CONTEXT

The story behind the racist Chinese ad where a black man gets his skin color scrubbed off

Obsession
China in Africa
Quartz africa
Obsession
China in Africa
Quartz africa

The racism of a recent Chinese advertisement that portrays a laundry detergent as so strong it can wash away the skin color of a black man has caused some backlash on the internet.

In the ad, a Chinese woman is doing laundry when a paint-streaked young black man leans on the door and whistles appreciatively at her. She beckons him toward her and as he gets close, she pops a packet of Qiaobi detergent into his mouth and shoves him into the washing machine. A few seconds later, out pops a clean, pale-skinned Chinese man, apparently much more to her liking.

The ad, a knock-off of an Italian commercial, seems to confirm what many have experienced in China: blunt prejudice and racism towards anyone with dark skin, including darker toned Chinese. And indeed, racism endures in China, where blacks are often referred to as heigui, or “black ghost,” a reversal of the traditional derogatory term for foreigners of baigui, or “white ghost.” Africans say they are regularly ignored by taxi drivers. Even Chinese state media are frequently tone deaf when it comes to US president Barack Obama.

But that’s not the full story. The internet outrage about the ad has obscured one more hopeful development—criticism within China to its racism. In fact, most Chinese users discussing the commercial (registration required) on the microblogging platform Weibo agreed that it was “racist,” “horrible and disgusting.”

One user wrote, “This is undoubtedly racial discrimination. Those that can get on YouTube [which is blocked in China], should denounce the ad and make clear that it is the producers of this video who are racist, not the majority of Chinese.”

Calls to the investor relation hotline shown at the end of the commercial went unanswered. The Qiaobi brand is owned by Shanghai Leishang Cosmetics Co. Ltd, according to the brand’s Sina Weibo profile. Messages to that account were also unanswered.

“The advert is a stark reminder of China’s conservative, agrarian, inward-looking culture, despite its new-found commercial ambitions and rapid ascension onto the global stage,” says Solange Chatelard, a research associate at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology who studies China-Africa relations and migration.

Commercial depictions of Africa or Africans in China often associate the continent with exoticism, but few have been as blatant as this ad, said Giovanna Puppin, a lecturer in media and communications at the University of Leicester, who has studied Chinese media portrayals of Africans. “It is quite striking how this Chinese ad for Qiaobi fuels sexual and racial stereotypes in a very explicit and unprecedented way,” Puppin says.

What the ad doesn’t show is years of evolving attitudes toward blacks in some parts of China, as a result of thousands of Africans moving to China since the early 2000s.

There are as many as 300,000 Africans (link in Chinese) in China’s southern economic hub of Guangzhou. They mingle with local Chinese people, doing business with them, and in many cases forging friendships. Beijing and Shanghai are also home to pockets of Africans who have come to learn Chinese or find work.

In some ways, Chinese attitudes toward Africans are actually more welcoming than other host countries, according to a study released last month by Min Zhou from the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Zhou found that the overwhelming majority of the over 500 Chinese surveyed did not see Africans as a threat to their jobs, neighborhoods, or way of life. Rather, most believed that African migrants contributed positively to the local economy as well as the globalization and the multiculturalism of their city.

One interviewee, a 32-year-old woman selling jeans in the Xiaobei neighborhood known for its many African traders, said:

I was a little scared at first sight of these black men coming to my store, especially when they looked right into your eyes and grinned. The Chinese don’t do that. After a while, I got used to them. They are just people who look different. They are polite and respectful, bring good business. In business, I’d say they need me and I need them… [I] later became friends with a couple of them and introduced them to my other friends who sell electronics. We used to hang out in McDonald’s for lunch.

The ad also comes at a time when more African-Chinese couples are being seen in Chinese news reports, film, and documentaries, according to Puppin.

“I consider this to be a downturn in the representation of Africans in Chinese media,” she says. “Nonetheless, we need to keep in mind that that many ad campaigns are created just to create controversy, and also that advertising relies on stereotypes everywhere in the world.”

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