A Chinese woman is doing laundry. In a doorway behind her stands a black man, whom she notices and seductively motions over. Just as she pulls him in close, leaning in for a kiss, she suddenly pops a detergent packet in his mouth and crams him into the washing machine. After a couple of cycles he reemerges as a pale-skinned Chinese man. Her eyes gleam with desire for the new, “clean” man.
Honestly, I wasn’t even surprised when I saw this on WeChat — China’s messaging app. I decided to report it for hateful content, but the only options I was allowed to select were fraud, sexual content, rumors, deceptive marketing, collection of private information, plagiarism, copyright and intellectual property infringement, and just “other.” Facebook and YouTube specifically include abusive or hateful content as reportable offenses.
This isn’t the first time in recent months that Chinese advertisements have made headlines for unfettered discrimination against black people. In December 2015 the promotional poster in China for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” shrunk and moved lead actor John Boyega into the background.
As a black woman from the United States, I have encountered discrimination in its various manifestations. The U.S. is well-known for its unapologetic racism, although our racism stems from slavery, from oppression, and from notions of white supremacy.
In my personal experience, I have been exposed to colorist discrimination — discrimination based on skin tone over race — many times in China. My skin is a lighter shade of black, and it isn’t uncommon for a compliment about my appearance to be followed up with a rebuke on darker-skinned black people. I was recently sitting in a car with an acquaintance who kept gushing about how beautiful I am. “You are one of those attractive-looking black people, those with a honey skin tone. Not black like people in Africa. Those people are really black.”
I tried to elicit what it was about dark skin that made people unattractive but was met with silence. I asked if she thought dark-skinned celebrities like Gabrielle Union or Naomi Campbell were beautiful, to which she responded, “Well, yes, those women are very beautiful, but I don’t think it’s that common. I don’t often see black women that look like that.”
These ideas frequently carry over into the workplace. I first came to Shanghai to work as an English teacher, and I remember one occasion when I told one of my students that I was 25. She remarked with surprise, “Wow, I thought at least 29. Dark skin makes people look so much older.” She then proceeded to compare me to the Chinese assistant teacher, whom she believed to be much younger and more beautiful because of her pale skin. On another occasion in the same job, one of the staff members sat down with a student and complimented her white skin, saying that she wanted a daughter just like her.
Of course, colorism is prevalent in the U.S. as well. In 2015 a study by Lance Hannon at Villanova University found that lighter-skinned African Americans and Latinos are more likely to be seen as “intelligent” by white people than those with darker skin. But one interesting characteristic of colorist discrimination in China is its roots in traditional culture.
It was originally a form of class discrimination. Peasants who worked outdoors in agriculture normally had darker complexions than those who stayed inside and lived a more genteel life. Thus, dark skin became associated with the lower, working classes.
Before the rise of the consumer market in China, “whitening” a person through the use of creams and paints was a hobby indulged in more by the richer classes. It was a symbol of feminine beauty, and women would cake on makeup to pale their skin. In the late 20th century, as China’s middle class and a capitalist market developed, whitening creams began dominating the cosmetics industry. Being pale-skinned was an attainable reality to most people, and this only served to stoke the flames of colorist preferences.
Many of my black friends have derogatorily been called heigui — Chinese for “black ghost” — by their students. We have all experienced people moving away from us on the subway, clutching their belongings tighter. It’s common for promoters at clubs to be told to bring in white clientele or for us to be asked what our skin color is during phone interviews.
Beauty magazines are filled with smiling white faces. Advertisements, both in China and across the world, emphasize whiteness as an ideal of beauty. These archaic notions are deeply embedded in cultures, and instead of being fought off are actually promoted by the beauty industry. It’s not easy to reshape the values of an entire country, but one place to start would be to hold the beauty industry accountable for its prejudice, both in China and abroad.
(Header image: A Chinese girl takes a selfie with her African friend on an overpass in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, July 3, 2012. Zhang Xinyan/Sixth Tone)