Why blackface persists in Asia and what Western media gets wrong

Why blackface persists in Asia and what Western media gets wrong

The regularity with which blackface appears in Asia is shameful, but there is more to this trend than what many commentators in the West tend to report.

Seasoned Asia watchers will not have been surprised by the inclusion of a blackface act in China’s Lunar New Year TV program, as similar incidents occur with lamentable regularity across the region. While such fiascos ought to become a thing of the past, it is important to note that these incidents occur in a different cultural and historical setting, one that while not excusing the acts in question, does warrant a more nuanced reaction than the knee jerk response most Western (especially American) media outlets tends to take.

 
 

This most recent incident took place during one of the largest televised events in the world, with an estimated 800 million people viewing the four hour-long Lunar New Year special. At the centre of the controversy is the depiction of an African woman (replete with blackface, fake buttocks and bosom) by Chinese actress Lou Naiming sporting a sloppy approximation of traditional African garb.

While Lou was accompanied by actual African entertainers, they (a man in a monkey outfit among them) remained secondary, as Lou waxed poetic about all the good China has done for Africa. Ostensibly set in Kenya, the home of various Chinese infrastructure projects, the skit sees Lou praise China on behalf of Africa: “I love Chinese people. I love China!” she exclaims the cameras.

 
 

The fact that China’s state broadcaster CCTV could not or would not hire an African actress to play the part is most bizarre: some 100,000 Africans work and study in China. Any praise heaped upon the Chinese government would surely sound more convincing coming from the mouths of actual Africans. Any logistical hurdles could at the very least have easily been overcome with subtitles. CCTV would not even have needed to hire a translator, given the growing numbers of Africans living and working in China, as well as the rise in Mandarin proficiency in the wake of China’s Confucius Institutes and other soft-power efforts in key African trading nations.

This trend was on display as various African women dressed as airline hostesses entertained the crowd with their grasp of Mandarin. The gist of the skit even centered around an African woman speaking fluent Mandarin enlisting the aid of the Chinese protagonist to avoid her mother’s matchmaking efforts by pretending to be her boyfriend. The production had actual Mandarin speaking African performers on hand, and still opted for a Chinese actress in blackface.

For all his faults, Bill Cosby hired a Harvard professor of psychiatry to consult on almost every episode of ‘The Cosby Show’ to ensure that there wasn’t a single stereotype of people. China should consider similar action. What we need now is a clear signal that this sort of event will never occur again [sic].
— Hannah Getachew, Ethiopian law student at Peking University

China’s has invested hundreds of billions into Africa and views the continent as one of its most important trading partners. This focus on Africa also led the planning committee, in conjunction with state authorities, to make Africa a key focal point in the nationwide TV event. This skit was part of a highly choreographed and meticulously rehearsed production that had the fingerprints of the central government all over it, and yet the use of blackface still received the green light.

Calling China racist smacks of Western interference to Beijing

Western media outlets were quick to jump on the bandwagon condemning CCTV and the Chinese government for their lack of judgement. American and British outlets in particular reported the story with the same kind of moral outrage and perspective as if such a performance had taken place in their own countries.

This barrage of criticism only led China to further dig in its heels, claiming that its actions were not racist. Foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang even publicly remarked that “recently, many media, especially Western media, have reported on and commented on this matter [...] I want to say that if there are people who want to seize on an incident to exaggerate matters and sow discord in China’s relations with African countries, this is a doomed, futile effort.”

By criticizing racism in China, foreign media are triggering an (in their view) outsized response from the government because such claims raise the ire of Beijing in two ways. Firstly, no one takes accusations (rightly or wrongly) of racism lightly, so on this level Beijing’s pushback is understandable. However, the secondary reason such statements set off alarm bells for the Chinese government is because the regime works hard to actively discourage discussions of racism among its population.

By highlighting racist behaviour in China, foreign media become a threat in the eyes of the Chinese government because such stories undermine the government’s narrative that racism is something that happens to Chinese people, not the other way around. There is a similar attitude in Japan, with racism being viewed as Amerika byo or an ‘American illness’ created by that country’s racial history; one that ethnically homogeneous Japan does not experience; a sentiment echoed by the Chinese government.

 
 

It all comes to down to the Party’s chief concern about maintaining stability through the development of Chinese nationalism, which is predicated on the notion of one country, one party, one people. The government has gone to great lengths to enshrine the legacy of China’s Century of Humiliation (1839-1949) at the hands of racist Western and Japanese imperial powers in its nation building narrative: arguments that complicate China’s identity as victim are suppressed.

Accusing China of racism in turn undermines the government’s narrative of victimhood which it uses to justify its self-portrayal as the only power able to prevent the return of such deprivations. Divided by language and religion, China’s rulers have turned to ethnicity to underwrite a sense of Chinese identity. This effort is aided by the fact that 92 percent of the population is Han Chinese, and in the post-Mao era anthropology was revived en masse. Since the late 1970s, Chinese academics have spent decades undertaking cranial, serological and other tests to prove that China’s fifty plus minorities are actually closely related to the Han majority.

Discussions of ethnicity and racism raise the spectre of separatism in the minds of China’s leaders as the Tibetan and Uyghur independence movements are in large part predicated on the assertion that those populations are distinct peoples. Consequently, the mythical Yellow Emperor has approved cult status as the progenitor of the Chinese race, and “Chinese academics remain curiously resistant to an ‘out of Africa’ explanation of human origins,” according to The Economist.

There is no longer a distinction between domestic and foreign content

The Chinese government is prickly about foreign criticism at the best of times, but especially so during large-scale domestic events, such as the Olympics, national and wartime anniversaries, and Party Congresses. The Lunar New Year event fits this bill perfectly, as it caters to a domestic audience as part of the Party’s efforts (alongside Xi Jinping’s address) to showcase its latest achievements. Moreover, Beijing makes a clear distinction between content designed for domestic and international consumption. The Lunar New Year program was created with a domestic audience in mind, one which would not object to an actress appearing in blackface.

This dualistic approach highlights a blind spot in the thinking of the Chinese leadership. The government goes to such great lengths to (by and large effectively) restrict access to the wider Internet and international media for its citizens that it forgets that the rest of the world can still see in. “China is walled off except for economic interaction,” argues Patrick Gathara, a cartoonist from Kenya’s The Daily Nation in Nairobi. This in effect has created a ‘one-way mirror mentality’, which leads Chinese leaders to forget that there is no longer any meaningful distinction between domestic and international content. In short, just because you can only see your reflection in the mirror, does not mean those on the other side cannot see you.

 
 

The confusing thing is that China’s leaders should know this. A local incident in one country can trigger viral media coverage in many others; a fact that Beijing exploits (notably during last years United Airlines scandal) to showcase insults to China and / or transgressions against Chinese citizens abroad in order to generate social media storms at home which act as pressure valves to redirect discontent outwards.

Instead of becoming a teachable moment, the incident only serves the purposes of the Chinese government in rallying nationalist support behind it, claiming it is victimized by foreign critics. This sense of insecurity is mirrored by many Chinese citizens, even those among Beijing domestic critics. Many a netizen wary of Beijing and receptive to criticism of government and society by fellow Chinese falls back on knee-jerk reactions when presented with criticism from abroad.

This reaction is not unique to China, as citizens of many countries will become more patriotic in the face of foreign criticism, even though they may exhibit a more nuanced or agreeable reaction to the same arguments made by their fellow countrymen. The problem in China is that the government actively encourages this kind of reaction, with the country’s censored media landscape only acting as an echo chamber, thus creating a feedback loop.

The role of culture and divergent racial memories

Many ordinary Chinese take exception at being called racist simply because they do not object to the kinds of blackface acts mentioned above. Critics of Western media coverage invariable accuse Western observers of projecting their own standards and ethical positions on events overseas which are shaped by different historical and cultural influences.

Furthermore the lack of a response from African states, especially the Kenyan government, which has remained mute on the affair, only supports Chinese claims that this is a case of the West creating a storm over nothing by projecting its own standards on China. China’s leaders can accuse the West of being outraged on behalf of Africans by pointing to silence on the issue from China’s many African trading partners.

If the question is whether [blackface in Asia] is motivated by a deeply embedded hatred or malice toward black people, the answer in most - but definitely not all - cases is no. However, to the extent that such performances are premised on a set of distorted ideas and images about black people and their cultures that reduces them to caricatures that ultimately impact blacks in negative ways, then the answer is yes.
— John G. Russell, professor of cultural anthropology at Gifu University, Japan

For instance, alongside Lou’s blackface, the appearance of a black man in a monkey outfit during the Lunar New Year celebration was also the cause for much outrage among foreign commentators. Voices from China, such as Liu Hongwu, dean of the Institute of African Studies at Zhejiang Normal University, have countered that this costume is not meant to be insulting, given the many good qualities various animals, such as the monkey (known for its cleverness) represent within China’s cultural context, specifically the lunar zodiac.

This rebuttal does have some merit, but the fact that the outfit makes the wearer look like a poor-man’s Rafiki in a low-rent production of The Lion King rather than noble embodiment of the zodiac undermines this claim. Moreover, the argument about the monkey’s connotation with respect to the zodiac would make sense if 2018 were the Year of the Monkey. But its not; its the Year of the Dog. Even outgoing 2017 was not the Year of the Monkey, not to mention the negative connotations associated with monkeys vis-a-vis racism towards Africans. Nor does the monkey add anything to the skit’s plot, acting only as a silent gimmick.

While the outcome of CCTV’s decision to cast a Chinese woman in blackface can be seen as racist, one can argue that the intentions behind the decision were not. While good (or neutral) intentions do not excuse one’s actions, they do put them in context, a context that must be kept in mind when discussing such instances in Asia. The producers’ intentions were at best tone-deaf, a common enough trend in China and elsewhere in the region.

Nevertheless the fact that this tone-deafness was not addressed is somewhat surprising, given the similar response to an photography exhibition in Wuhan in October 2017. The exhibition in question showcased portraits of Africans alongside those of animals sporting similar expressions. Various animals including monkeys, lions, giraffes and other well known African fauna were juxtaposed with images of Africans: one man has the gaze of a lion, another youth the snarl of a chimpanzee. Despite the plethora of different comparisons on display, reports in Western media thumbnails disproportionately featured images comparing Africans with monkeys and apes, in a bid to garner the attention and responses of Western readers.

Again while museum curators in the West would (given racial memory in that region) immediately baulk at the suggestion of such an exhibit, in China comparisons with animals are typically seen as a compliment, in large part due to the influence of animals in the Chinese horoscope, noted museum curator Wang Yuejin. “The target audience is mainly Chinese,” Wang said in a statement. But the museum understood the images offended “our African friends” and the pictures were removed to show respect for their concerns, Wang added.

The fact that it was Africans in China and abroad that drew attention to the exhibit and raised red flags as opposed to Western media outlets (although these did popularize the story) is important. China is more comfortable with accepting criticism from (non-Western) sources where Beijing’s relationship is not hamstrung by its historical inferiority complex and other great power considerations.

That being said, this is an esoteric element in the case at hand and we should not  over analyze this incident. At the end of the day the fact that this faux pas occurred in the private sphere in a provincial museum and not during the government’s largest television event of the year is the main takeaway here as to why this ‘incident with racist elements’ did not elicit such pushback from Beijing.

Is imitation really the highest form of flattery?

The experiences of slavery, colonialism and systematic apartheid do not colour the racial memories of various Asian ethnicities vis-a-vis their interactions with people of African descent. Instances of blackface in this region of the world are in large part due to ignorance of, and a lack of contact with, African societies and individuals rather than a reflection of malice or other denigration.

Speaking on the situation of blackface in Japan, professor of cultural anthropology at Gifu University John G Russell’s comments can be extrapolated to include other Asian nations such as China.

“If the question is whether Japanese blackface is motivated by a deeply embedded hatred or malice toward black people, the answer in most - but definitely not all - cases is no. However, to the extent that such performances are premised on a set of distorted ideas and images about black people and their cultures that reduces them to caricatures that ultimately impact blacks in negative ways, then the answer is yes.”

It is important to note that many (the Lunar New Year incident aside) instances of blackface in Asian media are tied to impersonations of, primarily American celebrities. Comedians, impersonators and fans alike often don blackface and other racially charged elements such as hair prosthetics primarily as a means to (in their minds) more faithfully portray the individual in question.

 

A South Korean fan dressed in blackface poses with Snoop Dogg in 2014.

 

For instance, in the 1960s and 70s various doo-wop groups in Japan donned blackface in order to channel the soul of Motown A-listers. In 2016, Malaysian comedians faced a backlash for donning blackface to portray Usher and Yuna, while comedian Hamada Masatoshi of Gaki no Tsukai fame drew criticism for his recent blackface appearance impersonating Eddie Murphy’s character in Beverly Hills Cop during the comedy group’s popular annual New Year’s special.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 also led to an upswing in blackface appearances in recent years as political commentators, comedians, and others continued the long-standing tradition of lampooning and impersonating political leaders, especially American presidents; albeit with a new, more controversial twist. Russell has even coined a term for this trend - ‘Barackface’.

One instance that sheds light on this trend and the differing attitudes towards race in the West and Asia came in 2014 when a South Korean fan of rapper Snoop Dogg dressed in blackface and fake dreads met the musician and posed with a photo with him. Condemnation of the fan’s attire followed swiftly, and his decision to wear such an outfit is indeed naive at best. What is important to note however is that not only did Snoop Dogg agree to take a photo with the fan he even shared it on social media along with a humorous comment.

Moreover, fellow rapper Lord Jamar came to the defence of the South Korean fan in question. “ [...] when I see an Asian do something like that I honestly feel in my mind that it’s more out of reverence. And trying to actually salute in a way. Rather than a mockery and some sort of—as if a white person here in America did it. You understand? Their whole history with it is totally different…They really might have dressed up thinking they were going to impress Snoop with that. [...] As a white person and a black person it’s within our racial memory to know what blackface is in [America]. Not necessarily in Korea…So yeah, I don’t know if I would have been offended by that. Coming from that particular person and their intentions…I feel like they come from a different culture, a different background, different intention [sic].”

The Bottom Line

While China is the latest country to commit a racist faux pas, blackface continues to prevalent across Asia for various reasons. Greater inter-community interaction and education is needed in order to retire these kinds of gimmicks across the region. While some instances of blackface in Asia have explicitly hateful connotations akin to similar instances in the West, the majority of such cases are due tone-deaf decisions organizations and individuals lacking diversity in their decision making processes and social circles.

Persons of African descent are right in expressing their anger an offence at such depictions, but it is important to note that reactions have been nuanced, with some excusing the naivete of some blackface perpetrators. In these instances the differences in racial memory in various nations highlights the differing contexts within which such acts take place.

For Western media outlets in particular it is imperative to view these instances within the context that they occur. Without straying too far into the realms of cultural and ethical relativism it is possible for outlets covering these kinds of events to balance disapproval with deeper analysis to accurately represent the intentions and perspectives of all involved, as well as contextualize Beijing’s - to Western observers - intractable response.

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.