Online Outrage Over Racist Chinese Ad Says a Lot About How China and the West React to Racism

A China in Africa Podcast

The company behind the racist Chinese laundry detergent ad that sparked widespread online outrage around the world issued a half-hearted apology for the uproar it caused. Actually, it was one of those “we’re sorry if anyone was offended” kind of apologies, nonetheless Shanghai Leishang Cosmetics did say sorry to Africans for any misunderstandings caused by the Qiaobi detergent ad: “We express our apology for the harm caused to the African people because of the spread of the ad and the over-amplification by the media,” the company said. It’s the second part of their “kind of” apology that is especially interesting. Deep down, it’s highly likely that they are not really that sorry about the whole thing, but they do seem perturbed that the international media made such a fuss: “The foreign media might be too sensitive about the ad,” said a company spokesman.

We express our apology for the harm caused to the African people because of the spread of the ad and the over-amplification by the media

The media seemingly picked up on the massive Internet outrage that erupted, mostly in the U.S. and U.K., about the ad and the shocking characterization of black people as being “dirty.” For most westerners, this type of blatant in-your-face racism is more reminiscent of 19th century “black face” media in the U.S. than the more subtle, yet equally destructive, stereotypes of black people that remain depressingly common in contemporary television and film.

Now that this incident appears to be settling down and we can step back to analyze what happened, it’s apparent just how little Chinese society has progressed in understanding the importance of racial and cultural diversity, as well as how seriously much of the rest of the world takes this issue. Throughout much of this affair, it really seemed that Chinese and Westerners were speaking past each other in two totally different conversations. Westerners, mostly white people, were visibly outraged by the Chinese callousness. Meanwhile, the prevailing Chinese response was often confusion over what all the fuss was about. Not surprisingly, this led to a retreat into an instinctive defensive crouch that occurs whenever China comes under sustained criticism from the West.

Nicole Bonnah is the Beijing-based founder of the Blacks Lives in China blog and a documentary producer working on a new film about black and African experiences in China. In response to the recent controversy, Nicole wrote an entry for her blog this week that said the time is now here for the Chinese to accept some responsibility for the “Afric-phobia” and anti-black racism that is prevalent in contemporary Chinese society. She joined Eric to discuss her recent blog post and to reflect on the Qiaobi ad controversy as a whole.