What Comes Out in the Wash
Over at Hit Coffee, Will introduced me to a small Intertubes controversy surrounding accusations/deflections of racism in conjunction with two foreign laundry detergent television commercials. Will’s commentary, though spot-on, was somewhat scant, and so I thought I would expand on it myself.
I believe that these commercials, along with both the reaction to them — and the reaction to the reaction to them — offer a pretty good microcosm of how we badly talk about racism these days. And when I say “we,” know that in this case I mean “white people.”
My general feeling about how black people talk about racism is similar to my feeling about how LGBTs talk about homo- and transphobia. I don’t believe that people of color need to hear from me how they should or shouldn’t be talking about racism. If you are, for example, African American, then I’m pretty sure that I should be listening to you. But if you’re white and talking about racism in 2016 America, you’re likely either a conservative/righty trying to make that case that you’re better than the media portrays you, or you’re a liberal/lefty who claims to want to change hearts and minds to make people of color’s lives easier. In which case, I say to both groups — and say with much love — that you’re both doing a terrible job on those fronts. Think of this post not as an argument, then, so much as a jumping off point for the threads, where we who disagree with one another might discuss this issue with an agenda other then rooting out and highlighting our team’s enemies. These two commercials from foreign, totally non-American lands offer us an opportunity to do just that.
Before we actually watch the ads, however, let’s indulge in a wee bit of setup of both the commercials and the controversy.
In both commercials, a young housewife tosses her husband into a washing machine in order to “clean” said husband. Each husband then emerges from the wash sporting a new race/skin color, much to the delight of their respective wives. The big difference between the two ads, agree those who have been arguing over them, is that in one ad the “improved” husband goes from being white to black, and in the other ad the “improved” husband goes from being black to a very white Asian. Depending on your political leanings, you might find either of these set ups to be cute or offensive. 1
At the heart of the controversy is the belief by most that either one of these ads is but the mirror image of the other, identical but for a flipping of race. As we shall see in a moment, this is not really true. Still, it’s easy to see how one might mistake them for exact opposites. Though one is from Italy (circa 2007) and the other China (circa now-ish), both ads are remarkably similar in a number of ways, even down to their both using the same quirky Rebetiko song as a soundtrack. They are so similar, in fact, that I have to assume that despite being from different countries they were almost certainly created by the same advertising agency.
Because of the similar look, sound, setup, and feel, many on one side of this controversy argue what’s good for the goose, and so forth. They point to the condemnation of the Chinese but not the Italian ad for being racist by “SJWs” as being a sign of liberals’ hypocrisy and bad faith. They will likely use this incident as a justification to discount or even ignore other, future accusations of or concerns about racism. The spoken or implied statement by many of these people is that they themselves see no difference between the two ads because they are “colorblind” when it comes to race.
People on the other side of the issue, of course, do take great offense to the Chinese ad, and argue that it is worse than the Italian ad. Many on this side feel that the turning a black man white being positive thing is “racist,” but turning a non-white man black being positive is somewhere in between tolerable and kind of cool. The spoken or implied argument by most of these people is that even light Madison Avenue humor 2 operates on a social hierarchy, where punching up is inherently “funny” and punching down is inherently “never funny.”
Before we dive in further, let’s take a look at both commercials.
Probably the first thing we should note is that the two commercials do not in fact tell the same joke, so much as they tell very two different jokes that share the same punchline. This is because the husbands in the two ads are actually very different from one another in a way that greatly affects the meaning of the intended joke. And when I say they are different from one another, I’m not talking about race.
The Chinese husband is depicted as an attractive man, well groomed, and quite smartly (if casually) dressed. 3 When he enters the scene, it’s obvious that he’s been spending his day crossing things off of the Honey-Do list. Redecorating the living room, perhaps, or maybe just painting the new nursery. He’s also loving and affectionate. All in all, he’s presented as the stereotypical Happily Ever After husband/boyfriend we see in so many commercials. He also happens to be black.
The Italian husband? He’s white, sure. But more than that he’s a textbook example of the stereotypical hapless husband/boyfriend/dad cliche we see in so many commercials. The Italian ad’s husband loafs and slouches about while his wife does the household chores. He wears saggy, ill-fitting tighty-whites — tighty-whities that are given a close up to emphasize just how clueless and slovenly we are to assume this husband truly is. Like the husband in the Chinese ad, the Italian husband is clearly in the mood to pitch some woo, but he hasn’t taken his white gym socks off. When he leans against the wall, trying to look sexy as he runs his hand through his copious body hair, it’s clearly meant to invoke a snarky laugh from the ladies watching, not a potential sigh of envy. While the Chinese/black man is initially set up as the prototypical “catch” to the female target audience, the Italian/white man is set up as that guy that the target audience can’t believe they used to go out with once.
The post-wash change in the two husbands is also important to note.
The “improved” husband who springs Aphrodite-like from the wash in the Chinese commercial is someone who is similarly attractive, similarly loving, and similarly affectionate to the person who went in. He’s even wearing the exact same clothes. The only real difference — and implied flaw — between the pre-and post-wash Chinese husband is his skin color. In the Chinese commercial, in other words, the husband’s single obvious “flaw” is one of race. The schlub who got shoved into the wash in the Italian commercial, on the other hand, doesn’t just change color. He’s transformed into a stud with a male model’s face, a “300” extra’s physique, and a substantially elevated taste in men’s undergarments. 4
What we have, therefore, is not two mirror images, but two very different jokes, each based on two very different views of what women do or should find attractive. When viewed this way, it’s pretty understandable that someone might find the Chinese ad far more offensive than the Italian, even if you yourself are not personally offended. Indeed, it’s a little ironic to note that those who say that they found the commercials to be identical because they don’t see race, actually noticed little but the race of the husbands when watching the ads.
In a very different sense, though, the difference in race with both commercials — especially considering the fact they are seen as pretty identical by people most people — is important.
What I find striking about this controversy is how little little thought or self-refection has gone into the commentary, by either side. As best I can tell, there seems to be no attempt by either side to convince people on the other side that they’re missing something important when looking at both ads in tandem. Rather, it’s simply presented as a ready-made cultural war litmus test, with your first-blink opinion of the compared detergent ads marking you as Friend or Foe.
I’d say that all of the internet analysis save Will’s was uniformly terrible, but that assumes that anyone involved has bothered to present any analysis at all, which as best I can tell no one but Will has. Steve Sailer’s attempt at commentary on the juxtaposed commercials consists of making numerous jumps inside his own Freudian-nightmare of a head, only to sound the warning klaxon that we purebloods will soon be drowning in mixed raced babies, because of course he did. There are numerous examples of high-traffic online blogs that have condemned the Chinese commercial while seemingly giving the Italian one a pass, including Huffington Post, news.Com, and USAToday.com. As best as I can tell, however, none of them bother to stop and ask themselves, let alone the reader, why one is more offensive than the other.
The problem with discussing racism via these quick soundbite proxies rather than attempts at real communication is that the former actually allows racism to fester unchallenged. A good example of what I am talking about here is the anti-affirmative action maxim “we should hire based on the merits of the individual, not pander to interest groups.” It’s an innocuous enough sounding argument on its face, but without deliberate, good-faith discussion on both sides it’s also highly problematic. It’s actually an argument that represents two entirely different ideals. Yes, to many the yes-merit/no-pander means that we should truly measure each person by their skills and experience and not their sex, religion, or skin color. But to many others who use that phrase, it actually means the exact opposite.
Last week Donald Trump’s top aide, Paul Manfort, said in an interview that Trump would not be choosing a woman or a minority to be his VP pick, because Turmp refused to pander. “[Trump] needs an experienced person to do the part of the job he doesn’t want to do,” Manfort explained. The argument the Trump camp offered was indeed, “we should hire based on the merits of the individual, not pander to interest groups” — even as it assured their base that Trump would not seriously consider a woman or minority candidate, regardless of qualifications.
See? One phrase, two entirely different meanings. Pointing at those who use that phrase in a meritocratic sense and labeling them “racist” in knee-jerk fashion needlessly alienates much-needed potential allies. Worse, its reflexive nature gives those people who use that same phrase as both cudgel and cover for their bigotry a pass with anyone not already embedded in your tribe.
To my white liberal friends, I make the following plea. If our shared goal is truly to make the lives of women and minorities more equitable and less constrained by casual and institutional bigotry, then our current online strategy of just pointing at people and calling then racist, rather than sitting down and attempting to communicate with them, isn’t working. At all. Which is not to say that everyone that you might be willing to have a meaningful discussion with will be willing to have one in return, or even if they do that they are likely to come on board. Members of the alt-right, for example, are probably a lost cause at this point. I suspect that you can talk till you’re blue in the face, and you’ll never get Steve Sailer to see that a US House Speaker “allowing” his daughter to marry a non-white person isn’t a precursor to the collapse of civilization. But there are a lot of gradations in-between Mr. Sailer and that SJW from Oberlin on your Twitter feed that even you find insufferable. And if our goal is truly to make things better, rather than to simply give ourselves space to feel superior to Others, then we’re going to need as many of those gradations as possible on our side.
This means a change of pattern — on both sides. It means that people who immediately recognized the difference between the two detergent commercials take a position of goodwill, and not simply dismiss out of hand anyone who initially disagrees with them as “racist.” It means that those who are confused by the different reactions to those same ads also take a position of goodwill, and not simply dismiss out of hand anyone who initially disagrees with them as “politically correct.”
It means having a “conversation about racism,” where “conversation” actually means something different than it usually does when white people on both sides use that word. (Invariably, that’s “where you sit and listen to what I have to say.”) It means engaging, then listening, then considering that you might not have properly considered an important point, then taking time for self-reflection, and then re-engaging. Rinse, and then repeat, as often as is necessary.
Of course, all of that is much, much harder than simply pointing at people and shouting. But then, most things worthwhile are.
- For the record, I mostly found them creepy. But to be honest, that reaction has less to do with race than it does that my primary point of reference for the idea of “cleaning up” by stuffing people into the mouths of small machines comes from the movie Fargo.
- Or whatever the names of the streets where Italian or Chinese ads are made is.
- Perhaps even over-dressed. Seriously, other than male models in advertisements, what guy wears tailor-cut tee shirts to paint the house?
- I think it is safe to assume that when this freshly cleaned husband takes his wife on the kitchen table in the most Harlequin-fantasy-esque fashion imaginable, he will definitely not be wearing his gym socks.