Whitewashing: Worse than Chinese Detergent

Have you seen that China-based detergent ad where a black man was stuffed in a washing machine, “cleaned” and emerged Chinese? Racist right? And yet the ad ran for months in China, only going viral after an English-language website blew the whistle. For a country that itself suffered colonial racism you can’t be blamed for wondering, “What’s going on?”

You may not like it, but a certain short-sightedness about race in China is frankly to be expected. There’s only 56 recognised minority groups in China, and by and large, the vast majority of the population is Han. Is it any surprise in a fairly homogenous society, that apathy about racism exists?

Why are we apathetic? Media. If we journey to the West, you can see it first hand in Hollywood.

People are only starting to get mad about this now, but whitewashing has been going on basically forever. It almost makes a minute-long racist detergent commercial look harmless, when you think about entire roles being rewritten to un-cast minorities from the silver screen. Al Jolson wearing blackface in The Jazz Singer (1927), John Wayne playing Genghis Khan (1956), M. Night Shyamalan’s travesty Avatar: The Last Airbender (2010) that had white actors play beloved Asian/Native American heroes. Even discounting the long history of it, it hasn’t stopped. Doctor Strange’s Asian mentor The Ancient One will be played by Tilda Swinton in the upcoming Marvel adaptation (2016), and the ever popular Scarlett Johansson is joining in as Motoko Kusanagi in the live action remake of Ghost in the Shell (2017).

Having actual diversity doesn’t mean racism actually reduces either. The US is far more racially diverse than China, but that doesn’t stop Hollywood from telling us diversity be damned. Should it matter? Yes, because if we take whitewashing as a given, buy movie tickets, follow fandom, and don’t ever question the status quo, then we’re each a little to blame in our own way for perpetuating global racism. Ask yourself: would you be interested in paying to see an Asian Superman? An African Wonder Woman? If the answer is no, maybe stop to consider the implications. If I was asked to choose between the childish, almost comically stupid racism in a small Chinese ad, or the continuing Hollywood practice of discriminating against entire ethnic groups, then suddenly that ad doesn’t quite seem as bad – like the lesser of two evils. And that’s really quite sad.