This is not the first time that Colgate has had to re-evaluate its Chinese toothpaste brand. Darlie’s imagery has its roots in blackface.
Across Asia, the smiling man in a top hat and bowtie is a recognizable face, gracing the box of toothpaste brand Darlie for over 30 years.
But Colgate-Palmolive said on Thursday that it would review the Chinese toothpaste brand, whose image has deep roots in blackface, as brands such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s re-evaluate their associations with racist iconography.
Darlie is one of Asia’s best-selling toothpaste brands. In China, it is the top seller. Walk into any supermarket in Hong Kong, Bangkok, or Shanghai, and you’ll spot the black-and-white logo displayed prominently on shelves.
Originally called Darkie, the toothpaste brand featured a man in blackface. The English name and image were changed in the 1980s in response to worldwide protest, but the Chinese name remains “Black Person Toothpaste.”
Now, amid protests over the killing of George Floyd and racial inequality in the United States, the brand is going through another reckoning with its history.
“For more than 35 years, we have been working together to evolve the brand, including substantial changes to the name, logo, and packaging,” Colgate-Palmolive told Reuters. “We are currently working with our partner to review and further evolve all aspects of the brand, including the brand name.”
How did blackface end up on a Chinese toothpaste brand?
Darlie’s history goes back to the 1930s, when the Niem family established the Hawley & Hazel Chemical Company in Shanghai.
One of its products was a toothpaste that promised to give its users dazzlingly white teeth.
The branding played on the imagery of blackface performers such as Al Jolson, who painted their faces black to perform in minstrel shows that ridiculed people of African descent.
These characters all had one thing in common: exaggerated white teeth.
“Because their skin was so dark, their teeth looked really white,” says Michele Fan, a Hong Kong-born marketing strategist now based in the United States, “so people associated them with white teeth.”
The toothpaste’s name, Darkie, was borrowed from a racial slur used against African-Americans in the Jim Crow era.
“Chinese people basically had no conception of black people other than what they imported from the West.”
“It doesn’t have the same implications as the N-word, but it’s not far off,” says Barry Sautman, a visiting professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who specializes in ethnicity in China and Africa-China relations.
Although there have historically been Africans in East Asia—and Sautman says he doesn’t see much of a history of anti-black sentiment in China—Asia nonetheless imported Western ideas of race in the early 20th century, which placed black people at the bottom of the hierarchy.
“Chinese people basically had no conception of black people other than what they imported from the West,” he says. “This is still often the case in terms of how Chinese think about Africa and Africans.”
Kelley Loper, director of the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Comparative and Public Law, remembers visiting Taiwan in the 1990s and coming across some boxes of Darkie in a local grocery store.
“I remember being really shocked and offended,” she says. “But then I discussed it with friends in Taiwan and they didn’t understand what the problem was.”
(Read more: Behind the carton: A brief history of Vitasoy)
Darkie continued to enjoy success throughout Asia, earning a 75% market share in Taiwan and 50% share in Singapore by the 1970s.
That’s when Colgate-Palmolive, the brand’s largest competitor, took notice. In 1985, the New York-based multinational struck a deal to acquire 50% of Hawley & Hazel.
‘Darkie’ faces pushback
From the beginning, Colgate was aware of the political implications of owning a brand named Darkie.
When word spread in the United States, racial justice groups and Democratic politicians began lobbying for a boycott.
Even Colgate’s then-CEO, Reuben Mark, acknowledged the brand was racist. “It’s just plain wrong,” he said in 1989. “It’s just offensive. The morally right thing dictated that we must change.”
But Colgate was loath to harm a brand that was a proven success, so its first steps toward change were tentative.
In 1987, it ran a six-month test in Singapore by changing Darkie’s name to Dakkie, without removing the blackface logo.
Two years later, the company settled on the name Darlie and redrew the logo to represent today’s more racially ambiguous Darlie Man.
One thing didn’t change, though: the brand’s Chinese name. As a 1990 Cantonese-language television commercial made clear: “Black Person Toothpaste is still Black Person Toothpaste.”
Darlie continued to thrive, rolling out green tea and jasmine-flavored toothpaste that further cemented its success in Asian markets. People largely forgot the brand’s original racist connotations.
Fan, who grew up using Darlie, remembers finding its name a bit strange but says it was simply part of Hong Kong’s retail landscape. “It’s something everyone uses,” she says.
With race issues once again in the spotlight, Darlie’s brand image could undergo yet another evolution.
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.