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How Racist Is Your Toothpaste?

The toothpaste that offers the gleaming white smile of a stereotypical minstrel from the 1920s

05·13·2014

How Racist Is Your Toothpaste?

The toothpaste that offers the gleaming white smile of a stereotypical minstrel from the 1920s

05·13·2014

It’s hard to believe in this day and age that there is such a blatantly racist product as Darlie toothpaste, yet you can find it in virtually any store in the Chinese speaking world. For 60 years, this product dominated the market in Greater China, and it was not until 1985, Colgate-Palmolive purchased Taiwan/Hong Kong-based manufacturer Hawley and Hazel that an outcry in the US occurred, as originally reported by United Press International in 1989:

“A coalition of black clergymen complained Darkie was a derogatory description of North Americans of African origin. They said the logo, which stemmed from the minstrel act made famous by entertainer Al Jolson, conjured up images of a fawning inferior eager to please his master.”

In response, Colgate-Palmolive launched a campaign to re-brand the product to make it more PC, removing the “K” and replacing it with an “L” to make the nonsensical word “Darlie” instead of the racial slur “Darkie”. The face of character was also made to look less like a “Sambo” or minstrel type character, with all the deeply racist connotations that go with them. However the resemblance to a blackfaced Al Jolson in a top hat is now arguably even stronger. Most significantly, the actual Chinese name 黑人牙膏 (Black Man Toothpaste) was never changed in an attempt to maintain the commanding market share in Asia that the brand had at the time,where it was not considered offensive, without the intention of ever selling the product in the US market.

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Colgate-Palmolive’s campaign to gradually re-brand the product, while not confusing its loyal customer base. Image from Weibo user 王小鹏

Today, Darlie dominates the toothpaste market like few other brands in Greater China, as evidenced by the high percentage of shelf space it takes up in a typical store. The average non-Chinese speaker is oblivious to it’s actual name in Chinese characters or it’s dubious past.

I’m ready to hit the town with my Black Man kit including my Black Man toothbrush and Black Man toothpaste! Top hat, bow tie, and greasepaint sold separately. blackman_kit

While they were busy insulting black men, at least they respected the sanctity of black women, right? Well, actually there’s a copycat product called Black Sister Toothpaste too. The name 黑妹 literally translates as “Black Younger Sister”,  with 妹 having a cute or diminutive connotation depending on the context of its usage.

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Image courtesy fromWeibo user 小桂圆很爱困T_T

It’s like saying “Whitey Toothpaste”, that would be ridiculous, no one would dare to create such a product, oh wait, there is White Men Toothpaste as well. White men can’t jump, but this copycat product seems to think they can at least brush their teeth as white as their skin.

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Well white people aren’t really white, they’re more of a pinkish hue, don’t worry they’ve got that covered too with Pink Lady Body Shampoo!

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Beyond toothpaste and soap, there’s a turpentine-based liniment oil that can even be found on the shelves of Asian grocery stores and TCM shops in the US – Black Ghost Oil. There are dozens of products that use this Chinese brand name and some variants shamelessly use the English brands “Darkie”  or  “Negro Oil”, as in the case of this Hong Kong based website. Most versions depict a stereotypical South Asian man with a turban or another “Sambo” type character. Though “Black Ghost” is the literal translation, as a racial slur it’s more accurately translated as the N-word.

The Chinese character 鬼 can be translated as “devil” or “ghost” and when used in reference to people has long been known to be an insulting term used towards non-Chinese such as 白鬼 (white ghost), 黑鬼 (black ghost). the Cantonese 鬼佬 (ghost guy) or alternatively in Mandarin 洋鬼子 (foreign devil), and last but not least 日本鬼子 (Japanese devil). All three of the following images are products that are currently for sale online in China:

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Typical box labeled “Black  Ghost Oil”. Image from tochogo.com

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This package claims to the “Authentic Black Ghost Oil” and the brand at the top is “Singapore”. Image from Huitao.net.

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This product marks itself as “Black Man Trademark”. Image from tochogo.com

Well, at least they aren’t insulting Latinos with any brands in China, that would alienate such a big market, oops! The Chinese name is 稻草人 (Scarecrow) and the Shenzhen-based company markets clothing and handbags in China. Oddly, the company claims to be started by the Frida Kahlo “family” (she had no children) in 1981, not sure how it wound up in Shenzhen.

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There you have it; people of various color and hue thoroughly insulted and alienated by Chinese product branding. An informal survey of the average Chinese citizen will reveal little awareness of the insulting nature of the black face figure on the Darlie package. This is likely due to the lack of knowledge about the historical demeaning use of “sambos”, blackfaces, and the term darkie in the West, as well as the fact that the current figure is depicted with a lighter complexion and more ambiguous facial features. As for Black Ghost Oil, there is also still a strong stereotype of 阿三 (Asian) South Asian men as wearing turbans and charming snakes, thus the figure on the Black Ghost Oil bottle is consistent with preconceived notions of South Asian people. As globalization continues and cross-cultural communication improves, one can only hope that products such as these will gradually fall out of favor, to be left as mere historical curios.

Of course, China is not unique in using race to market products. The US has a long history of racism in advertising that continues to this day. Brands like Red Man Chewing Tobacco below are still going as strong as ever, not to mention major sports franchises such as the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians.

Red Man