Over the last couple of weeks, there has been a surge in what I might call ‘holier-than-thou’ indignation over a Chinese laundry detergent ad that made the rounds over social media (black man goes into the washing machine, comes out Asian–see below). The ad itself was actually a rehash/reversal/remix of an Italian commercial from about eight years ago (Italian man goes into washing machine, comes out black—see below). The Chinese commercial received a fair amount of mainstream news coverage in the US.
I won’t defend the commercial– it was done in extremely poor taste and deserves to be called out, but some folks are talking about it as if North America doesn’t have an ongoing history of making racist jokes/plays on other cultures. Growing up. subtle jokes like the “Ancient Chinese Secret” Calgon commercial (see below), or the full-on mocking of Japanese (facial expressions, accent, questionable ethics) in the Flintstones episode featuring Rockimoto Judo’s e-to-se-to-ra, e-to-se-to-ra (see below) were totally acceptable on mainstream TV.
Yes, those are old examples but, even today, mainstream comedians continue to use race as fodder for jokes—(remember the Jimmy Kimmel fiasco with the “kill all the Chinese so we don’t have any debt” joke?). If anyone complains about these kinds of jokes, you can count on a healthy chorus of people essentially saying “hey, whatever– it’s just a joke”).
As a black guy (I come from a mixed West-Indian/Euro-Canadian background) married to a Chinese woman, I was fascinated when I stumbled into the cover (above) of a musical entitled “The Wedding of the Chinee and the Coon” (yes it’s real). I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be in an intercultural marriage at that time. The image is horrible, and the words to the song are even more outrageous by modern standards (click through on the link to see the sheet music), but we should never get lulled into thinking: “Oh, but that was so long ago (circa 1897)— things are so much better now”.
We have to remember that Asians are protesting *right now* about the white-washing of Hollywood, and that the 2016 Oscars were boycotted by many black actors, citing the continuous lack of diversity among nominees.
Here in Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission gave us a frank reminder that our government engaged in policies that amounted to cultural genocide, and outlined specific calls to action to try and start the country moving in a positive direction. Despite the graphic schooling in our own history, and how it continues to impact our society, an article actually appeared in the Globe and Mail today remarking that a year has passed since the TRC, and not much has changed.
So– I get it, we see things in other countries and it’s easy to quickly pass judgement; the laundry commercial is definitely crass, but we could be so much more classy if we used these episodes as an opportunity to turn our attentions inward and ponder how some of things that we do, and continue gloss over, might look ridiculous when seen from a different perspective.
I wonder– 100 years from now, how will history judge civil society at the dawn of the 21st century? I wonder what kinds of things that we consider normal-ish now will seem as outrageous as “The Wedding of the Chinee and the Coon”?