by Sharon H. Chang
Alright that's done. I want (pause) -- well I don't want, but feel like I need to show you two TV ads recently posted to YouTube literally within days of each other. Both are out of east Asia, Japan and China respectively. The first is a Toyota commercial out of Japan. It portrays a shiny techno-future funneled through the nostalgic eyes of a white father and happy memories of his mixed race Japanese family/children:
Not super hard to read the messaging here right? Japan is changing. Got it. Changing for the better. Got it. Symbolized by this mixed race family. Got it. And importantly, symbolized by this mixed race family with a white father. Got it. Now let me pause and give nod to something super important here. It is rare to see mixed families portrayed at all in Japan, a nation with an impressive history of racial-ethnic purity rhetoric, xenophobia, violent discrimination and practice. So yes I completely get that this Toyota commercial is a step forward.
At the same time it isn't.
Now, check out this second commercial for Qiaobi laundry detergent out of China which has been airing at least since April. A Black man (presumably a worker by his accessories) flirts with an Asian woman who seems likewise interested. But as soon as he gets close enough she pushes a detergent pod in his mouth, his entire body into a washing machine, then "washes" him clean while we hear shouting and protest. When the cycle is done? Out pops a light-skinned Asian man -- to the Asian woman's very visible delight. WHAT.
Many viewers will find the content in this ad very offensive and upsetting.
Again, not hard to read the messaging but hello. That message sure got super different when Blackness was involved. No happy family with mixed race kids here. We don't know about hope-for-the-future-anything cause that's not a component in the slightest. Instead a Black man worker is being scrubbed to the point of erasure. To many around the world, particularly in the U.S., this ad is so racist and damaging it's intolerable. But according to The New York Times the ad evoked very little reaction among Chinese in China at all, much less outrage, because anti-Black portrayals like this are so normalized. Making matters stupidly worse an agent for the detergent company -- in possibly one of the most outrageous examples of global-cultural incompetence ever -- defended the ad by protesting it needed to be deliberately "sensational" to "stand out." Right.
Japan, as writer Katy Lee noted for Vox, has similar problems with anti-Blackness including fairly widespread and accepted public performances of blackface even by celebrities as recently as last year. And yes I know Ariana Miyamoto (Black/Japanese) was crowned Miss Universe Japan in 2015 but what was one of the first things she talked about with the press post-win? How much racism she dealt with as a child growing up in Japan. She was constantly bullied, called the Japanese equivalent of the N-word, children threw garbage at her or refused to swim in the same pool. And guess which mixes have some of the roughest time in Japan? Mixed Blacks.
Yeah let's talk about that mixed race thing one more time. Notice how these boundaries -- Black, Chinese, Japanese, white -- don't stay within bounds. They slip and slide, move and bump, and can't stop themselves from materializing within and upon the bodies of mixed people. It is inescapable that conversations about race and the policing of racial lines end up involving multiracials. Repeat: Inescapable. The laundry detergent ad does not show mixed actors (that we know). However in The New York Times article which quoted the defensive detergent agent, guess who the next person quoted was? Elena Young, a mixed race American who teaches kindergarten in Zhejiang Province, in eastern China. And immediately following Young? The article notes how online commenters assailed a mixed race Chinese reality show contestant in 2009 for having a Black father; an incident which made international headlines.
It is inescapable that conversations about the policing of racial lines end up involving multiracials.Repeat: Inescapable.
I've written on this before but it's worth repeating a gazillion times. One of the arguments I hear way too often is that "race is different depending on context, region, geography" etc. This is usually following or prefacing a direct or indirect statement that "racism is a U.S. thing." In other words, white supremacy and anti-Blackness built upon the displacement of Indigenous peoples is really just a problem the continental United States has. Also, there's a sense internationally that the States created the white-on-Black-erase-Natives doctrine and everything is our fault. Okay first. That's false. It was actually elite white European men who finely honed and coined the white supremacist doctrine we know today, at the height of Western colonialism. Second, the idea that white supremacy, anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity only impact the U.S. -- let's not mince words here -- is total bullshit. Western colonialism touched somewhere around 85 percent of the globe and today Western media, still rife with rampant racism and racial stereotypes, is consumed everywhere.
So yes of course racism is differently nuanced and complex within different geographies. But the basic premise is still the same and continues to be reproduced, re-inscribed and re-written everywhere. To me then that "racism is a U.S. thing" argument is a cop-out. COME ON. Life as a white person traveling the globe is obviously not the same as a Black person traveling the globe. Life for Indigenous peoples on their own lands continues to be violently contested in so many places. Raymond Zhou, a columnist for China Daily, admitted "outright racism" exists in China but wrote overall attitudes are "not totally race based" because "many of us even look down on fellow Chinese who have darker skin." Okay fine. But it wasn't a dark-skinned Chinese man who got pushed into the washing machine for effect was it? It was the Black man who got washed away. And if a mixed race family was going to be anything in Japan, it had to be one with a white father right?
There's some great work being done in the U.S. around challenging white supremacy and undoing anti-Blackness in Asian American communities. Certainly not enough, but really great work. The question though is not just how are we going to take to task white supremacy and anti-Blackness in Asian American communities, but how are we going to take to task white supremacy and anti-Blackness globally across the Asian and Asian American diaspora? And crucially how are we going to involve the very people who embody said racial tensions, mixed race Asians themselves, who are often also transracial and transnational? In a fast-shrinking global culture made smaller and smaller by technology, we can only do our work in vacuums within boxes for so long. If these two ads do anything for me they confirm just how global racism really is and how much of our work needs to exist across geographies, spaces, and worldwide places.