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Monday, January 9, 2012

Darlie, a racist toothpaste?

As children, even as adults, admittedly we make the occasional joke about not being able to see our fellow Indian countrymen in a dark room unless they smile.

Such a comment is not a malicious racist comment, but rather i feel is a secret envy or awe of those white pearlies. Call it a neg, a negative remark wrapped in a back-handed compliment.

I only recently found out after a trip to the MINT museum in Seah Street that the very famous toothpaste Darlie was formerly named Darkie.
Quaint museum houses antique toys and has a nice restaurant and roof top bar.
Manufactured by the Hong Kong-based company Hawley & Hazel since the 1930s, the toothpaste was originally called Darkie–inspired by blackface performer Al Jolson. The package featured an image of a wide eyed, smiling dark skinned black male wearing a top hat, suit and bow-tie, reminds me of the Golliwogg often mentioned in Enid Blyton's storybooks.

US corporation Colgate then bought a stake in the company in 1985 and for obvious reasons changed the name to Darlie. 

Though the English name was changed, its Chinese name, 黑人牙膏 (Black People Toothpaste) remains to this day. The above Chinese language advertising campaign in the 80s reassured customers that "Black People toothpaste is still Black Man Toothpaste". In marketing speak, its like reassuring customers that the ingredients never changed, you'll still achieve teeth as white as the "blacks".

Coincidentally, i stayed in a hostel that shares a common toilet recently in Taipei and saw this two side by side in the toilet.

Whilst Darlie retains its racist sounding Chinese name, it changed the package image to a somewhat more ambiguous one, removing the smiling dark skinned black male. Meanwhile competing toothpaste Chinese companies came up with also racist sounding toothpastes like White Men Toothpaste (the one on the left in the picture) and Chinky. If the Chinese really are racist, why would they pick on themselves?

Thus, I don't think the intent behind the Darkie name ever meant to be racist but rather the ignorance of the Chinese. Before the swift pace of globalization, China was pretty much a homogenous country where skin as dark as the Africans don't live amongst them. Thus as how some Caucasians can have the yellow fever, perhaps the Chinese were intrigued and drawn to the exoticness of dark skinned people. The perception of dark skinned people having whiter teeth and the Chinese wanting to achieve the same.

The truth is it really is the colour perception and tones of skin or gums that brings out the white of teeth. Otherwise all of us regardless of race, we all have the same make of teeth.

But if you really want to have the illusion of whiter teeth than normal, try getting a fake tan or using bright red lipstick!
If everyone had a sense of humour, perhaps there would be less riots, wars and petty fights.


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