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Racism With Chinese Characteristics: The Laundry Detergent Ad and Han Privilege

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China Power

Racism With Chinese Characteristics: The Laundry Detergent Ad and Han Privilege

Is Chinese society uniquely racist or are the issues it faces more universal?

Racism With Chinese Characteristics: The Laundry Detergent Ad and Han Privilege
Credit: Screen capture via YouTube

Shanghai Leishang Cosmetics recently released a commercial in which a Chinese woman shoves a laundry detergent pod into a black man’s mouth, throws him into a washing machine, and a Chinese man emerges. The Huffington Post said this “might be the most racist TV commercial ever made.” The company later apologized, but also said, “foreign media might be too sensitive.”

For those readers who haven’t yet seen the ad, here it is:

Some have noted China’s ethnic uniformity, arguing that few Chinese encounter blacks. Both James D. Fearon’s classic study on ethnic diversity and a 2002 Harvard paper rank China as indeed one of world’s most homogenous nations, but these studies also found that Australia, Denmark, Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, and Japan are even more ethnically homogenous, and a 2013 study shows that every one of these countries is more tolerant than China (see this map).

Another argument is that China never had slaves so Chinese can’t be racist. But Pei Xing’s 9th century romance Kunlun Nu depicts an African slave who uses his supernatural powers to help his Chinese master (in the 2005 film adaptation, the slave is played by the fair-skinned Korean actor Jang Dong-gun). Zhu Yu’s 12th century text Pingzhou Table Talks describes African slaves as guinu or “demon slaves.” There are also depictions in Chinese art. In “The Magical Kunlun and ‘Devil Slaves’,” Julie Wilensky writes, “black slaves were just one of many commodities in the Arabs’ large-scale maritime trade with China,” which lasted centuries. And in “The Blacks of Premodern China,” Don J. Wyatt speculates that China’s African slaves eventually all died off.

Still another argument is that Chinese attitudes aren’t racist because dark skin is historically associated with field work and thus a sign of lower status, but associating dark skin with negative stereotypes is the very essence of racial prejudice. Imagine if someone said it’s not racist to call black people uneducated because they’re associated with Africa, where education is the worst in the world.

Besides, these arguments only address Chinese attitudes toward black people and dark-skinned Southeast Asians without making sense of Chinese intolerance toward Japanese, Koreans, Mongolians, Tibetans, and Uighurs (many of whom are white), much less terms such as baigui, meaning “white devil,” or guizi, used to derogate foreigners in general. It’s not just dark skin, but not being Han, that’s denigrated.

This is what Mao Zedong criticized as dahanzuzhuyi, the “great Han race doctrine,” commonly translated as “Han chauvinism.” Han people are the world’s largest ethnic group, dominating the cultural, social, and political landscape of one of the largest, wealthiest empires ever, and contrary to popular Chinese opinion, it was for most of its history aggressively expansionist. Their language and ways are not only dominant, they’re enforced, while other groups are considered inferior, massacred, forced to live without basic human freedoms and restricted from leaving.

Peggy McIntosh, who popularized the concept of white privilege, famously noted its 46 daily effects, and almost every one can be applied to Hans in China, including No. 24, “I can be reasonably sure that if I ask to talk to ‘the person in charge,’ I will be facing a person of my race,” and No. 32, “My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.”

It’s not surprising then that racism is denied in China; McIntosh also wrote that a central characteristic of the phenomenon is that those with privilege are reluctant to acknowledge it. So when two popular Chinese bloggers posted an image in 2009 depicting Africans as apes, the American writer Charlie Custer noted that few commenters objected, many found it hilarious, and when one of the bloggers replied, he said China never had slaves so Chinese cannot be racist, and anyway, “black people really do look like monkeys.”

Writing about the recent detergent ad, which was based on an Italian commercial, Jeff Yang of CNN notes that most Chinese “have never met a non-Chinese person” and that black skin is associated with field work. Also reflecting on the ad, Jiayang Fan of the New Yorker writes of China’s “growing pains” and “ignorance,” while also recalling her own education in the United States, and this is interesting, because both she and Jeff Yang were educated in the States, and that’s the real difference—education.

America’s African slaves didn’t die off; they stood tall, fought hard, and held a mirror to white America’s face. Any progress was largely thanks to the efforts of African Americans, and frequently against white America’s will. Han China has no such black leaders, it muzzles the minority leaders it does have, and even if it didn’t, it’s hard to imagine a minority accomplishing anything against Han China’s will. But luckily, the first step is easy: It’s admitting you have a problem.