The View From Asia

Time to address racism

Is it ignorance that leads to racism? How do we go about spreading awareness in societies? And what are the pitfalls of not addressing this issue, as countries globalise? Two commentators take up recent issues in China and India to share their perspectives.

Detergent ad a wash out

Raymond Zhou
China Daily, China

The controversy surrounding an advertisement for a Chinese detergent is the latest in cultural mismatch in the progress towards globalisation.

Qiaobi, the detergent brand, posted a video commercial that shows a young black man being thrust into a washing machine. Out comes a fair-skinned Asian, the kind of androgynous pop idol that represents the trend for male beauty in China. The ad went viral and became a target of criticism.

Leishang Cosmetics, the company that owns the brand, issued an apology to those who may have felt offended.

Suffice to say, this ad would never have been able to get past the marketing department, let alone get to the broadcast platform, had it been in a Western country.

While the racial insensitivity was outrageous, the underlying forces for this advert could be much more complicated. I don't think the advertiser equated blackness with dirtiness, at least, not consciously.

For many years, there was a toothpaste ad on Chinese television that used a black person. Even the brand was called Darkie. I heard expatriates squirmed when they saw it.

For good or bad, blacks, as a race, are used for dramatisation when appearing in Chinese imagery.

The ad for Qiaobi detergent went viral and caused a stir after it showed a young black man (above) being thrown into a washing machine. Later, a fair-skinned Asian man popped out.  PHOTOS: YOUTUBE

There is a historical correlation between dark skin and low social status. In the old days, physical labourers had to work in the fields. So, the more suntanned the skin, the less shelter and comfort one is presumed to have enjoyed.

Even today, in an age of fitness mania, the joke is still around when a young man in China has skin darker than the average.

The ad for Qiaobi detergent went viral and caused a stir after it showed a young black man being thrown into a washing machine. Later, a fair-skinned Asian man (above) popped out.  PHOTOS: YOUTUBE

Many Chinese have never come into contact with people of other races, especially blacks, and they may not know whether or how the issue of skin colour can be addressed properly. That said, I would not justify the simmering racial discrimination that exists among some of my compatriots.

An example is the Chinese poster for the new Star Wars movie. The lead actor, who is black, mysteriously disappeared from the group image until he was re-inserted as a result of protests.

Whoever made the initial decision could be thinking that Chinese moviegoers would not be drawn by an unknown black man, to put it mildly.

That is why symbols like the first black American President and Hollywood luminaries like Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman are so important in shaping public perception. They help shatter the stigma inherent in parts of the Chinese public.

Ignorance is at the heart of the problem. Until you have mingled with a fair number of regular people of other races, you tend to form premature opinions that are basically prejudices and, if you're a film-maker, you might reinforce them by presenting crude replicas on the screen.

In 2011, CNN posted on its website an article listing "the most revolting food" in the world. Much of it was Asian food like the century egg, which is a traditional snack in China. After causing a controversy, it apologised for "any offence the article has inadvertently caused".

Had it labelled the article "some revolting food in the eyes of most Westerners" and changed the tone from authoritative to humorous, it might have flown by without any controversy. Instead, it could have been helpful by alerting some Chinese not to serve these local favourites to foreign guests.

But I guess the editors had forgotten that CNN is a global news operation rather than an Atlanta local media outlet.

Likewise, Qiaobi forgot we are living in a global village. Its detergent may not be targeted at Africans per se, but it is not selling to a landlocked market either.

So, it should have vetted the ad concept with cross-cultural experts, or at least with a few blacks, as they are the subject of the misplaced humour here.

India riven by ugly racism

Kaleke Kalawole
The Statesman, India

Visiting the land of Gandhi was a childhood dream that deepened with my growing understanding of the shared history of Africa and India, from the seldom- acknowledged African demographic that has imbibed an Indian identity, to Gandhi's role in the anti-apartheid movement. 

This aspiration became a reality in July 2014, when I set foot in India.

It didn't take me long to discover that beneath the magnificent Taj Mahal and the enthralling landscapes lay a much uglier India, a society riven with racism and intolerance. 

From restaurants to shopping malls, slums to upscale neighbourhoods, no matter where I went, I was constantly stared at and often photographed without my consent.

At national monuments, people were quick to sideline the exhibits and gawk at me, making me wonder if I was an exotic creature from Africa. 

Although I had been warned about racism, I was taken aback by the severity and prevalence of intolerance. Of course, I wasn't the only victim of racism. 

Early this year, a mob attacked a Tanzanian girl as retaliation for a car accident involving a Sudanese man. In the eyes of the mob, the Tanzanian's skin colour and ethnicity made her culpable for the accident. 

Last month, a 29-year-old Congolese was killed in New Delhi, and several other African students were assaulted in the following weeks. 

A consensus against racism, if any, is reserved for incidents outside India. The arrest of  Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade in the US sparked a diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

When Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan was detained at a US airport, angry fans burned American flags and chanted slogans against racism, oblivious to the discrimination faced by millions of Indians in their own country, by their own countrymen and women.

Racism in India is systemic and independent of the presence of foreigners. Indians with darker complexions are rendered subordinate, forced to the periphery of society.

Matrimonial ads unabashedly boast of light skin.

Just days after the country boasted of "unity in diversity" during the 2014 Republic Day celebrations in January, Mr Nido Tania, a 20-year-old student from north-east India was mocked for his "Chinese-like" looks and was brutally killed.

It is ironic that Indians continue to perpetuate the very racism that was inflicted on the natives during colonial times. 

A 2013 study by Swedish economists found India to be one of the most racist countries in the world. Wiping out racism is not just a moral imperative for India.

She cannot realise her dream of becoming an economic superpower unless she creates a more safe, inclusive and tolerant society for all peoples of India, and all peoples of the world.

Despite all the teases and taunts, some of the most loving people I've ever met are from India; some of the most respectable people I've met come from India.

I look forward to visiting India again (from Portsmouth, Britain), but, hopefully, I will be visiting a country that will judge me by my character and not by my colour. 

  • The View From Asia is a weekly compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 newspapers.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 11, 2016, with the headline 'Time to address racism'. Print Edition | Subscribe