China Stills Likes It’s Teeth Extra “Darlie”

A few years ago, a coworker took a trip to China for a family wedding and came back with the usual small charms that office-buddies tend to collect: magnets, small toys…and racist toothpaste. Knowing that I have a small collection of blackface antiques in my home, he was kind enough to give me a vintage box of Darkie Toothpaste – explaining that the brand had been discontinued in China and purchased it from his new brother-in-law’s family. Fast forward 5 yeas later, and it seems that Darkie really never went anywhere in China, it’ just changed it’s name—to Darlie in 1985, and is still known as “Black People’s Toothpaste” in Chinese. Yes, it really is 2010. Says this recent article in Newsweek:

“Darlie used to be called Darkie. According to the book America Brushes Up: The Uses and Marketing of Toothpaste and Toothbrushes in the Twentieth Century, the CEO of Hawley & Hazel saw blackface performer Al Jolson in the U.S. and thought, “Jolson’s wide smile and bright teeth would make an excellent toothpaste logo.” He was right: the firm now claims to be one of the market leaders of toothpaste products in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. 

After Colgate purchased 50 percent of the firm in 1985, religious groups, African-Americans, and company shareholders protested the racially offensive nature of the brand. After more than three years of criticism, Colgate switched the name from Darkie to Darlie and modified the logo to a less crude version of a black man. In 1989 The New York Times quoted the Colgate-Palmolive chairman as saying, ‘’It’s just plain wrong … The morally right thing dictated that we must change [in a way] that is least damaging to the economic interests of our partners.’’

Yet the Chinese name of the product has remained unchanged. And China is not exactly a paradise of racial harmony. While the crucial dichotomy in China is between Chinese and non-Chinese, many blacks face discrimination in the country. A Ghanaian who lives in China and asked to remain anonymous told NEWSWEEK that a prospective employer told him, “We can’t hire you because you’re black.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve brought you stories about racial issues in China, but I’m curious to know why it has stayed on the shelves after 15 years? If Colgate-Palmoive is interested in being so morally right, why didn’t they just re-brand the product all together, or just replace it with it’s dense portfolio of existing Colgate products. Customer loyalty is key to any business, but at the expense of Black people worldwide? Calls for the brand to be discontinued have seemingly fallen on deaf corporate ears and many Chinese don’t take an issue with it, so is Darlie here to stay? Time will tell.

Read more over at Newsweek.

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