Coming clean on China's racism
THE controversy surrounding an advertisement for a Chinese detergent is the latest case of cultural mismatch in the progress for globalisation.
Qiaobi, the detergent brand, posted a video commercial that portrays a young black man being thrust into a washer. Out comes a fair-skinned Asian, the kind of androgynous pop idol that represents the trend for male beauty in China.
The ad went viral and became a target of criticism. Leishang Cosmetics, the company that owns the brand, issued an apology to those who may have felt offended.
Suffice to say, this ad would never be able to pass the marketing department, let alone be broadcasted, had it been in a Western country.
While the racial insensitivity was outrageous, the underlying forces for this ad could be much more complicated. Simply put, it seemed to be an act of ignorance rather than of malice.
If you put yourself into the shoes of Qiaobi, you would probably be bursting with pride when the concept first hits you. "Our detergent is so powerful it can whiten your skin", or so went the pitch.
Most detergent commercials would show a piece of dirty laundry and how it turns clean after a spin in the washing machine.
Sure, everyone could see the skin-whitening idea was an exaggeration, but wasn't it more fun and effective in getting across the marketing message?
I don't think the advertiser equated blackness with dirtiness, at least not consciously.
For many years there was a toothpaste ad on Chinese television that portrayed a black person. Even the brand was called Darkie. I heard that expatriates squirmed when they saw it.
For good or bad, blacks as a race are used for dramatisation when appearing in Chinese imagery. We have not reached the colour blindness stage yet.
However, there is a historical correlation between dark skin and low social
status. In the old days, manual labourers had to work out in the field. So, the more tanned one's skin is, the less shelter and comfort one is presumed to have enjoyed.
Even today, in an age of fitness mania, the joke is still around when a young man in China has a darker-than-average skin tone.
Chen Xiaoqing, producer of the famed documentary series A Bite of China, is often jabbed by his friends with lines like "I thought I bumped into an African" or "It's so dark here I didn't know you were standing in the way".
If it's a woman with dark skin, friends and neighbours would not make fun of her. They would look at her with pity as if she has a mild deformity.
I've seen healthily tanned Chinese-American girls who came back to China to find their Chinese relatives responding in horror.
All women's cosmetics in China are designed to make them look fairer. I'll bet you a king's ransom that a tanning salon for women would be laughed off the block.
In China, it is more a class thing than a race thing.
Many Chinese have never come into contact with people of other races, especially blacks, and they may not know whether or how the issue of skin colour could be addressed properly.
That said, I would not justify the simmering racial discrimination that exists among some of my compatriots.
Years ago, I heard a story of a Chinese language school that refused to hire English teachers who are blacks. They would rather get Russians who speak English with an accent than native English speakers who are more qualified in every other way.
The school authorities defended themselves by saying the parents insisted on a white-teachers-only policy.
Another example is the Chinese poster for the new Star Wars. The lead actor, who is black, mysteriously disappeared from the group image until he was re-inserted as a result of protests.
Whoever made the initial decision could be thinking that Chinese moviegoers would not be drawn by an unknown black man.
That is why symbols like the first black American president and Hollywood luminaries like Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman are so important in shaping public perception. They help shatter the stigma inherent in parts of the Chinese public.
Although China is also an ethnically diverse country, most of our minorities do not have distinct facial features. For some, only when you're given the name do you realise they are not Han. So, our level of racial sensitivity is not as high as in the United States.
I once debated the issue of "yellow-face" with a Chinese-American dramatist who is a kind of vigilante against the outmoded casting practice.
"Do you know why we Chinese are not offended by the yellow face?" I asked him. "Because for decades we had the habit of putting on a white face to play a Caucasian. We couldn't afford to hire white actors."
Just as early Hollywood portrayals of Asians tended to be caricatures, white or black characters on Chinese screens are rarely three-dimensional. They play on exaggerated stereotypes.
Again, ignorance is at the heart of the problem.
Until you have mingled with a fair number of regular people of other races, you tend to form premature opinions that are basically prejudices and, if you're a filmmaker, you might reinforce it by presenting crude replicas on the screen.
In 2011, CNN posted on its website an article listing "the most revolting food" in the world. Many were Asian foods like the century egg, which is a traditional snack in China.
After causing a controversy, it apologised "reservedly for any offence the article has inadvertently caused".
Had it labelled the article "some of the revolting food in the eyes of most Westerners" and changed the tone from authoritative to humorous, it might have flown by without any controversy. Instead, it could have been helpful by alerting some Chinese not to serve these local favourites to foreign guests.
But I guess the editors had forgotten that CNN is a global news operation rather than an Atlanta local paper.
Likewise, Qiaobi forgot we are living in a global village. Its detergent may not be targeting Africans per se, but they are not selling to a landlocked market either.
So, they should have vetted the ad concept with cross-cultural experts, or at least with a few blacks, given that they are the subject of the misplaced humour here.
CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK