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I used to think Black Person Toothpaste was funny.
As a kid, I’d giggle when I spotted this particular brand on the shelves of convenience stores in Taiwan. Of course in English it never actually outright said Black Person. The English label reads Darlie Toothpaste, a revised version of its original name -- Darkie. The offense is in Chinese. Hei ren yao gao, the Mandarin inscription says. The direct translation? Black Person Toothpaste.
Sold by an Asian company named Hawley & Hazel and partially owned by America’s Colgate-Palmolive, the brand was born after the founder had seen comedian Al Jolson in his 1920s blackface show. The whiteness of Jolson’s teeth reportedly impressed him and thus, a new product and marketing campaign.
It was distributed in Asia, spreading to China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand. Finally in 1989, after more than three years of backlash and awareness from shareholders in the Western world, Colgate initiated action to eliminate the English name and change the packaging. A black and white man in a top hat replaced the previous logo – a minstrel with blackface. These edits were implemented in 1990, with costs fronted by Colgate.
However, the Chinese name has remained the same: Hei ren yao gao. Black Person Toothpaste.
Thing is, the toothpaste isn’t sold in the Western, English-speaking world (though it has been spotted in some Chinatowns across the States). It’s sold in mostly Mandarin-speaking countries and in these markets, the toothpaste is still a flaming racist.
Unfortunately, no one seems to care.
“It’s the truth,” one of my Taiwanese relatives said, chuckling.
“Black people have whiter teeth. This is a fact,” another affirmed, applauding it as a clever and brilliant marketing joke.
I laughed because my Taiwanese counterparts laughed. As a child, I saw no wrong with it. After all, we didn’t know any black people. All we knew were stereotypes.
But as I grew older and matriculated into the American school system in the extremely diverse city of Los Angeles, I learned about racism. I learned about hate crimes. I met and befriended people from all different types of racial backgrounds. I learned about the dangers of stereotypes and as I grew into this awareness, I myself became painfully perceptive of the stereotypes that folks held against me as an Asian-American female.
“Oh you must be really good at math huh?” I’m not.
“If I go ching chong ching, am I saying anything in Chinese?” No. You sound like an idiot.
“You’re shy because you’re Asian. You guys are quieter in general.” No. Introversion has nothing to do with race.
“I don’t mean this in an offensive way, but you sound hilarious when you answer the phone. Can you make that noise again?” No. My language is not for your amusement.
Last month I went back to Taiwan with my family for the first time in years and in the convenience store, I saw it again: Black Person Toothpaste. But this time around, it was no longer funny.
“Why are you so angry?” my Taiwanese-born friend asked me after seeing a rambling Facebook post I wrote on the matter. “Black Person Toothpaste never did anything to you.”
Another one messaged me, privately and innocently: “Why is it racist?”
The justifications started rolling in.
“It’s a fact. Teeth are whiter on black skin.”
“Chinese people don’t mean it in a negative, harmful way.”
“It’s just funny. Why don’t you get humor?”
According to Colgate themselves, it’s a difference in perspective.
On their website, “The Chinese language name, ‘Hei ren,’ was not changed. Hawley & Hazel's research shows that Chinese consumers perceive the ‘Hei ren’ toothpaste brand to be trustworthy, international and modern. Colgate is committed to demonstrating respect to all people; as a result of our investment in Hawley & Hazel, the totally unacceptable English language brand name was removed from the marketplace. We understand that there are different perspectives on the Chinese language brand, and we continue to consider these perspectives in our discussions with Hawley & Hazel.”
As someone who is a direct product of both cultures, both American and Chinese, I say this: It’s not a matter of perspective. East versus West, Chinese versus American has nothing to do with it. This is a human issue, not a cultural issue. The consequence of stereotypes, which perpetuates racism, has very serious repercussions.
Read up on the experiences of black people in China here and here. There have been numerous instances of black English teachers being turned down from jobs in China because children and parents are reportedly scared of them.
In blatant contrast, when I asked my white American-born friend who has lived in Taiwan for the last 10 years about her experience with racism, her response was: “Yes, I am stereotyped, but no one is ever mean to me. If anything, I encounter too much positive stereotyping. If that makes any sense.”
Black people in Asia, unfortunately, do not get the same luxury.
It’s a matter of what stereotypes are being perpetuated. In Taiwan for one, the most popular artists are almost always white. If you check their Spotify rankings, the top 10 list is currently graced with names like Ed Sheeran, Maroon 5, Mark Ronson, Hozier, Kygo, and Calvin Harris. And of course, the highest grossing movies are always from Hollywood.
Black culture, unfortunately, does not get the same luxury.
My own Taiwanese family had once told me: “You can marry an Asian guy or a white guy. But please, not a black guy.” As a kid I took this at face value.
While there aren’t a significant number of black people in China, population numbers should have nothing to do with how a racial group is treated and perceived. Stereotypes enforce racism, even if it’s something as mild as white teeth on black skin. Point blank.
There’s nothing funny or harmless about this and when a company is profiting from the marketing of tropes (and has been for decades), there’s something immensely wrong.
Just because the Chinese aren’t offended by Black Person Toothpaste doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.
''It's just plain wrong,'' Reuben Mark, the chairman and chief executive of Colgate told the New York Times regarding the issue in 1989.''It's just offensive. The morally right thing dictated that we must change. What we have to do is find a way to change that is least damaging to the economic interests of our partners.''
Yes. Mark made changes. But to whose benefit? It still reads Black Person Toothpaste in Chinese. The changing of the English name from Darkie to Darlie has done absolutely nothing – except take advantage of the fact that most folks from the West can’t read what it really says in Chinese and therefore won’t be offended.
The morally right thing to do was to change the product completely – in all languages.
It’s been nearly 25 years since that first edit. It’s time to make another one. Colgate, get rid of Black Person Toothpaste. There’s enough racism in the East and we don’t need to add to it. Stop contributing to the stereotyping of black people in Asia. Stop contributing to racism overseas.