultimately unclear if he is a boyfriend/husband etc.) and stuffs him in a washing machine. At the end of the cycle, a “cleaned” Chinese man emerges. The ad is a direct copy of an earlier Italian ad which merely reverses the transformation (a frail white Italian man is transformed into a muscular black man). The trope of “washing” black skin to make it white has of course appeared before in Western advertising. And asDai Na-Mei reminds us, a hospitalized Franz Fanon once described a nightmare he had of having been “put through the washing machine.”
The controversy over the advertisement has centered on either the racism of its content, or racism within Chinese society. This has meant both the use of the ad to demonstrate/confirm that racism exists in China, and the use of contextualization to argue in myriad ways that the ad, or at least Chinese society at large, is “not as racist as you think.” The responses to the ad in either case have grappled with the question, “Are the Chinese racist?” This may not be the best question to ask. The better question would be, “Where and how is race and racism being (re)produced in Chinese society, and where and how is it being deconstructed?” Race and racism are the products of social interactions and inequalities rather than simply a set of prejudiced attitudes. The response to the controversy, however, has focused primarily on the latter, contributing to the conflation of racism with ignorance. This is not surprising. “Racism” is frequently talked about as a set of problematic attitudes or opinions that a person may possess in varying degrees, rather than an assemblage of systematic practices (including discourses) which produce inequalities based on constructed notions of race.
In conflating racism with “ignorance” or “attitudes,” the debate has been less about the quality of relationships between Chinese and Africans/African-descendant people, and more about the identity ofChinese in a global hierarchy of tolerance and civility. A reason for this is that the primary reference point for any discussion about “race” in China is the history of Western imperialism, and the fact that “Whiteness” continues to inform global hierarchies of value. Whatever genealogies to racial thought in Chinese history, it is near impossible to talk about them today except through the lens of the standard set by Western racism. This is true not only for foreign observers who interpret Chinese attitudes based on their experiences in the United States or Europe, but also for Chinese. What this means is that these debates also are about the identity ofEuropeans and European-descendant peoples, against which Asian racism serves as either the dark attic of their own “forgotten” stereotypes (i.e. the afterlives of Darkie Toothpaste and Sambo in Asia), or the “they-do-it too” validation for racist ideology.
A routine debate has unfolded on a China-Africa listserv I follow between those arguing the Qiaobi ad is indicative of a problematic discourse of race in China, and those arguing the reaction to the Qiaobi ad is indicative of a problematic Western discourse about racism in China. On close examination, there are actually a number of facts the two sides seem to agree on, but as is often the case with international scandals involving Africa-China, “East-West” tropes of geopolitical competition leads any particular commentary to be suspiciously read by some as either apologia or driven by covert political motivations.
If there is one thing people have (mostly) agreed on is the need forcontextualization, to avoid blanket statements like “the Chinese are racist.” How one contextualizes is another matter. Robert Castillo has offered a good overview of the different “readings” and “explanations” usually offered to explain incidents of anti-black racism in China. The first is that what looks like “racism” is better understood as “colorism,” an aesthetic preference for fair skin originating in the association between darker skin and working under the sun, and therefore, “classism.” The second is that it is rooted in historical prejudices towards darker skinned southerners (which were extended towards Africans in the late 19th/early 20thcentury via Western racial theories). The third explanation is that Chinese anti-black attitudes are informed by Western racism, popularly expressed as the “Hollywood-made-me-racist” argument. Castillo supplies an additional explanation concerning the Qiaobi ad in particular: “policing Chineseness, and the policing of Chinese femininity.” A potential union between a Chinese woman and a black male (it is unclear in the ad whether he is from Africa or not) is “corrected” by producing a Chinese man. The fact he is a Chinese man rather than a “white” European (an imagined alternative to the ad Chinese internet commentators sardonically suggested) suggests that in addition to the invocation of global racial hierarchies, there is the anxiety of Chinese women looking outside the population of Chinese males. This was in fact a major theme of the 1988 (male) anti-black riots in Nanjing, as Castillo points out. His assessment of these explanations is that each is simplistic in isolation, and he is right to identify the problem with “global (colonial and postcolonial) imaginaries of racial superiority” rather than a distinctively Chineseracism. It is never an either/or. Expressions of racial prejudice can emerge from the intersection of multiple forms of discrimination.
The practice of contextualizing racism, however, raises the question of how one chooses to define racism and where one locates it. Castillo defines racism in terms of structural racism, and draws a distinction between that and the surface manifestations of racial prejudice. Based on his experience and research with the African community in Guangzhou, he argues that systemic anti-black racism like that encountered in the United State or Europe does not exist in China. Therefore, expressions of racial prejudice in China are better understood to be the products of “ignorance.” Nicole Bonnah’s response to Castillo raises the point that calls to contextualize before calling something “racist” opens “up a pandoras box of accessing who’s eyes and ears are beholding and defining these ‘contexts’. Evaluations of racism using this practice would undoubtedly be formed based upon positions of privilege or under-privilege.” To provide an example from the American context, it is often the privilege of the dominant group to define what is or is not racist, and to thereby dismiss those on the receiving end of “being sensitive.” Bonnah writes that “racial prejudice in China as a result of colonial and postcolonial ‘imaginaries’ of racial superiority doesn’t just look like racism – it is.” It is a semiotic question because even if the signifiers of racism (in this case, the ad) can be argued to not signify a single referent (a Chinese racism or an imagined ur-racism), a signifier of racism, once out there in the world, is not just a representation of racism, it is racism. It is racist because of the global context, not just the Chinese context.
Qiaobi’s public response to the controversy was a combination of denied intention to harm combined with criticism of international media for “over-sensitivity.” Ironically, it’s a very “American” response. In the United States, controversies over racially offensive discourses usually attract counter-complaints that the offended populations are “sensitive,” or that the racism is in the eye of the beholder. But this is often the point. Those on the receiving end of devaluing, dehumanizing discourses are often better able to recognize their import than those who produce them. The producers of the Qiaobi ad may not have recognized their product as “racist,” nor may they even have harbored any explicit hostility towards black individuals. Nonetheless, the long history of the black=dirty motif in Western advertising, anti-black attitudes within the Chinese public sphere, and the reading of the ad as racist means that the ad is racist, or at the very least, the ad becomes racist. The ad has contributed to the archive of global anti-black racism. It cannot be unproduced.
The debates, however, have largely been about China, and the contests of contextualization have been restricted there. As Michael Herzfeld writes, the use of disclaimers to argue that this or that racist opinion or policy is “not racist” has already become a globalized form of contemporary racism. Contextualization is important, especially as a corrective to self-affirmative American and European interpretations, but in the Chinese context, it can become a conservative position which deflects critical attention to the object itself: racism in China.
But what does “racism in China” actually mean? What kind of object is it? I have noticed two versions of contextualization used when observers respond to blanket claims that “the Chinese” are racist towards black individuals, and in their attempt to contextualize racist situations involving Chinese society. The contextualizations I describe here are “academic” in the sense of being distinct from the popular “readings” and “explanations” Castillo summarizes. This does not mean they are exclusive, as the boundary between the “academic” and “non-academic” is constructed and fuzzy in practice, but there are distinct arguments which can be associated with the scholars who have commented on the issue.
The Genealogical Contextualization
The first type of contextualization might be called the “genealogical” contextualization. It is a historical contextualization that identifies a concrete object, “anti-black racism,” and traces its emergence and evolution over time. The time scale varies. Dikotter and Wyatt trace it back centuries, but the more compelling treatments have linked it to the modernity of Chinese nation-building projects (cf. Cheng 2011).
These treatments have argued the discourse of anti-black racism is closely linked to nationalist anxieties about the place of China and Chinese in the global hierarchy of value. There is a long genealogy to this going back to the encounter between the Chinese empire and Western imperialism in the 19th century. The narrative is well summarized by Dai Na- Mei (戴娜美) in Chinese here. There were prominent Chinese reformers who adopted the racial and Social Darwinist perspectives of such Europeans as Francis Galton to critically analyze the place of the “yellow” in the global racial hierarchy. There was a dark side to the progressivism of famous Chinese reformers like Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao. Dai quotes Kang Youwei in Datong Shi as writing ,“The difference between white people and yellow people is not that great, China can still vigorously catch up, but the blacks are an ethnicity (族性) which is already too inferior.”
The anti-imperialist solidarity of the People’s Republic of China with African liberation movements did create counter-currents, but when Maoism came under critical evaluation in 1980s China, so did China’s alignment with Africa. Based on my own experience listening to Chinese expatriates in East Africa, I think Maoist anti-racism may have even had the unintended effect of reinforcing global hierarchies. A shared history of being the victim of imperialism did not necessarily entail an elevation to equality. Instead, for some Chinese I have met, the interpretation of African society through the lens of Western colonialism reinforces the association of “blacks” with “slaves.” Chinese interlocutors I encountered in my fieldwork would sometimes explain various perceived deficits in the character of local people in terms of “backwards” social development: being a “slave society,” lacking local cultural agency etc. When they would ask me whether “the position of blacks in the United States were very low,” it was not necessarily a critique of structural racism, but a commentary about the “low position” of “blacks” in general as a consequence of an imagined ethnopsychology. Furthermore, the sentiment among some that Chinese expatriates in Africa are not “respected” because they did not achieve the same Hegelian mastery as Europeans is an example of how easily the moral evaluation of the same political assumptions can be flipped.
Following the beginning of Reform and Opening, Chinese reformers turned away from the solidarity of the Maoist period and resurrected earlier projects of Chinese modernity defined under an internalized white gaze (cf Anagnost 1997). As before, “blackness” became an oppositional category against which “yellowness” might aspire towards “whiteness.” As Sautman argued, when Chinese students protested against Africans students in the 1980s, part of their demands could be understood as a rejection of a Maoist internationalism that aligned China with Africans rather than with Anglo-Europeans, a stance which aligned with the liberalism of the subsequent 1989 protests. In the context of the 1980s, Chengargues, this was linked to resentments that China remained poor. Twenty years later, perspectives about Africans are linked to a more self-confident Chinese-ness. This may be questioned, however, when one considers both internal divisions within China as well as continuing forms of self-criticism. Despite China’s “rise,” there remains a deep ambivalence about both the strength of China as a state and the strength of individual Chinese as migrants.
The problem with this genealogical approach, however, is that it flattens the possibilities of what a Chinese discourse of race might be. The construction of a textual cannon linking the writings of Kang Youwei to the language of 1980s student protestors excludes alternative voices and singularizes the Chinese discourse of race to a master melody against which individual perspectives are either in or out of tune. The work of Dikotter, Wyatt, (early) Sautman, Simon Shen and Cheng Yinhong sometimes reads like an extended series of examples, a kind of “gallery of shocking statements” primarily intended to prove that racism exists in China. In some cases, the volume of quoted statements are so offensive as to almost make it difficult to remember anything else about the articles.
For context, it would be worthwhile to compare online Chinese racism to online American racism. If online American racism is read as the public revelation of secret attitudes behind “covert” systemic racism, than what does “overt” Chinese racism reveal if, as Castillo claims, “covert” racism does not exist in China? Do online attitudes correlate with how Chinese individuals interact with Africans they may actually meet?
Cheng and Shen both emphasize how thoroughly racism “permeates” Chinese society. Shen goes further to make claims about how “the Chinese” think and feel. The problem is that this excludes entire categories of people whose experiences and discourses might trouble what we mean by “the Chinese.” For example, one of the key sites of anti-black racism Shen and Cheng identify are (male) Chinese denunciations of Chinese women who date and/or marry African men (the unfulfilled outcome of the advertisement) . But we do not hear what these women have to say. To privilege male Chinese opinions is to concede the right to who determines what “the Chinese” think. There has recently been attempts to address this (Shanshan Lan and Allen Xiao. Forthcoming; Yu Qiu, Forthcoming). In a recent piece, Min Zhou, Shabnam Shenasi and Tao Xu suggest that although views of Africans online are generally “negative,” those in Guangzhou who have direct interactions with Africans in business may have more positive views than those who do not. In all these cases, contextualization would mean avoiding singularization and focusing more on the positionality of where racial claims are being made.
Statistical Range (or Marketplace of Ideas) Contextualization
The second type of contextualization might be called the “statistical range,” or “marketplace” contextualization because of its affinity with the neoliberal metaphor of a “marketplace of ideas.” In this interpretation, there are no “discursive formations,” or singular “Chinese racisms,” but rather one billion Chinese individuals, and within this set, the entire spectrum of ideas about race may be found. This is exemplified in the argument of Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong’s op-ed, “One Bad Advert Doesn’t Make 1.4. Billion Chinese Racist.” The target of the op-ed is of course the singularization that too often occurs when people makes claims about “the Chinese.” All too frequently, what applies to one Chinese individual is rapidly assumed to apply to every possible individual within that category. Sautman and Yan review survey studies to argue that racist attitudes are less prevalent in China than assumed.
Racism in this case is treated as a measurable individual property. There is a difference between the claim that an entire population is racist, or possesses racist views, however, and the claim that adiscourse of race is prominent in a society. There is a common slippage in ordinary use between “population” and “society.” Population in this case can be defined quantitatively as a set of individuals counted in the Chinese census. “Society” in this case could refer to a shared frame of reference, a public sphere with common points of linguistic, cultural and experiential reference wherein any individual might recognize “Chinese society” as an object to which they relate in some way or the other, and are able to make varying degrees of generalizations about.
Of course, these are both imprecise definitions, but the point I am trying to make is that the kind of claims one can make about either category are substantively different. A population, however defined, is relatively fixed, it has a number. It can be sampled and surveyed to produce statistical data. Each individual can be assigned a variable (in this case, “racist” or “non-racist,” however the researcher chooses to define those terms, and whatever methods they use to determine them). The method already assumes there will be variation, but one of the products of the method is to produce data about the proportion of variation. These numbers are then used to make arguments about the norm, which in translation, often come define the entire population in a kind of “winner-takes-all” argument. Mobilized for the geopolitics of comparison, populations are ranked by their comparative racism. Sautman and Yan cite this literature not to “prove” (although they often seem to suggest) that Chinese are “less racist” than Europeans, but to disprove the assumption Chinese are “more racist” than Europeans. In either case, we learn less about racism itself and more about the ongoing politics of comparative hierarchies which continue to define debates about the “rise of China.”
There are many problems with this, one of which is the assumption of methodological individualism that the measure of racism is the measurement of attitudes possessed by individuals. This is not to say such measurements do not have value. It is important, as Sautman and Yan point out in a listserv discussion, that among respondents in Nanjing, there has been a change in how people talk about race between 1994 and the present, to the extent one could argue people are less “racist” now than they were in the early 1990s. The problem is rather the classification of individuals as “racist” or “non-racist.” This is implied when Sautman and Yan are discussing the fact there are “only a few surveys exist that compare Chinese racial/ethnic attitudes to those of Westerners, but so far they show that the former are by no means more racist than the latter. That is the case moreover even though almost everyone seems to agree that those Chinese who are racist are less apt than Westerners to disguise their views” (Italics mine).
The identification of a sub-category of those “who are racist,” but “disguise their views” to varying degrees, reflects a persistent way of talking about racism as an individual rather than social possession. It is problematic because it helps elide an understanding of racism as a total social phenomena. In an American context, individuals who are white frequently deny they are “racist,” while not only holding opinions which are racist, but also participating in social practices which reproduce racial inequalities. This is not just a matter of disguising attitudes, but also engaging in practices these same individuals themselves may not understand to contribute to “racism.” For example, decisions on where to live and enroll children for schooling need not be explicitly understood to be based on race, but on considerations of “crime,” which can be either coded,, affective-for example, internalized anxieties when driving through certain neighborhoods-or seemingly well-intentioned. The undecidability between the intentions distracts attention from the similarity of effects, but in the United States (and not just in the United States), moral self-definition is premised on intentionality.
The Production of Race and Racism
In the case of China, where these same forms of anti-black discrimination do not exist in the same systemic manner, the issue is more complicated. Castillo himself defines racism in terms of structural racism: “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.” By this definition, although there “are plenty of racial prejudices and forms of discrimination” which are “overt” rather than “covert,” Castillo argues “’there is no structural racism’” in China.” By decoupling racial prejudice from systemic racism, the explanation for Chinese anti-black attitudes is attributed to being “still very ignorant, naive, or plainly idiotic.” Castillo and others have attempted to separate prejudice from racism, suggesting the former is a universal feature of human life which can be the basisfor, but does not necessarily lead to, the latter.
What then, do racial prejudices, discourses or practices in China do?Does their “racism” depend on their intention or their effects? If anti-black prejudices in China do not contribute to systemic racism, then what are their effects? In the context of a global hierarchy of value which often devalues “blackness,” whether or not Chineseprejudice is Chinese racism is not just a Chinese issue. As the debate has revealed, the Qiaobi ad exposes both Chinese and Western practices to question. Attempts to isolate the problem as either “Chinese” or “Western” does not answer questions about racism, it engages the geopolitics of comparison between status quo hegemonic powers and would be challengers. It also overlooks the broader situation of global inequality, including the relation of “Africa” to the world. Differences between how “the West” and “China” interact with the people who live there are ultimately less significant than the forms of inequality, dependency, and cultural hierarchies that continue to produce themselves in interactions between African societies and external actors (notwithstanding the complexities of agency and mutual constitution). The Qiaobi ad should be considered in this context rather than only in comparative domestic contexts.
Furthermore, setting the definition of racism as something possessed by individuals ignores the dialogical properties of discourse; the articulation of individual attitudes do not exist in isolation from each other, people express views on race with reference, implicitly or explicitly, to other views in circulation. Anti-racist views among elite individuals in the majority group, for example, might identify non-elite members of the majority group as embodiment of the racism they wish to disavow in themselves. In the United States, this can be seen in the practices of social distinction white American liberals adopt towards “rednecks.” In my fieldwork in East Africa, I found Chinese expatriates willingly criticize different devalued categories of “low-quality” or “low cultural level” Chinese for their presumed prejudice and impatience with locals. These same individuals would present themselves as being better educated or understanding of cultural difference.
Nonetheless, even if not everyone uses the same racial terminology, there is a set of observations and comments people make about locals which indexes similar observations and comments made by those who do use explicitly racial terminology. In other words, even though there is a diversity of perspectives on “race” and cultural difference among Chinese expatriates, there is nonetheless a convergence on a shared set of cultural generalizations aboutheiren (black people).
For example, I met individuals who would express seemingly nuanced perspectives on race, and critical attitudes towards the attitudes of other expatriates in one situation, but participate in racialized discussions in other situations. I remember a conversation once with a couple of Chinese friends whose discussion turned to the challenges of living in East Africa. One of the young men began to describe problems with his employees and with police officers in terms of problems with “heiren,” and after a few minutes, he began to speak of them with a derogatory label I do not wish to reproduce here. He had done this before, so I was not surprised. If I had to classify him, I would lean towards the “racist” category. What did surprise me was that another individual, who had expressed anti-racist sentiments on other occasions, one who I would have put in the “non-racist” category, did not respond to this. Furthermore, she actually contributed to the conversation by sharing her own experiences with the “unreliability” of heiren. These discursive interactions produce heiren as a conceptual category with an assumed set of ethnopsychological characteristics. This is not uncommon. Shared conversations of complaint about locals, whether face-to-face or online is an opportunity for each individual to share their own experiences. In other words, Chinese expatriates share a set of common complaints, even though the stance and perspectives they take on these may vary. One does not need to be a committed racist, however, to contribute to the production of racist discourse.
Even when expatriates disavow “racial discrimination,” and otherwise argue for a kind of cultural relativism, they nonetheless operate in terms of generalities about “ways of thinking”(siewei) particular to either distinct cultures or to people at a particular stage of social development. This is of course not unique to the Chinese, but what is interesting is that Chinese more readily use heiren (black person) as a descriptor for individuals whereas other expatriates will use a more varied set of terminology which may nevertheless be racially coded. “Racial sensitivity” does not necessarily mean possessing enlightened anti-racist thinking, but can also simply mean a sensitivity to the appropriate use of language.
Castillo sees the Qiaobi ad as an opportunity for “people in China [to] learn about these global sensitivities.” An opportunity will be lost, however, if it just morphs into efforts to police how Chinese talk about race, that is, another exercise in “raising civility.” This has happened before. Following an incident in 1979 where Chinese students attacked African exchange students, the government’s response was to improve the “internationalism” education of Chinese students.
This is an aspect which has been overlooked in the debate about whether the Chinese are “racist.” There is a different dynamic in conversations among white Americans I know. White Americans are just as prone to make the same kinds of generalizations, but will steadily avoid the use of “black,” preferring instead more particularized terms. For example, an American friend of mine in a coastal region of East Africa once described having friendships with “Arabs” and “Indians,” but not “the local fisherman.” In the United States, there is a “call-out” culture which sanctions improper use of racial language. Among the Chinese with whom I am familiar, not so much. Although one well-established businessman once shared with me an anecdote about a Chinese Foreign Service officer threatening to revoke a nearby man’s passport after overhearing him using a derogatory term to describe Africans. But of course, with the rise of a new public sphere online, and especially with the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, it is questionable whether “overt” racist discourse in the United States ever actually left. Comparing the racist things Americans say online with the racist things Chinese say online, for example, may be like comparing apples and oranges.
Ignorant Racism and Experienced Racism
And this brings me to my final point. If American expressions of racist discourse about “blacks” signify American histories of racism, what do Chinese expressions signify? A number of commentators have argued Chinese expressions are signifies of ignorance rather than racism. The leading scholar of African studies in China, Li Anshan has even published an editorial arguing “Chinese ignorance of race should not be confused with racism.” As he writes, “China is still facing serious challenges in its dealings with the outside world. Ignorance is persistent, and some Chinese harbor prejudices toward not just Africans but people from other continents as well.” He links this to a history of Chinese ethnocentrism before arguing that “Ethnocentrism is common among people who are isolated and incapable of achieving mutual understanding.” In these cases, it is “understandable,” but is a different case from “modern colonialism” in which ethnocentrism is converted into racism… to justify the military, political, and economic domination of foreign people.” He then provides a list of individual stories where Chinese overcame ignorance and prejudice towards black-skinned foreigners. [A good response from Gregory Scott and Luyolo Sijake which has just been posted can be here.]
Castillo too has argued that one difference between the Chinese context and other contexts is that in the former, people’s attitudes are much more flexible, they are willing to “learn.” An event like Qiaobi thus affords positive effects. In European societies, however, racism is so “entrenched” that people are resistant to acknowledge it.
Although Castillo does express concern that the geopolitics may lead to an increase, rather than decrease, of Chinese ethno-nationalism, a number of commentators express a kind of “moral optimism” that with greater contact between Chinese and dark-skinned individuals, whether from Africa or elsewhere, racially enlightened attitudes will develop. The implication is that through increased contact and interactions, mutual understanding will increase, stereotypes will be challenged, and that the signs of “racism” which are observed are products of a “closed” past which is rapidly changing.
This is a problematic assumption. While ignorance is certainly an important contributor to racial ideologies, it should not be assumed that less ignorance would mean greater racial sensitivity. Or rather, there are different forms of ignorance. There are forms of ignorance which are based on inexperience, but there are other forms of ignorance which are themselves the product of experiences interpreted within problematic frameworks. An obvious example of this is the entire field of “scientific racism” in the West. At the same time scientific research has challenged the racial typologies of the past, there are still otherwise educated people in scientific circles who continue to problematically argue for the intelligibility of “race.” This is just to say that the opposite of “ignorance” is not necessarily “enlightenment” about racial issues. The moral optimism that mutual contact will lead to mutual understanding echoes the assumptions of the early literature on Globalization. Missing from that literature of course were considerations of power, inequality and insecurity.
In talking about interactions between Chinese and Africans, for example, it is important to consider the structural features of the encounter. Take for instance the experience of Chinese who go to Africa to do business or to work. Among such individuals, there is an entire genre of everyday conversation and complaint about heirenthat I have already mentioned above, which is not simply about colorism, but about an entire package of “cultural” complaints which are full of stereotypes (i.e. punctuality, reliability, trustworthiness etc.). These stereotypes are regularly linked to individual experiences such that any particular difficulty is reflected upon as a product of something essential and internal to heiren. It is of course possible to attribute certain reactions as well to “ignorance” (as many Chinese I know do regarding their impatient compatriots), but these interactions and experiences themselves contribute to new forms of “knowledge” which produce new forms of prejudice and discrimination. In my experience, the most depressing instances are cases of what, borrowing from Michael Herzfeld, might be called a “wounded humanism,” wherein an individual claims to have had positive views of “Africans” before coming to work in Africa, based on either state-sanctioned narratives of historical friendship, or personal beliefs in human equality, but whose individual bad luck in Africa has led them to believe in some version of human inequality. Needless to say, setting up businesses in a foreign country can be a risky endeavor, and it is on such frontiers of capitalism that stories of betrayal and “friction” abound. The creation of “culturally intimate” knowledge between people brought together in such circumstances is not necessarily liberal cosmopolitanism. Compare to the claims, “classic among ethnic groups that share common borders, to the effect that ‘we know what they are like from our own close experience,’ but with the added twist that it could not be directly attributed to racism.” Herzfeld refers here to prejudices among ‘culturally similar’ Europeans, but there is something applicable to the case of any form of emerging cultural intimacy. Add to that situations of market competition, labor regimes, patron-clientage etc. Experience in and of itself does not produce tolerance. The mode of interaction is important. What kind of interactions produce racism, but also, what kind of interactions can deconstruct racism?
13. Of washing powder, Afrophobia and racism in China
By Roberto Castillo for The Conversation
Is Afrophobia really on the rise in China?
Roughly two months have passed since the Qiaobi detergent advertisement went viral. The advert, in which a Chinese woman shoves a black man into a washing machine only for him to emerge as a shiny, clean, Asian man, prompted Western media to call it “the most racist ad ever”. At the height of the controversy, commentators from all over the world quarrelled endlessly over whether or not the advert was evidence of China being a racist society. Eventually, the Chinese government intervened and the company behind the offensive advert issued an apology.
Across my social and academic networks, the ad caused a major storm. Everyone from traders to academics and advertisers weighed in. With tensions running high, African traders in Guangzhou were quick to point out that Chinese ignorance in race-related matters was probably behind the advert.
Academics debated the need to “contextualise” racism and racial prejudice in China. They also highlighted how international media tend to portray China and the Chinese in a negative light (especially in the context of Sino-African relations). At the same time, advertisers pointed out that adverts like the Qiaobi one are influenced by the long history of racist advertising in the West. They also explained that the advert showed how Chinese advertisers were unaware that their adverts could have a global reach.
Racialism and a rising China
Despite the fact that “race” as a biological category was discredited long ago, racial thinking or “racialism” is still common in China. Racialism is the belief that humans are naturally divided into biological categories called “races”. Sometimes, the term racialism is used interchangeably with “racism” to mean a race-based way of thinking through human differences.
Contemporary racial thinking in China is informed by historical ways of imagining “otherness”. These ways centre around differences such as skin colour, class and “ethnicity”. Contact with 19th-century European colonialism and racial theories was also influential. More recently, the “rise of China” within the context of global consumerist societies has stirred up ethno-nationalist sentiments that affect how Chinese people think about “race”.
In China, like other places, racial thinking is often accompanied by stereotypes and prejudices. Dark skin, for instance, is often seen negatively. This is something many of us foreigners have to live with in China.
Within this context, the Qiaobi advert was seen by some as proof that there’s racism in China, and as evidence that “Afrophobia” was on the rise. Those who “see” Afrophobia are quick to point to Chinese hiring practices, which prefer white foreigners to black ones.
Any non-white foreigner living in China knows that these practices do not only discriminate against black people. They extend to other dark-skinned people. So, while deplorable, it’s not exactly Afrophobia.
Despite little concrete evidence supporting claims of Afrophobia or “Anti-African” campaigns, these claims are often picked up by Western media. Some journalists seem all too ready to cast China and the Chinese as “racist”and Africans as the poor victims with no agency. This pattern is replicated in coverage of China as a “neo-colonial” power in Africa.
To equate Chinese rac(ial)ism with racism in the West is intellectually and historically dishonest. Rac(ial)ism and racial prejudice in China are still far from producing the exploitation, oppression, discrimination and murder that racist worldviews continue to produce in the West.
In short, while there are deep-seated forms of rac(ial)ism in China, the rise of “Afrophobia” is difficult to prove. The issue is much more complex than that.
‘Race’ and racism in global media
In most of the articles and comments following the offensive Chinese advert, people from all over the world used the terms racism, stereotypes and racial prejudice interchangeably. It quickly became clear to me that we haven’t figured out how to talk about “race” and racism in globally inclusive ways.
The conversation is usually dominated by the American ways of talking about “race” and racism. Needless to say, using the black/white binary paradigm of race as a measuring stick for racial issues in global and non-Western settings is problematic. If the many “racist” comments I’ve heard from African men about their Chinese counterparts is any guide, the problems highlighted by the Qiaobi advert are far more complex than what the American binary suggests.
Figuring out who’s the racist, or if this or that is racist, or if the Chinese are racist, is a waste of time. Rather than being black or white, it’s a complex matrix of practices that reproduce global systems of exploitation and oppression. Despite our skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, “race”, nationality or faith, we are all, to different degrees, participants in these systems.
White supremacy the Chinese way?
As pointed out early on during the Qiaobi controversy, the advert is a revamped iteration of old Western racist tropes. To understand why such iterations emerge in China – and elsewhere in Asia – it’s important to look at how contemporary global media imaginations are influenced by long-standing racial theories and ideas. Enter white supremacy.
As I write this piece, a tram covered in advertising stops in front of me on Shipyard Lane in Quarry Bay, Hong Kong. In the advert, a young, handsome, white guy in a suit is levitating in front of a building. The Chinese words next to him are about leadership and success.
On the next tram a blonde woman wearing a Swarovski ring is being admired by a young white man. Any survey of street advertising in this, or any other big Asian city, will show that white bodies are pervasively used as the markers of success, power, beauty and romance.
It is hardly news that global media are deeply shaped by a racial hierarchy that frames whiteness as a superior state of being. What I find fascinating is how these racially informed imaginations are negotiated by people in China when they imagine themselves and the world they live in.
These negotiations have to be factored in against the backdrop of the “rise of China” – a rise that has led many to believe that the country will take up the reins of the global capitalist system.
I believe that there are few indications that China would be willing (or able) to transform the (old imperial, capitalist, white supremacist and patriarchal) structures and practices that inform contemporary capitalism and that are, ultimately, behind the Qiaobi detergent advert.
For me, these reflections were the main takeaways amid the uproar that followed the advert controversy.