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Dr. Lisa Tomlinson Headshot

Chinese Detergent Isn't Funny -- It's Racist

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Until we perceive our world through a complex lens or gain insight from the historical context of how White supremacy and patriarchy have successfully (mis)represented Black men and women in mainstream media, we will never fully understand the anger and frustration that many feel when confronted with images like the ones in the racist Chinese laundry detergent advertisement. A Chinese detergent advertisement has created a commercial showing a Black man being shoved into a washing machine and transformed into a lighted-skinned East Asian man.

It was not too long ago in the 19th century when British and United States advertisements for Pears Soap promoted the racist stereotype of black skin as dirty and white skin as pure and desirable. However, the Chinese detergent commercial was in fact a direct mirror of the Italian version in which a White man was changed into an athletically-built Black man with the slogan: "Coloured is Better". Indeed, the Chinese version and the earlier Pear Soap ads blatantly demonstrate anti- Black racism while the Italian version subtly plays into the fetishizing and sexualizing of the Black male body. In both commercials, the emphasis is placed on the muscular chest of the Black males. In the Italian version, the Italian sounding accordion music is replaced with hip hop when the Black man rises from the washing machine.

Seemingly, such racist advertisements no longer come as a shock to many. Racist images of Black people presented in advertisements are consistent with the social perceptions that have been ingrained within our imagination via popular culture and the mass media. The uncouth black brute in need of a cultural make over, or the hyper-sexual desirable buck is an example of a racially demeaning representation commonly used to define Black masculinity.

The Chinese's misstep in drawing upon the racially charged image to sell their product should also come as no surprise. In the 1990s, Darlie Brand toothpaste initially marketed their brand as Darkie toothpaste and featured a bowtie- and top hat-wearing Black man with a broad smile, an image resembling a minstrelsy. Developed in the 19th century after slavery in Southern states, minstrel performances parodied black people as buffoons, lazy, shifty and musical.

And of course, overtly racist adverts are still being featured in North America. For instance, in 2008, Intel launched a national campaign that was no doubt layered with what was symbolically a representation of slave/master relationship. The advertisement featured a White manager standing over six muscular Black males who were bend over in perfect symmetry before him. While Intel professed its innocence in creating such a controversial advertisement, it remains puzzling why the company's advertising direction would contain such an explicit slave imagery.

The fashion industry has been one of the major players that has helped to propagate disparaging images of Black men and women in advertising. One that instantly comes to mind is the 2008 cover of Vogue magazine that capture basketball player LeBron James dribbling a basketball and Brazilian supper model Gisele Bündchen.

While Bündchen gives a smile and is visibly unnerved in the presence of James, James' persona depicts the outraged Black male aggressively clutching onto the fragile white woman. Without a doubt, the shot was obviously referencing the 1933 cinematic classic King Kong with its leading lady Fay Wray. Historically, this image embodies the ugly stereotype of the pure white woman in need of protection from the beastly Black man who seeks physical possession of her.

A more recent advert that stands out is the Nivea "Re-Civilize Yourself" Ad Campaign where the title is self-explanatory. Like the Chinese advertisement, the Nivea ad is implying that Black male must somehow be stripped of his 'Blackness' in order to be cultivated. In this instance, the Black man in the advertisement is being re-civilized into Whiteness. The Black model in the photo "brandishes the large afroed, dismembered head of his former uncivilized self and prepares to give it the old heave-ho". There is a version of this offensive ad featuring a White male model. Yet, his version reads "Sin City isn't an excuse to look like hell."

I could go on and go in unearthing numerous demeaning advertisements of Blacks that don our television screens and popular magazines each year. Some of these ads have provoked controversy, while the bulk of them have gone unnoticed. Unsurprisingly, each time we are confronted with these images, the companies involve either apologize, deny any racist intent or simply justify their work as art. So essentially, the assault continues by advertisers with little or no consideration of the implications that racist adverts have on the consumer's psyche.

It is unfortunate that many societies, globally, have become trapped into reading African bodies as untamed, filthy and/or desirable for only sexual purposes. As such, many of these advertisements only help to fuel the stereotypes of young Black men as a threat and menace to society.

Even more alarming are the Black actors who become active players in these racist schemes. They willingly or shamelessly consent to dehumanising other Africans for monetary gains (receiving the proverbial thirty pieces of silver) or to boost their career profiles.

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