Friday, June 3, 2016

Rant: Moral Relativism and That Racist Chinese Laundry Ad

I have to get this off my chest.

Here we are again. The North American internet has blown up over some racist content that some people in China made, specifically a detergent ad in which a young Chinese women shoves her handsome and seemingly Black boyfriend into a washing machine and he comes out a light-skinned handsome Chinese guy. It's racist, pure and simple, and has all the shitty connotations. Blackness is bad, whiteness is good, blackness is dirty, whiteness is clean, blackness is undesirable, whiteness is what everyone needs etc. etc.

While this may not offend most Chinese nationals, I do agree that this ad is objectively racist and problematic. That being, said I can understand how it came to fruition, which is more than I can say for the majority of the English speaking internet at the moment. You can watch it here, if you want to feel uncomfortable.
So naturally hordes of North Americans netizens are taking to all sorts of channels to blast this ad, and say how backwards and terrible and racist and intolerant China is and making comments against China, its culture and its people that are pretty much just as racist as the ad itself. Many are questioning, "How could such a thing be made!? It's 2016! Who approved this?! What a bunch of insensitive assholes!" (that last one wasn't a question). And herein lies my problem with people who react, knee-jerkily to offensive things from other countries -- they ask questions but they don't seem to give a crap about finding the answers. 

It is a good question though, how did this come to be? Who in their right mind would make such an offensive ad? Well I covered this sort of thing before in my article on racism in South Korea which you can read here if you so desire, but basically I'm a believer, within reason, in moral relativism -- not so much as an ideal but more as a fact of life -- it's a thing that exists in reality for better or for worse. If you don't know, moral relativism basically equates to "what seems fine in some places is totally not cool in others". Now I do believe that some things can be considered objectively wrong, such as things that cause irreparable pain and trauma, like rape or murder -- wherein it is clear that great human suffering is taking place, but I think it goes without saying that in this vast world, different places have different conditions and circumstances that produce different social climates and situations. 

Segregated drinking fountains were a thing in America. In China, they were not a thing.
While this might be an unpopular opinion, I think racism works in a similar way. This is why I think that judging racism from a place like China in the same way you would judge racism from the United States or Canada, doesn't make sense. I believe most of our strong reactions to racism in North America are the result of our national histories, and present apparently, being full of unabashed institutional racism which makes a lot of people miserable and dead on a weekly basis. We carry with us a sort of national guilt, or anger or what-have-you that makes many of us, especially those who identify as "non-racist" very sensitive towards any sort of thing that could be construed as overt racism, like a laundry ad in China for example. To put it in the simplest terms, I believe that black-face or yellow-face in movies would likely be a non-issue if North America's history (and present) wasn't rife with discrimination against people of colour (especially in the film industry). I mean it would be kind of odd, but I doubt it would be considered nearly as offensive.     

But here's the thing, China doesn't have the same racial baggage that we do. The Chinese never sailed to Africa to enslave large segments of the local populations to work their fields, breaking up families and commodifying humans. They didn't (however "unofficially") summarily exclude them from higher education and, subsequently, higher wage jobs, indirectly (and sometimes directly) forcing them to live in poverty stricken ghettos, while chastising them for being lazy and somehow inherently less intelligent. Their cops don't racially profile them on a regular basis even now (not sure about that last one actually). I can't even find a statistic for the amount of Black people currently living in China which leads me to believe that there probably aren't that many relative to the massive Han Chinese and other populations that lives there.

This is from an interesting video which tries to put some things in perspective. You can watch here. The host in the video is English by the way.
I mean, the ad is still racist, and just cause it's from China doesn't make it right. But I would say that it makes it kind of a different beast entirely. I should bloody well hope that seeing a Black person, literally being "whitewashed" in a washing machine would strike a very strong cord for the average North American. I'm convinced that if this ad was released in North America it would be a media massacre -- no one would buy that detergent ever again, and that would be only the most peaceful outcome. However, it's pretty ignorant to expect the vast majority of Chinese to have the same reaction. Why did this ad get made? Because most Chinese wouldn't have a problem with it and it's a Chinese ad directed at Chinese people. If you get mad at China and the Chinese for thinking this sort of thing is okay, for being "backwards" or somehow intrinsically wrong, you are essentially getting mad at China for not being more like America or Canada and, like it or not, that makes you a cultural chauvinist. "We are right, they are wrong." I know it's hard, but just imagine if slavery, apartheid and racial segregation never happened, and you saw this ad, your reaction would, logically, be different, you might even think it was funny, perhaps a harmless bit of tongue-in-cheek. 

Now look, I know that as a white, hetero, cis-gendered, able-bodied, facially symmetrical, English speaking, middle-class, employed, male, I'm practically swimming in privilege and have little business telling less or differently privileged people, what they should be mad at. The internet is also a big place that gives us the illusion that we are all connected, that we should all know and be sensitive to each other's issues. But you can't expect a Chinese twenty-something who spent their entire lives in Chengdu, who speaks a smattering of English and works a dreary nine to five, to give the same amount of hoots you do about something as mundane as a detergent commercial made at the expense of an ethnic group they've likely only ever seen on television and in Hollywood movies - which, by the way don't paint an especially positive picture, by-and-large.

Hypothetically, imagine if you were some person living in a small city in China and Lil' Wayne was the only Black American person you knew of. Like you knew there were others, but Lil Wayne was the only one you'd ever seen, in a magazine you read in a hair shop one time (or something). Yeah, just think about that.   
And therein lies another thing that pisses me off about this whole dynamic. We North Americans seemingly love to get pissed off at people in other countries for portraying insensitive and stereotypical images of our Black countrymen but where do you suppose they got those negative stereotypes to begin with? You know what has been famous in Asia for a really long time? American movies and pop music. Now, I like me some Hollywood and I'm not suggesting that all racism in Asia against American people of colour can be traced to American pop culture, but I'd wager that quite a large portion of it can, especially when it comes to portrayals of Black American culture.

Take a second and think for a moment. Could you imagine what kind of mindset you would have if your only point of reference for Black American culture was Kanye West, Lil' Wayne, Chris Brown, Rihana, Nicki Minaj, and Beyonce combined with the numerous Black stereotypes one can easily see in the latest Michael Bay vehicle and the like? (Transformers was very popular in China I'm told) Also imagine if you didn't have normal Black people around to balance out this extremely lop-sided influx of information? Yeah see that's what I think is going on here. It's like sneezing on someone and then blaming them for getting sick. I honestly can't think of a more racially segregated industry, rife with racialized caricatures, yet still so widely accepted as legitimate, than the American pop music industry. Also, it's still a big deal when a Black American person let alone a Black woman gets a role in a Hollywood film that isn't exploitative in some way. I mean, what year is this again? I digress.

Remember these lovable scamps from Transformers? Hehe, and one of them had a gold tooth, and they spoke in ebonics and they were lazy and kind of slow and everyone loved them and we all had a good laugh, hahaha, and nobody was offended? Remember that? No?  
In my experience, the proof is in the pudding. I've gone through more instances than I can count wherein I've tried, with varying degrees of success, to convince my students and local friends here (in South Korea, where I am currently living, albeit not China) that Black Americans aren't anymore prone to delinquency, promiscuous behavior and/or violence than anyone else, and I mean, lets be honest here, where else could they getting these ideas than from American media? East Asian television shows sure don't feature too many Black characters period.

If the add featured one of these migrant workers getting "whitewashed" I get the feeling it would have generated way more controversy locally. And most Americans, probably wouldn't give a crap about it. 
I'll end with quick turn back to moral relativism. I bet if the advertising execs decided to replace the Black man in the Ad with a dark-skinned migrant worker from Northern China, or a Turkic Muslim, or a Tibetan, or a South East Asian man, you would have a shit-storm on your hands -- at the very least it would definitely strike a cord with a number of sizable local populations. It's a different reality over there, plain and simple, and that's how terrible commercials like the one everyone is raging over get made. Sure, the world is seemingly getting smaller and we're all getting more connected, but it's still frickin' huge and we're not all in the same boat. We also have to think about the consequences of the messages we send out -- context is important and certain information processed in certain conditions can lead to all sorts of outcomes, some great, some terrible.            

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