Posted on December 2, 2010

Back to the Days of Blackface

Isaac Stone, Newsweek, November 30, 2010

Of all the unfamiliar products in a Chinese supermarket, one of the most shocking to American visitors is a toothpaste featuring the logo of a minstrel singer in a top hat, flashing a white smile. Even more shocking: the paste, known as Darlie in English and as Black People Toothpaste in Chinese, is a product of the Hawley & Hazel Group, a Hong Kong–based company established in 1933, which is now owned in part by the Colgate-Palmolive Co.

Darlie used to be called Darkie. {snip}

After Colgate purchased 50 percent of the firm in 1985, religious groups, African-Americans, and company shareholders protested the racially offensive nature of the brand. After more than three years of criticism, Colgate switched the name from Darkie to Darlie and modified the logo to a less crude version of a black man. {snip}

Yet the Chinese name of the product has remained unchanged. And China is not exactly a paradise of racial harmony. While the crucial dichotomy in China is between Chinese and non-Chinese, many blacks face discrimination in the country. A Ghanaian who lives in China and asked to remain anonymous told NEWSWEEK that a prospective employer told him, “We can’t hire you because you’re black.”

Still, the Chinese don’t view the toothpaste’s name as something reprehensible. “To most people in China it wouldn’t even occur to them that Black People Toothpaste is offensive,” says P. T. Black, who researches Chinese consumers. According to the Chinese news site, Hawley & Hazel has even trademarked the name and image and recently sued two companies in Shenzhen for making toothpaste using a similar logo with the words “Black People.” The court ordered the defendants to pay more than $300,000 in damages.

Yet Colgate is a Western company and, as such, “should know better,” says Kwame Dougan, an African-Canadian living in China. Colgate declined NEWSWEEK’s interview requests, instead releasing a statement saying, “There are different perspectives on this issue.” {snip} Colgate’s Web site has only two mentions of Darlie, both of which talk about how the brand is driving growth in the Asia-Pacific region. {snip}