Detergent ad controversy: Is China less racist than the West?

Outrage over shocking detergent commercial
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Story highlights

  • Jeff Yang says there's more to the story of the virulently racist ad that stirred controversy and led to an apology
  • He asks: How much of the racism in China is exported from the West?

Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and a frequent contributor to radio shows including Public Radio International's "The Takeaway" and WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show." He is the co-author of "I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action" and editor of the graphic novel anthologies "Secret Identities" and "Shattered." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Last week, a Shanghai-based French photographer named Benoit Florençon posted video of a commercial he'd seen on local television. Nearly 9 million YouTube views later, the ad has become a viral phenomenon, as well as the epicenter of a turbulent global debate over anti-black racism in the world's most populous and fastest-emerging superpower.

In the ad, a pretty Chinese woman responds to the flirtatious advances of an African house painter by popping a detergent pellet into his mouth and then shoving him into her washing machine. After a few seconds of calmly listening to him scream and struggle, she lifts the lid with a smile to reveal that the black man has been transformed -- into the pale-skinned young Chinese man of her dreams. An anodyne tagline follows: "Change begins with Qiaobi."
    Jeff Yang
    The posting drew explosive responses from pundits and viewers in the West, who quickly dubbed it the "most racist ad ever" and, more often than not, excoriated China as a place of narrow-minded xenophobia and unrestrained bigotry. The detergent company apologized for the ad.
    But the ad was ultimately seen as just part of a larger phenomenon. Also brought up in the conversation over Chinese racism: The Chinese version of Disney's "The Force Awakens" poster, which minimized black British hero John Boyega's image, and the continued popularity of a brand of toothpaste called Darlie -- a scrubbed version of its original name, "Darkie," which should be obvious to anyone who sees the grinning minstrel image that's still prominently featured on the product's packaging.

    A key factor

    But many of these commentators are overlooking a key factor that explains, without excusing, the gut-wrenching racist spectacle of the Qiaobi commercial. For one, a few generations since China's opening to the world, the nation is still very much a racial monoculture.
    Some 92% of Chinese belong to the dominant Han ethnic group; most of the rest of the population consists of domestic minorities such as Zhuang, Uighurs, Hui, Miao and Tibetans. Non-Chinese foreigners, including those from elsewhere in Asia, the West, the Middle East and Africa, are overwhelmingly clustered in big cities, which means that the vast majority of China's 1.4 billion people have never met a non-Chinese person, and probably never will. And when they do encounter black people, their instinctive reactions tend to be the same as the ones they have to anyone physically different from themselves: They're curious, not hateful.
    My friend Paula Madison, the now-retired former chief diversity officer of NBCUniversal, has made regular pilgrimages to China since 2011 -- the year that she and her brothers first visited the country to connect with her long-lost extended family, the relatives and descendants of her Chinese grandfather. Those trips ultimately led her to write a book and produce a documentary on the journey, "Finding Samuel Lowe."
    "As a black woman with Chinese ancestry, obviously I'm very interested in how black people are treated in China," she says. "Is the ad awful? Yes. But the most racist ad I've ever seen? Are you kidding? Not by a long stretch."
    Madison says that class-based skin-color bias is a more likely anchor for the commercial's questionable attempt at humor, rather than racism, given that most Chinese have no direct exposure to black people.
    "I refer to it as 'shadeism' -- people in China think of dark skin as something associated with working in the fields, with being a poor peasant," she says. "The paler you are, the more likely you are to be wealthy."
    This "paler is better" sensibility certainly (ahem) colors the typical Chinese person's view of those who are born darker by virtue of their race. But it doesn't automatically produce negative associations. In fact, a study jointly conducted by researchers at Washington State University and Towson University found that attitudes among high school students in China toward African-Americans were generally more positive than their stereotypes of Americans in general -- with the exception being students who had extensive exposure to U.S.-based media, who were more likely to perceive African-Americans as "poorer," "less moral," "less polite" and "less intelligent" than other Americans. The researchers ultimately concluded that the results "can be explained by how African-Americans are portrayed more negatively in American media."

    Western pop culture

    That should be a wake-up call for those of us who initially reacted with horror at this "most racist ad ever." Yes, anti-black racial perceptions exist in China. But in no small part, they're imported -- a product of the resiliently toxic framing of blackness by the stereotypes of violence, poverty and ignorance in Western media. (Even the Qiaobi ad itself is a foreign transplant: It's a near beat-for-beat lift of an Italian detergent commercial that has the reverse outcome, featuring a woman laundering her unappealing white husband into a muscular, stereotypically hypersexualized black man, grinning next to the tagline, "Colored Is Better.")
    "I've never personally experienced racism in China -- which is not to deny that it exists," says Madison. "But I have experienced it in Hollywood without question. And I think that China generally sees black people through the realm of pop culture, whose arbiters continue to perpetuate the myth that people of color don't 'play well' in that market." In her eyes, the studios' reluctance to distribute films with black protagonists overseas -- leaving only movies in which blacks appear in secondary roles defined by one-note stereotypes -- isn't just a contributor to racially ugly perceptions of black people; it's a primary cause.
    So if you're aghast, as you should be, at a Chinese ad featuring literal whitewashing, consider that the figurative whitewashing performed by Hollywood is a big part of what made it possible. Which means that -- to contradict the ad's tagline -- change doesn't begin with Qiaobi; it begins at home.