Tuesday, October 13, 2009

黑人 - Taiwan's "Darkie" Toothpaste

Last week I was in the store with a Taiwanese friend of mine looking for some new toothpaste, when she suggested that I try Taiwan's most popular toothpaste brand: 黑人牙膏 (hei ren ya guo) which literally means, "Black Man Toothpaste."

Although the box that I bought didn't have an English translation, (yes, I am a bit ashamed to admit that I actually bought this tube of toothpaste) I am told that the English name of this toothpaste USED to be Darkie, but in the name of political correctness, they changed one letter, and now the English name is Darlie. The Chinese name, however, remains unchanged "Black Man Toothpaste."

(this picture comes from another foreigner's Taiwan blog post)

According to this other blogger:

"Many years ago there was a very popular brand of toothpaste in Asia called "DARKIE". It featured a minstrel-show Al Jolson-esque man in blackface, and was a very famous brand of toothpaste. In 1985, the company that produced Darkie (Hazel & Hawley) was bought by Colgate, who obviously decided to change the name and packaging. Darkie is still available, but it is now called "Darlie" and features a white guy in the top hat and tux."

It's amazing to me that in 2009 this remains an acceptable name for a product! I can hardly wrap my brain around it, but when I said something like "this would NEVER fly in the US" my Taiwanese colleagues all jumped in "but the meaning is, u know when a black person smiles, you can really see their white teeth!"

"YES!" I interjected, of course I understand the meaning behind the toothpaste name, but the fact remains that it's completely inappropriate - at least by my American standards! Of course, one would have to assume this would be an unacceptable brand name if there were any black population at all here in Taiwan but in reality, there just isn't.

The fact is that this country is almost completely devoid of black (or white) people who are not foreign born. According to the Wikipedia entry 98% of Taiwanese citizens are ethnically Han Chinese and the other 2% are aboriginal peoples. So let's see, that leaves exactly 0% who are white, black, or anything thing else.

It is also for this reason that it is common to hear a Taiwanese person say something like "I'm black" or "I don't want to become black" or "Look at you! You're black!"

What they mean is tan or dark. "I'm tan," "I don't want my skin to become dark," "Look at you! You're so tan!"

This always leads to some giggles in class when I explain to my students that because we actually have black people in America, we cannot say "I don't want to be black" or "tsk! Just look at you! You're so black!"

But, I guess I just have to have cultural sensitivity to their cultural insensitivity! Taiwan is a country without a black population and without a history of discrimination against black people, so the Darkie toothpaste goes largely unrecognized as completely inappropriate.


  1. I brought this toothpaste back from Taiwan because it really does taste good, and when I showed it to my black friend, all she said was "Oh, hell no!" haha...now it is a huge joke in our circle of friends..even though it is offensive, it's nice to be able to just laugh it off sometimes

  2. One thing I really dislike about the Taiwanese is their lack of intercultural understanding. It strikes me as unsophisticated and crude.

  3. http://www.forumosa.com/taiwan/viewtopic.php?f=8&t=58408&hilit=Darlie+toothpaste

    There's interesting forum discussion on this.
    Battle of the racist toothpaste.

  4. Your ideas of what is "inappropriate" are wholly ethnocentric. Africans in US universities generally will not associate with American blacks because they are obsessed with racial issues and make excuses for their inadequacies instead of taking care of their business. (This I have from some African friends.) Maybe you should be as upset about this toothpaste as the Minnesota football fans are about the viking caricature with the long mustache and the helmet with horns.

  5. Africans in U.S. universities who will not associate with American Blacks refuse to do so because they are as racist against American Blacks as the American whites whose culture produced all of these widespread myths about us and spread them as far away as--you guessed it!--Africa.

  6. LOL!
    This is getting dumb. Many Africans in the US associate with American/Carribean blacks all the time... Many celebrities (like Kanye West or I dunno the President) are the children of both African and American blacks.
    Africans are more European which makes them alot different from American blacks, but they both have respect for eachother...
    As for this toothpaste. It's in Asia. Who Cares?!?