Last week, a viral video of a Chinese farmer eating watermelon in a cotton field sparked outrage online as it was believed to perpetuate harmful stereotypes of Black people. As further explanation has since put many of these concerns to rest, social media users are calling for the need to understand cultural context before assuming malicious intent.
The controversy: The now-deleted video was posted to TikTok by an anonymous person with the username @meig38, and features a Chinese man sitting in a cotton field. The man is heard speaking Mandarin while pulling some of the cotton off of the plant and voraciously biting the rind off a whole watermelon.
- Both the cotton and watermelon have become racist tropes used against Black Americans, rooted in the country’s dark history of slavery.
- The video, which has also been reuploaded onto YouTube, has incited racial remarks from both sides, as social media users began to upload their video responses, reactions and parodies of it using offensive Asian stereotypes.
The explanation: Shanghai-born Tiktoker @foodishbeauty, who goes by “TJ,” clarified the man’s intentions in a viral video.
- She claims that the video of the cotton farmer was taken from China’s version of TikTok, Douyin, where numerous videos of cotton farms in the region of Xinjiang can be found.
- She translates his message as saying, “Look at how lovely the Xinjiang cotton is, make sure you turn up for my live stream later on.” She further explains that he was merely showing off his cotton as many of the region’s other farmers have done on Douyin.
- She adds that watermelon is often grown alongside the cotton in these fields and something that many of the farmers on Douyin are seen enjoying during the hotter months.
- While acknowledging that the imagery in the video can have racist implications in the U.S., she suggests that the negative connotation that stems specifically from American history cannot be applied to China or Chinese social media where no harm was intended.
- “With all due respect, Chinese nationals or any global [unintelligible] citizens does not share the same responsibility when it comes to the U.S. as well as European history that is the transatlantic slavery trade, the U.S. civil war that followed suit or any of the stereotypes and racist tropes that spun out of those events that are uniquely albeit unfortunately American,” she says.
- Cotton-growing in Xinjiang makes up approximately 85% of production in China and a fifth of the world’s total cotton supply, according to BBC. While known to produce some of the highest quality fabric in the world, Xinjiang cotton has over the past year faced backlash over ethical concerns of forced labor of the Uyghur ethnic minority in the region.
Reactions: Many viewers expressed their relief in reaction comments to TJ’s video along with frustration towards Americans who misunderstood the original video’s intent.
- Two of the top comments read: “Everyday on the internet I wish more ppl (people) would understand that not every single place in the world works exactly like the US” and “It’s amazing how Americans are so confident in signaling that they know nothing about the world and think it revolves around them.”
- TJ’s video has since been shared in a separate viral video by another creator on the app, @_mindofmusic, with more users in his comments agreeing that cultural context is important.