What a Racist Chinese Ad Can Teach Us About Being American

On May 26, Donald Trump earned the delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination. That same day, Shanghaiist reported on a controversial Chinese ad that would later go viral in the West and be labeled “the most racist ad ever.” What do these two news events happening halfway across the world have to do with each other? Surprisingly, a lot.

At first glance, America and China would appear oceans apart in terms of their attitudes towards foreigners and blacks. In Chinese department stores, you can still see the smiling black and white face of a minstrel singer looking at you from the packaging of Darlie brand toothpaste (Chinese name: “Black Person toothpaste”). Discussions of race happen less frequently in China, but when they do, many of the comments are—shall I say—less delicately put than they would be in America.

The premise for the racist detergent ad is as follows: a black guy is painting a Chinese woman’s home, when, covered in paint, he spots the woman doing laundry and whistles at her. The woman seductively lures him over then sticks a capsule of detergent into his mouth and throws him into the washing machine. He comes out as a Chinese man, to the evident pleasure of the woman.

 

The topic was talked about more than 147,000 times on China’s top social media site, Sina Weibo, with some users vowing to never purchase Qiaobi, the brand behind the ad. Others disagreed. “Just because it features a black person, it’s racist?” was a typical comment. As in America, when something is called out for criticism as “racist” in China the discussion can be fierce. One of my Weibo followers, when I asked for comments, said, “It’s obviously not racism. On YouTube most of the commenters just say it’s funny. The New York Times likes to make a big thing out of racial issues.”

It’s possible to agree that the furor over the ad was overhyped while at the same time recognizing the underlying problem it exposes. The not-so-subtle message of the ad that black men—and foreigners in general—are not suitable boyfriend material is one that is held by a not-insignificant number of Chinese people.

The same week the Chinese ad appeared, Ellis Penn, a black New Yorker living in China, made a video that went viral about three annoying things black people have to deal with in China. Among them was the fact that some people ask him how he can be American when, in their eyes, Americans are all white.

 

Those kinds of frank and uninformed comments from Chinese people spring from ignorance. Many Chinese people have never seen a foreigner and don’t know anything about foreign culture. Outside of Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and a few other large second-tier cities, there are not many foreigners. Indeed, I deal with some strange conversations from Chinese people, too. One person at a noodle restaurant took his picture with me and tried to kiss me. Someone once complimented me on my “beautiful blue eyes,” which was flattering, except for the fact that I have brown eyes. Apparently some Chinese think that all Westerners are not only white but also blonde and blue-eyed.

Only, as a white person, I typically don’t deal with too much of the real negative discrimination blacks in China are known to face. I don’t have a hard time hailing a cab, and if I were to apply for a job as an English teacher and was asked to send a photo with my resume, as many schools require, my face would be just the type they would be looking for.

The furor over this ad came one month after the government released a cartoon on National Security Education Day warning Chinese women working for the state against disclosing state secrets to foreign boyfriends, which also made news in the US, and four years after CCTV host Yang Rui said that the Public Security Bureau should “clean out the foreign trash. . . arrest foreign thugs and protect innocent girls.”

If some Chinese have trouble accepting a black man as being American, at least they have the excuse of ignorance. If a candidate for president of the United States doesn’t accept a non-white man as an American, however, that’s another story. In May, presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump referred derisively to the judge hearing his fraud case as a “Mexican.” Last October, when Trump took a question from an (American) Harvard student, who appeared to be of Asian descent, he asked, “Are you from South Korea?”

When Chinese people want to take their photo with me, they know, with almost 100 percent certainty, that I’m a foreigner. China is a pretty homogenous country. But in a diverse melting pot nation of immigrants like the US, people of all different races are Americans.

And not everyone is happy about that. Sixty percent of Trump voters in Massachusetts, for example, say it’s a “bad thing” that America is projected to become majority minority (in other words, plurality white) by 2043, a figure 15 points higher than the total for all Republicans. Other polls have found that Trump’s primary voters were more likely than other Republicans to say that race is an important part of their identity, that discrimination against whites is a major problem, and that immigrants are a burden. Trump voters were also more likely to hold ethnocentric views. (The least likely to be ethnocentric? Voters who supported Jeb Bush, whose immigrant wife Trump attacked in a Fourth of July tweet).

Trump fans on Twitter have even come up with a hashtag to describe their “majority minority” fears: “#WhiteGenocide.” “Thank you for fighting #WhiteGenocide, Donald!,” a user name “AntiWhiteHatePatrol” tweeted to @realDonaldTrump after a white supremacist website encouraged racists to send their regards. As @MaoyuuZeta said on Twitter, before he got his account suspended, “Primarily a nation of WHITE immigrants until 1965. Please don’t cry when that wall goes up”.

Yes, there is still a culture of political correctness when it comes to talking about race in America. There is a tightrope that ordinary white conservatives—those who don’t agree with the #AltRight—still feel like they have to walk if they support things such as tough-on-crime policies but don’t want to be deemed “racist” by politically correct opponents on the left. But unlike the viewers of the Chinese detergent ad, who don’t live in a free and open society, we do. Regardless of our political leanings, we should all be able to agree that there’s no place in this country for racist tirades about who is and isn’t a “real” American. We’re all Americans.

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