It’s been called the most racist ad ever made, and for good reason. This week, jaws the world over dropped in unison at a Chinese laundry detergent commercial in which a young Chinese woman pops a detergent pod in the mouth of a short, stocky, and paint-splattered black man who is hitting on her, before shoving him into her waiting washing machine. To the woman’s obvious delight, when he remerges said black man has morphed into a tall, thin, and very pale Chinese hipster. Subtle, it is not.
Nor is it unique in its denigration of blackness. The bitter truth is, in a world that prizes and aspires to whiteness, anti-black racism is not only the domain of white societies.
Across the world, anti-blackness has a long history. In an episode of African American Lives, actor Don Cheadle was dismayed to learn that his ancestors had been kept as slaves – by Native Americans. “It’s a blight on how this country was started,” he said. “Slavery and the genocide of Native Americans. And then to find out my family was owned by people who had suffered… it’s mind blowing.”
Arabs and Persians, whose lands would later be decimated by European colonialism, also traded in African slaves, a history that has left a lasting legacy. Last year, I wrote about Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), the Dutch ‘helper’ of Saint Nicholas, beloved by children for his prankster personality and penchant for giving them presents. Black Pete goes back well over a century and is always played by a white person in blackface.
Recently, I was shocked to discover that a similar character exists in Persian/Iranian culture. Haji Firuz makes his appearance at Narooz (Iranian New Year), also wielding presents, and also wearing blackface. Both the Dutch and Iranians deny these characters have anything to do with racism. Zwarte Piet, the Dutch say, is black because of the soot he encounters going down chimneys (just don’t ask them why his clothes are not similarly stained or why he has big, red, minstrel-style lips). Similarly, Iranians claim Haji Firuz acquired his black face merely as a result of his role as Zoroastrian fire keeper.
Neither seem willing to admit or even entertain the notion that Zwarte Piet and Haji Firuz are black because they are slaves, even though Haji Firuz has his own rhyme, in which he addresses his “master”: My master, hold your head up high. My master, why don’t you laugh?
It’s a bitter pill to swallow for someone like me who fervently believes in POC solidarity. But even as we challenge white supremacy, we must confront the idea that anti-blackness is the foundation of racism. Indeed, some of the worst slurs I get hurled at me, by those who disagree with my opinions, are rooted in anti-blackness.
Terms like “sand n—er” and “dune coon,” while hurtful in their own right, are designed to degrade Arabs by reminding us that we will never be “white,” instead positioning us as the Middle Eastern ‘versions’ of blackness. The implicit assumption is that being black is the worst thing a person can be.
Anti-blackness is prevalent in almost every non-black community around the world, from Latino communities in the US to the Arab world to Israel, where Ethiopian Jews complain that systematic, widespread, and often violent racial abuse has left them feeling like “second-class Jews.”
And it is deadly. This year has seen a wave of racially-fuelled attacks against blacks in India. Over the weekend, and just five days after a Congolese teacher was bludgeoned to death on a south Delhi street, more than a dozen Africans in a south Delhi village were attacked with cricket bats, iron rods, and bricks. These attacks are said to have blown the lid off the everyday racism to which black people are subjected there.
This Indian animosity towards blackness is not only not new, it has an illustrious history. Despite his towering saintly reputation, even Mahatma Gandhi himself was vehemently anti-black.
It may come as a shock to many, but Gandhi, who spent many years in South Africa, did not oppose segregation. Believing blacks, who he called “raw Kaffirs,” were inferior, his complaint was merely that “respectable Indians” should not be lumped in with them.
As Patrick French outlined in the UK Telegraph, Gandhi “petitioned the authorities in the port city of Durban, where he practiced law, to end the indignity of making Indians use the same entrance to the post office as blacks, and counted it a victory when three doors were introduced: one for Europeans, one for Asiatics and one for Natives.”
We live in a world where white is right and black is its opposite. When everyone aspires to the great hallmarks of beauty, power, and privilege – white skin, straight hair, small features – then the darker your skin tone, the more racial discrimination you are likely to face.
As demonstrated so deftly by that Chinese laundry commercial, in the scramble to get as close to “white” as possible, anti-blackness is ubiquitous. Even within black communities, it takes the form of colourism; discrimination against the darker skinned, leading to dangerous practices such as skin bleaching.
As frustrating as it is, that racially vilified communities can themselves perpetuate the very same discrimination and hatred to which they themselves are subjected, it is the sad truth. Anti-blackness is where racial discrimination begins, and must be the first thing to go. People of colour must fight against white dominance yes, but we must also fight the white supremacy in our own minds.