A Failed Search for an Asian Barbie

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Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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  1. Avatar LeeEsq
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    Anime and manga are infamous for having characters who look white even when they are supposed to be Japanese people living in Japan and following Japanese customs and culture. There were lots of debate on how this came about. One theory was that it started simply because manga is published in black and white and using different shading for hair and eyes makes distinguishing characters easier. When the manga was turned into anime for TV, the animators used different hair and eye colors besides black for the same reason. Under this theory, the character really don’t register as white to Japanese people but they do to people in Europe and the Americas because white is the default. I can’t exactly remember the theory of the people who insisted that the characters were designed to look white was.Report

    • Avatar krogerfoot in reply to LeeEsq
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      This has been my take as well. White people seem to see themselves in manga because the characters don’t look like what white people think Asians look like. They point to the big, round eyes, multicolored hair, etc. But if you tell a class full of four-year-old Japanese kids to draw a picture of their families, they draw circles for eyes because eyes are round.

      I also wonder how certain Vikram’s nephews are that the students in the textbook are white. (The teacher, with his mustache, certainly seems to signal whiteness, but it didn’t instantly occur to me that the students were “supposed to be” white as well.)Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to LeeEsq
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      Do people from the Pacific Rim see themselves as having “yellow” or “wheat” colored skin?

      I notice women of apparently Asian background, in places like Chinatown and Little Tokyo and Koreatown and in the Vietnamese neighborhoods when I make it down to the southern part of the county, walking around greater Los Angeles carrying parasols or big hats to shade their faces from the sun — I assume from this that they want to avoid their darkening effects of tanning and thus that they consider lighter skin more desirable from a beauty perspective. (I do not notice apparently Philippine or Islander women doing this.)

      As for the book showing a white teacher teaching white students, well, that does seem odd to me, but perhaps it’s a lingering byproduct of European/American cultural hegemony combined with the imagery available to the manufacturers — if the books themselves come from the U.S. or Europe, and the only thing that’s translated are the words in the text, then yes, the images will remain static and show white people doing white people things.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Burt Likko
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        says:

        They could also be using the parasols to avoid sun’s skin-aging effects, more than just tanning/darkening.

        Or it could just be a cultural thing. In the south, black and Latina women sometimes use hats/parasols, and I don’t think it’s because they care about whether the sun makes their skin darker. It’s because it’s danged hot, and carrying your own shade with you can help.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Burt Likko
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        As far as I can tell, no. People from Pacific Rim countries do not perceive themselves as having yellow or wheat colored skin unless they are exposed to Western ideas about skin color. Asian-Americans born in the United States seem to have a more active racial consciousness than Asian immigrants. And yes, fair skin is still treated as the beauty ideal for women in many Asian countries and parasols are somewhat still popular there.Report

        • Avatar Kim in reply to LeeEsq
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          says:

          Wheat colored skin is the Chinese term for their skin color. They definitely don’t see it as “yellow” (only americans am I right?)Report

          • Avatar krogerfoot in reply to Kim
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            When Japanese discuss race in terms of skin color, they follow the conventions of black-people/white-people/yellow-people. The term may have been adopted from a Western concept—Japanese people use white/black as casually and naturally as Americans to indicate race, but the “yellow” term is not often heard. At any rate, they see themselves as “yellow” to pretty much the same extent that Caucasians see themselves as “white,” which is to say they recognize that nobody’s skin is actually white or yellow, unless they are Caspar the Ghost or Bart Simpson.Report

            • Avatar Kim in reply to krogerfoot
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              says:

              Do you blame Bart’s skincolor on the Koreans?

              What term do the japanese use for what Americans would call “yellow”?Report

              • Avatar krogerfoot in reply to Kim
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                says:

                I think Bart was yellow long before Korean animators were called in.

                Colors are complicated in Japanese. The native words and English imports coexist in a weird way that annoys me sometimes—in certain contexts, aka will do for red, but then suddenly someone will decide to call it reddo (“red”), and everyone quickly corrects themselves. Sometimes it actually makes sense, as the foreign words shed some of the connotations of the native words.

                “Yellow” is kiiro and when read in the “Chinese” pronunciation (which operates like Latinate vocabulary does in English, for more formality), oushoku-jinshu “yellow-color race” means “Asian.” It’s not a word I hear a lot, mostly because it doesn’t come in handy all that often in a country where ajia-jin “Asian” does NOT include Japanese people. On the other hand, haku-jin and koku-jin are indispensable for describing foreigners of the white and black variety respectively.Report

              • Avatar Krogerfoot in reply to Kim
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                says:

                Interestingly (to me), the Japanese dictionary I looked up ???? oushoku-jinshu gave the definition “Of the three major races, the people with light brown (yellow) skin, straight hair, little body hair, and eyes with an epicanthic fold, among other characteristics. Includes chiefly people inhabiting Asia, Japanese, Inuit, Naive Americans, and so forth. Mongoloid, ???? m?ko-jinshu “Mongoloid” (new word for me).” The body hair thing wouldn’t have been the first thing to come to mind for me, being a foreigner.Report

              • Avatar Glyph in reply to Krogerfoot
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                says:

                Uh…unless you are in Devo, be careful throwing that ‘new’ word around in the States, where it also has (or had) a different meaning.

                (It is, or was, a pejorative for Down’s Syndrome- though I am not sure if it was *always* considered pejorative, and anyway Devo’s intent in using the term could be read a couple ways).

                https://youtu.be/zJT_MKA3i04Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Glyph
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                says:

                I’m pretty sure it started out as a technical term referring to the characteristic shape of the eyes of Down Syndrome patients, and then rode the euphemism treadmill down to pejorative.Report

              • Avatar Glyph in reply to Brandon Berg
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                says:

                Interesting background here.

                In that era when Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution were new, Dr. Down theorized that these patients were a “regression” in the evolution of man. Because their physical appearance reminded Dr. Down of people from Mongolia, he termed the condition “Mongolian idiocy.” The condition was known by this name, or shortened to referring to the individuals with the condition as “Mongoloids.”

                (emphasis mine).

                Makes sense why Devo would be interested:

                The name Devo comes “from their concept of ‘de-evolution’ — the idea that instead of continuing to evolve, mankind has actually begun to regress, as evidenced by the dysfunction and herd mentality of American society.”

                It’s not clear to me in the song that they are mocking the title character – after all, he is “happier than you and me“, and his “His friends were unaware/Nobody even cared“, since he “wore a hat, And he had a job, And he brought home the bacon, So that no one knew” – presumably just like the rest of us drones who have a standard chromosome configuration.Report

              • Avatar krogerfoot in reply to Brandon Berg
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                says:

                That’s pretty much my understanding. “Mongolism” is an obsolete (not to mention racist) term for Down Syndrome. “Mongoloid” has been an anthropological term, along with Caucasoid and Negroid, forever. Calling people with DS “mongoloids” was considered dumb and offensive right from the get-go, I think, even while the older term was still acceptable.

                Hm, I hadn’t realized the Japanese text wouldn’t be rendered in my comments. That was pretty Naive American of me. I was quoting from a Japanese definition, which (again, interestingly to probably only me) used both the English loanword mongoroido and the traditional Japanese term deriving from the classical word for Mongolia. A real live instance of what I was talking about, where the English/foreign word is used even though there’s a perfectly apt native Japanese word available.Report

      • Avatar Mo in reply to Burt Likko
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        says:

        I assume from this that they want to avoid their darkening effects of tanning and thus that they consider lighter skin more desirable from a beauty perspective.

        @burt-likko This could be because in basically every culture being tanned is associated with manual labor and therefore lower classes and fairer skin is associated with sufficient wealth to not to need to labor outside. It’s not a race thing, but a class thing.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to LeeEsq
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      says:

      In the case of the textbook, the wife’s nephew seemed to indicate they were white. Also, there were plenty of other drawings in the book that were of people I’d characterize as Asian. I didn’t audit the whole thing, but certainly more than 50% of the drawings were of people I’d say were Asian.

      With respect to the first cartoon picture I posted of the family around a couch, I saw one episode (which was actually a much bigger, longer than normal show with higher production values) that ended with the kid meeting a (to my eyes) Asian astronaut at the end who worked for the Chinese space program. To me, this meant that the other characters were white. I didn’t get a chance to ask my nephew.

      With respect to the sheep cartoon, I am less certain about that one. There is one character with smaller eyes who is more bookish, who I always read as “the Asian one”, but I could be wrong. I’ll ask my wife later and report back what she says.Report

    • Avatar Guy in reply to LeeEsq
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      says:

      I can’t exactly remember the theory of the people who insisted that the characters were designed to look white was.

      If I remember correctly, there’s a claim that the designs of anime characters trace their artistic roots to the character designs from Disney cartoons that were imported to Japan after WWII (this is usually part of a narrative of cultural and artistic back-and-forth between Japan and America that goes from the postwar era to today). Anime from the late 80s and early 90s does look a bit like old American animation to my eyes, but that might be more because of technology than artistic style.Report

  2. Avatar Rose Woodhouse
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    says:

    I have tried to find toys with disabilities with very limited success.

    Had a friend who was ethnic Chinese living in Malaysia. When she told me she had modeled in Malaysia, I was a bit surprised (pretty, not drop-dead gorgeous). Of course, I didn’t say that to her. But she elaborated: it was apparent in Malaysia that she was 1/4 or 1/8 Caucasian (forget which). This was enough to bring her much bigger modeling bucks.Report

  3. Avatar Oscar Gordon
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    says:

    Perhaps I was given bad information, but I have been led to understand that the Chinese, or perhaps certain segments of the Chinese population, are incredibly racist and consider the Chinese to be the superior race.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Oscar Gordon
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      says:

      There’s a reason it’s called the Middle Kingdom. Their often incompetent diplomacy reflects this pervasive attitude.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Oscar Gordon
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      @oscar-gordon I think this is less “Chinese” than it is “pretty much everyone everywhere” to one degree or another.

      Aside from that, I think this is a condition of the marketplace, not personal preference of the Chinese.Report

      • Avatar Doctor Jay in reply to Tod Kelly
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        I agree with this. People are terrible. Under the right conditions.

        To amplify this, roughly half the population of China is rural, poorly educated, and insular. This is prime breeding ground for racism and xenophobia, wherever humans are found under these conditions.

        The thing that reduces racism is working toward common goals with people that aren’t like yourself.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Oscar Gordon
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      says:

      It is difficult from the outside and maybe even from the inside to tell the difference between racism in a we-are-clearly-superior-to-you way and racism in a we-are-compensating-for-our-perceived-inadequacies-that-we-refuse-to-talk-about way.

      If they are racist more in the first way, it becomes harder to explain why so many of their products and advertisements have pictures of white people on them. Even if we throw out everything that is drawn or painted and only look at photographs of real people like the lotion bottle in the OP, there are a whole lot of white people represented in their advertising.Report

  4. Avatar Kim
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    says:

    Manga had white characters as a matter of both convention and origin (pulling a lot from Disney).
    Do you really think that people with purple hair are villains in real life?
    At some point the colorations become conventions — and then you have black cat and tabby cat and yellow cat — and prissy white cat…

    Japanese schoolchildren insist that manga characters are Japanese, even if they’re drawn with more of what we’d expect from a caucasian face. People don’t exactly have waterdrops in real life either.

    In Japan, white and paleness are often considered marks of beauty (see geishas)… dark skin is considered a marker of foreignness.

    Besides, in a black and white medium,it is way easier to take “wheat colored” and say white rather than put some sort of texturing on a person’s face.Report

  5. Avatar trizzlor
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    says:

    The overuse of “privilege” gets a lot of eye-rolls nowadays, but even one of the early attempts to quantify white privilege had these interesting observations:

    6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

    8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

    26. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.

    Apparently this kind of white privilege holds in other countries as well.Report

  6. Avatar Doctor Jay
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    says:

    It turns out that my skin has a yellowish cast to it (as opposed to ruddy, like my wife). But nobody would think of me as anything but white. Maybe it’s from the Mediterranean/Moorish influence on Europe? I have no idea about my genetic background, I’m adopted.

    This is a place where we don’t have good language. Culturally, I’m “white”. But that word is a very bad choice for that description, because my skin tone doesn’t matter a bit. I generally use “American” in this context, though that has another set of problems.

    For instance, talking to someone for maybe 15-30 seconds, and observing their dress and mannerism makes it pretty easy to asses that they are from here, not somewhere else, regardless of skin tone, hair, or facial typing. Someone might be Chinese-American, Japanese-American, or Indian-American, but it’s not hard at all to identify the primary culture they grew up in (there are a few people who can switch fluently, I include them as in).

    But what to call these people? “White” doesn’t really cut it. “American” seems jingoistic. There is another, broader class of people who use a lot of the Euro-American cultural traditions, and are fluent with them, and with English, though they might speak it with an Australian, English, South African or Indian accent. What should you call them? “White” seems wrong. It’s just factually wrong. The signal isn’t white skin or blonde hair, though we use those signals in works of art as symbols of this.

    There are people all over the world that want to signal that they are up-to-date and modern and have a vision that goes beyond their parochial borders. The unfortunate thing is that they use “whiteness” to signal this. It’s easy to see how this happened.

    Anyway, I think we need some language around this, so we can start divorcing this from people’s skin color. I’m kind of at a loss for what language, though.Report

    • Avatar Guy in reply to Doctor Jay
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      says:

      Isn’t that group covered by “Western”?Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Guy
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        says:

        They have adopted many aspects of Western culture, ideology, and practice but I’m not really sure if that makes them Western. Western is often used a synonym for American, Canadian, Australian, New Zealander, or European. Most people in Latin America are not considered Western even though their culture and ideology definitely is Western. Likewise, I’ve never seen Western used to describe the inhabitants of the most modernized and wealthiest places in Asia like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore.Report

        • Avatar Guy in reply to LeeEsq
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          says:

          Right, but isn’t @doctor-jay talking about 2nd- and 3rd-generation Americans (or New Zealanders or Australians or what have you) who happen to have non-white ancestors?

          (On a reread of his original comment…no. No he is not. But I think I’m still comfortable calling such people Western, or maybe culturally Western.)Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Doctor Jay
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      says:

      I had thought emojis were supposed to be racially inert until I saw news websites complaining about the yellow emojis being of white people. Originally I thought that was silly. They’re yellow! But then I realized most emoji sets do have one or two “black” characters. By including such ethnicized characters, it does kind of make the other ones seem like they need to be something too, and white is the most obvious choice.Report

  7. Avatar Vikram Bath
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    says:

    For anyone interested, here is a piece on the lack of success Barbie has had in India. http://blog.hawaii.edu/aplpj/files/2011/12/APLPJ_13.1_Nemani.pdf
    Among author Priti Nemani’s arguments is that Mattel didn’t modify Barbie enough to suit Indian tastes, and I find the idea convincing. In contrast, Mattel hasn’t done anything that I can tell to modify Barbie for China and they are all over the place.Report

  8. Avatar Mike Schilling
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    says:

    Whatever doll you find has got to be better for a young child than a German Barbie.Report

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