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Almost 90 years ago, consumer-products makerHawley & Hazel decided to piggyback on the popularity of vaudeville singers like Al Jolson, a White man who won fame in Jim Crow America performing in blackface. The Shanghai-based company named its new toothpaste brand Darkie and emblazoned its packaging with a blackfaced man sporting a top hat and a toothy grin. Even before the recent Black Lives Matterprotests around the globe, maintaining that kind of racial trope would have been considered a marketing bridge too far in much of the world.
Not so in Asia. The English name on the toothpaste’s packaging was changed in the late 1980s afterColgate-Palmolive Co. bought 50% of the brand, but the product kept its racially charged name in Chinese. It’s still called Hei Ren Yagao—“Black Person Toothpaste”—in China and is one of the nation’s top sellers.
As the Black Lives Matter movement puts companies on the spot forslavery-associated brands such asPepsiCo Inc.’s Aunt Jemima andMars Inc.’s Uncle Ben’s, multinationals also are facing growing pressure to address theracism built into their products targeted at consumers who live far from the U.S. That’s particularly true in Asia, where skin color has long been tied to class and the limited visibility of Black people has allowed some businesses to ignore them—or, worse, make them the butt of their jokes—when crafting their marketing pitches.
“Even in areas like China where they don’t have a lot of Black residents, it will still be a problem,” says Allison Malmsten, an analyst with Daxue Consulting, a market-research firm in Shanghai. “Because of people’s global awareness, it’s going to be really hard to get away with any brand with a racist history, even in a country that doesn’t have that history. It’s only a matter of time before the pressure will be too strong.”
Colgate says it’sreevaluating how it positions Darlie, the slightly tweaked English name that Darkie toothpaste assumed after Colgate bought into the brand. “We are currently working with our partner to review and further evolve all aspects of the brand, including the brand name,” Colgate said in a statement.
Change doesn’t come easily when stereotypes are deeply ingrained among the region’s consumers. Brands that connect white teeth and black skin, for example, can resonate with Chinese who rarely encounter Black people, says Gemmy Cheng, a 21-year-old student in Hong Kong who started brushing with Darlie as a child. “I just thought Black people usually have white teeth, so the perception the product [is] showing is that it’s helping my teeth get whiter and brighter,” she says. “Maybe it’s because Black people are so far from our daily life, so I only have one image of them: white teeth.”
Cheng certainly isn’t the only one attracted to the racially tinged message. Darlie/Hei Ren is successful across East Asia, commanding 17% of the toothpaste market in China and even bigger shares in Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan, says Euromonitor International. Darlie is so popular, it’s even inspired an imitator: Heimei (Black Sister) toothpaste, made by China’sMasson Group Co.
Darlie is just one of the most prominent examples of Asian products or services playing off images associated with slavery or Jim Crow in the U.S. Shanghai-basedWant Want China Holdings Ltd. sells a type of candy with the English name of Hey New; in Chinese it’s Black Girl. And in 2016 a Chinese ad for laundry detergentQiaobi promoted the effectiveness of its cleaning power by showing a young woman stuffing a Black man into a washing machine and then pulling out a light-skinned Asian man in his place.
Becoming less color-conscious could be especially difficult in Asia, a region where cosmetics companies—includingL’Oréal,Shiseido, andProcter & Gamble—have long devoted a big part of their business to marketing creams and lotions that promise tolighten the skin tone of the people who use them. Some refer to their products as skin brighteners and say they can help hide freckles and cover dark blemishes. Others are less euphemistic about the racial implications of products that offer to change the skin tone of their users.
The Indian affiliate ofUnilever Plc sells skin-care products called Fair & Lovely to brighten skin. In neighboring Bangladesh, Unilever is more direct, saying on its website the brand is the world’s “first, safe and effective skin lightening cream” and dating it back to a Hindustan Unilever scientist’s discovery that vitamin B3 could lighten skin color. “Realising its potency and immense potential, he began exploring the possibility of using it to alter skin pigmentation,” the company says.
Men’s skin-care brandFair and Handsome, from another Indian company, Emami Ltd., promises “intense whitening” to users of its advanced whitening cream, and the product’s packaging has a split-screen photo of a model: In one half he has dark skin; in the other, skin that’s much lighter.
In many parts of Asia, “whiteness has been portrayed as something higher on the power hierarchy,” says Yiu-tung Suen, an assistant professor of gender studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “It’s pretty easy for people to have internalized those standards to think that whiteness is something that’s more valued.”Hindustan Unilever didn’t comment. Representatives for Emami didn’t reply to an email and call seeking comment.
The recent racial awareness protests have ledJohnson & Johnson to retreat from the skin-whitening business. The company says it willstop selling its line of whitening products under the Clean & Clear Fairness brand in India and its Neutrogena Fine Fairness line in Asia and the Middle East.
“Conversations over the past few weeks highlighted that some product names or claims on our Neutrogena and Clean & Clear dark spot reducer products represent fairness or White as better than your own unique skin tone,” says J&J spokeswoman Kim Montagnino. “This was never our intention—healthy skin is beautiful skin.”
Many cultures have difficulty seeing the problem with potentially offensive racial depictions. In Malaysia a store chain had toapologize after airing a blackface commercial in 2017. A Chinese New Year skit on state-controlled TV featured a performer in blackface in 2018. And in June a Taiwanese pop group with more than 1.4 million followers on YouTube posted a video of the three singers in blackface.
That these cases keep happening shouldn’t be surprising, says Jason Petrulis, an assistant professor of global history at the Education University of Hong Kong, because blackface in Asia dates to the 1850s. That’s when Commodore Matthew Perry’s U.S. Navy ships forced the opening of Japan to the West and his crew brought minstrel shows—with White sailors performing in blackface—to the region. “Those images are about the contrast between the Black body and the idea of cleanliness or whiteness,” he says. “What that’s saying implicitly, is you want to eliminate blackness from your life. You can see what power the stereotypes have in that they persist.”
That’s why Petrulis is skeptical about Colgate’s ability to overhaul the Darlie brand. “At the core of Darlie is minstrelsy, and you can’t get rid of that through cosmetic changes,” he says.
Still, even before the protests against police killings of Black people, there were signs of progress. In South Korea, where incidents of blackface among K-pop stars were common in the mid-2010s, the backlash against racist videos has helped raise awareness of the issue, says Gil-Soo Han, an associate professor of media studies and a sociologist at Monash University in Melbourne, who published astudy of blackface among Korean singers in 2014. “It used to be a much more serious problem,” he says. Now, with K-pop so big globally,Koreans are more sensitive to overt racism. “If any Korean pop star were blackfacing on mainstream TV, that would be absolutely unacceptable,” Han says. “People are changing and learning.” —Bruce Einhorn and Yunong Wu, with Ankika Biswas and Riley Griffin
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