In the below commercial for laundry detergent, a Chinese woman is doing her washing when a paint-spattered black man approaches her. As he gets closer, she seems to be responding to his flirtatious advances. Then she suddenly shoves a laundry packet in his mouth and crams him into a washing machine.
The Qiaobi logo flashes across the screen.
He emerges moments later, not as a black man, but as a light-skinned Chinese man. The woman seems pleased with this development. The commercial ends with the ad copy: “Change starts with Qiaobi.”
Clearly, this is playing off the idea that black people are somehow dirty. You might think that this is evidence that China hates black people. But it’s not quite so simple.
Some readers may be familiar with “Darlie,” a toothpaste brand popular in parts of Asia, which features a smiling black minstrel in a top hat as the logo. It used to be called “Darkie”; at the end of the 1980s, they changed the English name. Here’s a commercial from Hong Kong from that era:
As the commercial assures people in cheery Cantonese, the product won’t change, and neither will the Chinese name, which is what most Chinese speakers would use anyway: “Heiren yagao,” or “black man toothpaste.”
The Darkie-Darlie name swap was more or less imperceptible to the average Chinese consumer and was mostly a move to keep English-language media from criticizing the company. Today, the toothpaste is still marketed as “black man toothpaste.”
But the inspiration for the product name and logo came from one of America’s long-held traditions of racially tinged entertainment. The chief executive of the company had taken a trip to the U.S. and seen famous blackface performer Al Jolson, and was impressed with how white his teeth were. The blackface logo, according to the company, was meant as flattery. Black people aren’t just portrayed in China as dirty or undesirable; they’re also presented as entertaining, something to be imitated when convenient.
The use of black people as metaphors for filthiness used to be routine in American and British soap advertisements -- and in that sense, the Qiaobi commercial also has a distinctly Western heritage. A late 1800s American soap ad for Pearline soap featured a black woman scrubbing her child, saying, “Golly! I B’leve PEARLINE Make Dat Chile White!” A British advertisement from the same era showed a white child washing a black child with soap to reveal white skin beneath.
This isn’t to say that China learned everything about racism and prejudice from America. But in this genre of racist branding, Americans are the innovators.
And though the use of blatantly racist ads has fallen out of favor in America, some companies are able to continue to profit off racist products. Darlie is owned by Colgate-Palmolive, an American company. They have made the logo a bit less offensive since the 1990s but will not change the name, because company research “shows that Chinese consumers perceive the ‘Hei ren’ [black man] toothpaste brand to be trustworthy, international and modern.” If the American parent company does not find it necessary to change the “black man” image, perhaps that says more about America than it does about China.
The Taiwanese Darlie site also includes a tie-in with Snoopy-branded merchandise. Buy certain Black Man Toothpaste products and get a free Snoopy plate:
One of America’s best-loved characters is used as a vehicle for bringing profits from a racist product back into America.
That’s the problem with the occasional American uproar over an anti-black slight in Asia. We can point the finger at China for making a racist laundry ad, or for shrinking black actor John Boyega in the poster of the latest “Star Wars” film.