That racist commercial
There a video that has made it’s way through the internet in the last day or so. A friend sent it to me remarking at how horrible the content is. As I watched, disgusted but not actually surprised. You probably know which video I am talking about. A (presumably) Chinese woman is dropping clothing items into a washing machine. A Black man appears at the doorway, his skin splattered with paint, and he whistles at the woman who is receptive to his advance. He approaches her, and when he is nose to nose with her, she pops some detergent into his mouth and stuffs him into the washer. After the cycle, he exits the wash clean…and as a (presumably) Chinese man.
The audacity is palpable with this one. Let me start with the colorism. This, if nothing else, is pure reinforcement of colorism. The ad squarely puts itself in the camp of “light skin = more desirable.” And frankly, that is putting it mildly as this sentiment scales from not just physical beauty but to ethical character as “dark skin = a bad person.” Any rational person knows these notions are far from truth, however, individuals internalize messages from the larger society whether they intend to or not, and these internalized messages influence behavior. So, no, this ad is not harmless, and it is not funny.
Let’s unpack this ad further. We have racism, ethnocentrism, and colonialism to unpack here. Racism often aligns with colorism when those involved do not identify as the same race or ethnicity. The racist message here is not hard to see: Black men are not suitable partners for Chinese women. That is what this commercial is saying. Do I have to explain it? You know what? If I have to explain this part, just get the hell out. If you do get it, let’s proceed to ethnocentrism and colonialism.
I don’t know how common of knowledge this is, but Chinese immigrants have been moving to Africa at increasing rate citing both economic opportunity and the physical crowding of their home country as motivators. Howard W. French, in China’s Second Continent: How a million migrants are building a new empire in Africa, quasi-ethnographically describes the relationship between the Chinese immigrants, and the locals of the countries to which migration is common: Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Namibia, and other countries. The relationship between the immigrants and the local populations is tepid at best and openly contentious at worst, with many viewing the presence of the immigrants as exploitative. This undoubtedly influences any existing racial or ethnic tensions. For a more nuanced discussion of this relationship, I strongly suggest French’s book.
Lastly, let’s talk about why the hell this continues. Well, there are a lot of stakeholders invested in maintaining stratified systems of race, color, and nationality. The people at the top of the stratum, for one, have a lot to lose if this system collapses in terms of rights, political representation, access to resources, and economic strength. The institutions that perpetuate this stratification (chiefly governments as well as corporations who rely on cheap labor) tend to be the losers when a citizenry is united, and so they will exploit differences of race, ethnicity, nationality, class, gender, or whatever happens to work for them at the time. It’s kind of fascist in that way. Who else is a stakeholder in this system? It’s you and me. Now, calm the hell down. I am not calling you a racist. What I am saying is that our brains are really efficient, and part of the reason for that is that we do a whole lot of automatic categorizations that influence how we behave towards another person. Getting rid of all these categories our brains use is impossible, but it is possible to be more self-aware, to be more cognizant, and ultimately making a difference by recognizing that commercials such as this detergent ad are piling on to the most damaging stereotypes and calling folks out when they defend such content as humor. And for anyone so ardently holding on to their belief that this ad is not racist, I encourage you to explore what your gains are in maintaining this. Are you benefitting as a stakeholder in a racist system, and are others suffering for your participation in a severely stratified society?