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Blackface Dunkin' Donuts ad in Thailand brings racism accusation

Fair-skinned teen turns black or 'chocolate' in TV commercial yanked this week. Donut giant is on the defensive. 

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"It's absolutely ridiculous," said Nadim Salhani. "We're not allowed to use black to promote our doughnuts? I don't get it. What's the big fuss? What if the product was white and I painted someone white, would that be racist?"

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His views have been reinforced by a barrage of comments of support for Dunkin' Donuts on blogs, social media sites, and forums written by Thais and foreigners.

 “I didn't see anything racist, she took a couple bites of the chocolate doughnut she turned into a chocolate lady,” reads one comment.

“If the doughnut was blue and this lady turned blue, would there still be a problem?” reads another.

One British blogger, Tim Footman, goes so far as to accuse America of cultural imperialism.

 “If the DD [Dunkin' Donuts] ad were to run in the States or in Europe, I could see the problem. But it isn’t; it’s running in Thailand. And yet, because it offends the sensibilities of Americans, it gets pulled,” he says.

Commentary on concepts of beauty?

The issue, says Thai cultural commentator and writer, Kaewmala (a pen name), is that the ad may be controversial but it’s not a comment on black people in general, it’s about concepts of beauty and social snobbery in Asia.

“Dark skin is still associated with a lower social class, rural origins, and unsophisticated Thai society,” she says. “[The ad plays on] a strong Bangkok-centric view in which Bangkok traditions, people and lifestyles are deemed more refined and glamorous.”

Ms. Kaewmala says black people, and in particular black Americans, are not the target of this regional prejudice. She points out that Tiger Woods is widely adored in Thailand and was offered honorary citizenship (which he politely declined).

For Kaewmala, Americans objecting to this ad and lobbying for it to be pulled will do little to change people’s attitude in Thailand. The problem is an obsession with “white” or “fair” skin color, promoted widely by skin lightening product manufacturers across Asia, who link lightness to wealth and glamour.

 “More should be done to dispel the obsessive preference for "white skin" in Thailand … not least because most Thais are not naturally fair,” she says, adding that presenting a woman covered in chocolate as dark and beautiful is a step in the right direction.

Mr. Robertson from Human Rights Watch, who was first among those to complain publicly, says that the ad was pulled shows how seriously authorities took the complaint and suggests progress, however small, toward tackling racist attitudes in South East Asia.

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