Tag Archives: representation

[Podcast] Black Panther sparks debate over anti-black racism in China

Podcast from The China Africa Project.

The Marvel superhero blockbuster Black Panther generated a respectable $100 million at the Chinese box office in March, making it the film’s top overseas market. The movie had a very strong opening in China, earning more than $60 million during its first but then dropped off quickly.

The seemingly sharp fall in attendance prompted Western media outlets to write a series of articles that suggested Chinese moviegoers objected to Black Panther because of its all-black leading cast. “A torture for the eyes: Chinese moviegoers think Black Panther is just too black,” read Quartz reporter Echo Huang’s dismally-sourced story where she relied on online movie review sites, often filled with troll-like comments, as evidence of Chinese racism towards black people. Not surprisingly, Huang’s article went viral and sparked a lively discussion on social media about the supposedly pervasive racism in China towards black people.

“Cherry-picking negative posts on an anonymous reviews site isn’t a particularly fair way to assess Chinese attitudes toward black people (and one is likely to find plenty of racist comments on English language online chats too).” — Writer and commentator Jeff Yang

That Quartz story and others that linked Black Panther’s box office performance to Chinese racial attitudes toward black people was quickly challenged by other media outletssocial media influencers and scholars who all highlighted that Chinese reaction to the film was not as racially-tinged as had been suggested.

 

Cherry-picking negative posts on an anonymous reviews site isn’t a particularly fair way to assess Chinese attitudes toward black people (and one is likely to find plenty of racist comments on English language online chats too),” said San Franciso-based writer Jeff Yang in response to the Western media’s reporting on Black Panther’s supposedly lackluster response in China.

Roberto Castillo couldn’t agree more with Yang. Castillo, an assistant professor at Ling Nan University in Hong Kong, is one of the leading scholars on the African diaspora in China with a particular focus on African and black media perceptions in the PRC. He joins Eric & Cobus to discuss the Chinese response to Black Panther and why the Western media continues to misunderstand Chinese racial views towards black people.

 

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[Podcast] Black Panther sparks debate over anti-black racism in China

Podcast from The China Africa Project.

The Marvel superhero blockbuster Black Panther generated a respectable $100 million at the Chinese box office in March, making it the film’s top overseas market. The movie had a very strong opening in China, earning more than $60 million during its first but then dropped off quickly.

The seemingly sharp fall in attendance prompted Western media outlets to write a series of articles that suggested Chinese moviegoers objected to Black Panther because of its all-black leading cast. “A torture for the eyes: Chinese moviegoers think Black Panther is just too black,” read Quartz reporter Echo Huang’s dismally-sourced story where she relied on online movie review sites, often filled with troll-like comments, as evidence of Chinese racism towards black people. Not surprisingly, Huang’s article went viral and sparked a lively discussion on social media about the supposedly pervasive racism in China towards black people.

“Cherry-picking negative posts on an anonymous reviews site isn’t a particularly fair way to assess Chinese attitudes toward black people (and one is likely to find plenty of racist comments on English language online chats too).” — Writer and commentator Jeff Yang

That Quartz story and others that linked Black Panther’s box office performance to Chinese racial attitudes toward black people was quickly challenged by other media outletssocial media influencers and scholars who all highlighted that Chinese reaction to the film was not as racially-tinged as had been suggested.

 

Cherry-picking negative posts on an anonymous reviews site isn’t a particularly fair way to assess Chinese attitudes toward black people (and one is likely to find plenty of racist comments on English language online chats too),” said San Franciso-based writer Jeff Yang in response to the Western media’s reporting on Black Panther’s supposedly lackluster response in China.

Roberto Castillo couldn’t agree more with Yang. Castillo, an assistant professor at Ling Nan University in Hong Kong, is one of the leading scholars on the African diaspora in China with a particular focus on African and black media perceptions in the PRC. He joins Eric & Cobus to discuss the Chinese response to Black Panther and why the Western media continues to misunderstand Chinese racial views towards black people.

 

[Opinion] Barry Sautman & Yan Hairong say #RacistChineseAd doesn’t make China racist #SinoAfrica

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

[Opinion] On why the racist Chinese ad MAY NOT be as racist as you think

UPDATE (June 2nd): Nicole Bonnah has written a reply to this piece, you can find it here. After you read that, here you can find my final reply.

On May 26th, The Shanghaiist broke the (SinoAfrican) internet by bringing a Chinese ad to the attention of its mainly American audience. The ad – which you can watch below (Youku see here) – is a commercial for a Chinese detergent called Qiaobi and has been deemed as ‘highly racist’ or the ‘most racist advert ever’ by a whole host of American media outlets like thisthis and this.

In the video, a paint-splattered black man catcalls a Chinese woman and approaches her confidently as she lures him with her finger. As he attempt to kiss her, she places a detergent bag in his mouth and shoves his body into a washing machine.Screen Shot 2016-05-29 at 12.26.10 amOnce the machine cycle is done, a young (robotish, if you ask me) Asian man emerges as clean as can be. At no point during the short ad, are we the audience aware of the status of the men in relation to the woman. Is the black man her boyfriend, fiancee, or husband? My original reading! Or is he only the painter, or maybe an ‘immigrant worker’ (as one of my Chinese friends saw it)? Is the young and clean machine-made Asian man the replacement for the black guy? Where will he replace him, in painting, or in a relationship?

Amid the outcry, users of diverse Chinese online platforms have reported that the ad is running on national television and before the movies at Wanda Cinemas (owner of AMC theatres). Contrasting versions report that the ad is no where to be found both in offline and online media environments on the Mainland. Latest reports (May 27) claim that the ad has disappeared from Chinese social media platforms.

There are a few ways in which one can read and interpret this ad – I will come back to these readings some paragraphs down. Meanwhile, after cringing in horror and anger when I first saw the ad, I became even more irritated to read the ways in which the ad was decoded by American writers, and the ways they explained it to their (Western) audiences. In short, the discussion was totally kiScreen Shot 2016-05-29 at 12.27.43 amdnapped by the (hegemonic) way of discussing issues of race that Americans are so eager to export/impose. Don’t get me wrong, I think that the ad is fucked up in every single, possible aspect. In nicer words, it is profoundly (and maybe naively) insensitive and very very problematic. As the most recent manifestation of a century-old trope it is indeed ‘racist’. But I don’t necessarily see it as evidence of a ‘Chinese’ racism, or a culturally specific form of racism. And this is what troubles me.

Having done research for the last 6 years on African presence in China, and being very interested in all kinds of SinoAfrican exchanges, I’m often suspicious of people/students arguing that China is a ‘racist’ society (esp. when they’ve never been to China). ‘Really, how do you know that?’ I usually reply. Again and again, people point to incidents like the detergent ad. (By the way, this is not the first online incident relating to blackness in China. It may be, however, the one that has gotten the most play ever).Screen Shot 2016-05-29 at 12.29.38 amThe 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’. TScreen Shot 2016-05-29 at 12.35.03 amhe ‘-ism’ here, at least for me, denotes a set of systemic practices. These practices, embedded in the ‘-ism’, are just not present in China (and I have countless evidence to prove this). Any foreigner (whites included) that has lived in China knows that there are plenty of racial prejudices and forms of discrimination (not only against foreigners) and that they are usually very overt (as you now know), rather than covert. Often, as I tell my students, people claiming that there’s racism in China seem more interested in showing (in a justificatory way) that there are ‘racist’ societies outside the Euro-American world. Interestingly,  they are usually rather lazy (or incompetent) to point towards evidence of deep-sited, systemic, practices of ‘racialisation’ as those pervasive in, say, the land of freedom and justice, the US. Indeed, from my conversations with multiple non-Western foreigners in China throughout the years (many of them from Africa), I have argued here that while many feel that some Chinese people dislike foreigners, ‘there is no structural racism’ in China. Many foreigners that arrive in China assuming that they will confront the types of racism they have confronted elsewhere (or that construe certain Chinese practices as ‘racist’), soon find their views changing.

In short, the ad is not evidence that Chinese society (whatever that means!) is ‘racist’ but rather that many people in China are still very ignorant, naive, or plainly idiotic. No systemic practice in China (Sorry, me dear China bashers).

Now coming back to the ‘readings’ and ‘explanations’

Often, when discussing these incidents, you get a whole bunch of academics (me included) and pundits that quote the long-standing historical perceptions on skin colour in China. The simple explanation of this is a China 101 from my Mandarin class some years ago: in (historical) China they appreciated fairness in skin because higher classes would normally stay away from hard (under the sun) labour. Peasants were normally darker and that leads Chinese people to discriminate against dark-skinned people. ‘So, you’rScreen Shot 2016-05-29 at 12.37.57 ame like a peasant’, my 101 teacher told me when I complained about something that I perceived as discrimination while hailing taxis in Beijing (note for American readers: I’m ‘brown’, but my privilege makes me ‘white’ in Mexico). The implication of this is something many Chinese pride themselves on: that China cannot be ‘racist’ but merely ‘classist’. While I believe that ‘racism’ as I explained above does not happen in China, I’m afraid that in cases like the detergent ad the class/dark skin explanation may not be enough. While respecting historical and culture specific developments, I’m troubled by the simplicity of this explanation. It plainly falls short to describe something that is indeed way more complex, and it often comes across as a childish denial. “We don’t like you because you’re brown. It’s not your fault, it’s the sun, right?” “Because you’re brown, we think less of you,” one of my good (and racially aware) friends used to ‘joke’ (don’t worry, I took revenge :)).

In addition to this, there’s one other often invoked explanation when it comes to incidents like the detergent one. Here, the story line goes: ‘it’s not about Africans, the Han were historically contemptuous of dark-skin people in the southern imperial frontiers’. There’s a plethora of stories about the so-called Kunlun (slaves) and debates about them either being South Asian or African. When I hear this, I think of incidents like this – in which a women calls a black man with whom she’s fighting a ‘zebra’. Isn’t there a vicious/malicious intentionality in the video? The story line continues: ‘Han disdain for southern dark skin was at some not-very-clear point in history transposed onto Africans’. That ‘not-very-clear point in history’ is (look no further) COLONIALISM, and Chinese intellectuals contact with Western racial theories (e.g. Kang Youwei and Liang QiQiao).

It’s true, issues of racial prejudice in China are informed by deep-seated class issues, but also, and let’s not fool ourselves, by global (colonial and postcolonial) imaginaries of racial superiority (e.g. white supremacy). So, as you may imagine, the iterations of something that looks like ‘racism’ in contemporary China, emerge out of a complex global media environment, rather than being a ‘class’ (or a necessarily ‘Chinese’) issue. Here, the often invoked media element is ‘Hollywood’. Every foreigner in China has a story of a Chinese friend explaining how afraid he/she feels of black (or Arab) people thanks to American movies. This was my Mandarin 101 class ‘racial explanation’ number two: “Chinese are not ‘racist’, they are just naive and confused thanks to Hollywood’s historical representation of people of colour,” or so the explanations goes. Difficult to buy! But this one is a bit more complex, and it’s not only about Hollywood. Watch this, and this and cry. Indeed, this one also goes back to issues in contemporary global imaginaries that keep selling whiteness as something desirable and blackness/brownness (‘otherness’) as the binary opposites.

Here is where the detergent ad makes a very complex turn/tweak (that makes the whole thing so difficult to grasp).  It opposes blackness to a Chinese ‘whiteness’ (some Chinese people on my WeChat call it ‘yellowness’) thus inputing a ‘different’ answer to this (colonial racial) equation: the black individual does not serve the purpose of whiteness becoming the correct way of being (ontology). Rather, it presents the Chinese man as the correct, perfect, clean anScreen Shot 2016-05-29 at 12.40.23 amswer. This is not new, there have been other instances of using non-white ‘foreigners’ (or Chinese of mixed heritage – see the case of Lou Jing) to reinforce the boundaries of Chineseness in ethno-nationalist discourse. Indeed, the ad can also be read as a great example of policing Chineseness, and the policing of Chinese femininity (obviously, more readings may emerge, as the ad makes more global rounds). There have been other historical instances in which Chinese men have policed women’s sexual practices when they related to black men (e.g. the Nanjing anti-African protests). Indeed, as China grows confident in her new role as emerging/consolidating global power, the mixture of her anxieties mixed with traces of widely circulating ethno-nationalist discourses in the country, could lead to the emergence of more, rather than less, things like the detergent ad.

Having said this, I still believe that cases like this can also be seen as productive in the sense that people in China could learn about these global sensitivities. Gauging from those Chinese netizens who have condemned the ad, in the process of China’s ‘going out’, Chinese people will have to deal with more multicultural politics (hopefully not in the American fashion) and learn about the complex and problematic histories of colonialism that inform  global mediascapes. So, I’m afraid that soon scholars and pundits won’t be able to invoke Chinese disdain for peasants (e.g. class issues), or the Hollywood inflicted damage (e.g. racist American ideoscapes), as the root cause for iterations of global racist expressions in China – such as the Qiaobi ad – and will have to hold some people in China somehow accountable. Not without, however, understanding/respecting the specificity of ‘Chinese’ views and practices.

By the way (in case you don’t already know),

The Shanghaiist also noted that the ad was a blatant ripoff of a series of Italian laundry detergent ads screened in the early 2000s.

 

 

Adding to the detergent storm, HKFP noted that the Chinese  ‘cleansing’ blackness ad is a ‘century-old joke’, part of an old trope in racially insensitive advertising. They did some serious Reddit research and unearthed an almost ‘century-old’ (1920s) Swedish commercial with a variation of the ‘joke’.

Also, HKFP brought these two 19-century images out from the depths of Reddit and claimed that advertising has not really changed in more than a hundred years.

 

In the 1990s, the well know Czech political satire show ‘Ceska Soda’ used the trope in an attempt to mock xenophobic behaviour in the Czech Republic. (In the original post, I had claimed that this was an ad. A reader has kindly noted that I was wrong and pointed out to the political satire show).

Below, some of the initial online reactions: