Editor’s Note: 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.
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?
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.”
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.