Racialicious

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By Guest Contributors Nicole Soojung Callahan and Shiuan Butler

Nicole’s story:

About two months ago, my husband came home from a haircut and said, “Did you know that Hair Cuttery has a line of ‘Asian-inspired’ hair products by Cibu? They have something called ‘Geishalicious Shampoo.’” I went to Cibu International’s website to check out the rest of their products, and could hardly believe the awfulness of the names: Miso Knotty Detangler. Mousse Lee Volumizer. Spring Roll Hydrating Cleanser. Ancient Veil Oil Mist. Hi-Ya! Keratin Reconstructive Conditioner. Dry Kwon Do Dry Shampoo. Wok This Way Sculpting Sauce. Take Out Clarifying Shampoo (with a picture of a take-out box on the bottle). It was as if a bunch of people had all gotten in a room and brainstormed as many Asian stereotypes as they could, and then named beauty products after all of them.

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(Pictured above: Cibu International’s (l-r) Wok This Way Styling Sauce, Sashini Thermal Shine Solution, Miso Knotty Detangler, Ancient Veil Oil Mist, and Ancient Serum Argan Oil Treatment. Provided by Nicole Soojung Callahan.)

Cibu is part of Ratner Companies, which also owns nearly 800 Hair Cuttery, Bubbles, Salon Cielo, Salon Plaza, and Colorworks salons in 19 states. Cibu’s product names are all based on reducing Asian cultures to a handful of food and martial-arts references, tasteless puns, and fetishizing Asian stereotypes. As if the names aren’t bad enough, Cibu’s Facebook page also includes a picture of a staff member dressed in an “Asian costume,” fans laughing at “me love you long time” jokes, and a horrible cartoon ad featuring a naked geisha on her knees, hands behind her back, with the ad copy “Seduced by Geishalicious.”

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(Pictured above: deleted images from Cibu International’s Facebook page. Provided by Nicole Soojung Callahan.)

After participating in a comment thread on Cibu’s Facebook page in which many women of color, as well as white women, chimed in to express their concerns about Cibu’s offensive names, I began communicating with Cibu’s brand manager. Our discussions were cordial—though she called me a “radical”—she voiced some openness to changing the Geishalicious name at some point in the future, when existing stock had been sufficiently depleted. But there was no openness to changing other names. In the meantime, Cibu had deleted several critical comments from their Facebook page, including my friend Shiuan Butler’s. The brand manager told me it was because she did not want “[her] brand hijacked by negativity.”

At this point Shiuan suggested that I start a Change.org petition to encourage Cibu to change all of their names, not just Geishalicious. I didn’t think Cibu would listen, but I did think they should know we weren’t alone in finding their names offensive. With some advice from Shelby Knox at Change.org, we settled on the petition wording and uploaded it on January 28. Miss Representation, Katha Pollitt, Shelby Knox, Disgrasian, Angry Asian Man, Lela Lee, and many others signed and shared the petition. By February 6, the petition had garnered over 1,100 signatures—well beyond our wildest hopes.

On February 7, I received an email statement from Diane Daly, Director of Public and Community Relations at Ratner Companies, which she asked me to share with the petition signers: “Over the last several weeks, we have heard from numerous people expressing their objection to the names of some of our Cibu International hair styling products. Many have said they find some of the names to be offensive and racially insensitive, especially to Asians… [W]e deeply regret and apologize for any offense that we may have caused, both to our clients and to those who are concerned about the inappropriate depiction of peoples and cultures… Therefore, we have decided to embark on a process of transitioning out of the current product names and reintroducing them with new names.”

While we are glad for Cibu’s willingness to change, we know that this change would never have come about without public pressure. Just the day before Cibu’s announcement about the name changes, the company was still “liking” derailing statements made by some of their Facebook fans, such as, “I think racism takes on many forms. I also think that playing the race card as a knee-jerk reaction is dangerous and offensive.” Even after Cibu and Ratner Companies committed to renaming their products, several of their more enthusiastic fans just couldn’t let go—you can read their grumblings about “ultra-political-correctness” and how “some people need a life” in Cibu’s February 7 Facebook announcement about the change.

Yet, however reluctant Cibu may be in making these changes, Ratner Companies still took a positive and important step in promising to transition to new product names after hearing from over 1,100 people from all over the world. Many others recognized this and commended Cibu for their decision. One stylist wrote that she was thrilled with the change:

[A]s a stylist who is Asian in ethnicity the Asian theme is tacky and offensive. It makes me uncomfortable to tell people the name of the Cibu products I use on their hair. I can not express how happy I am to hear you break out of the glamorizing and fetishizing of the Asian culture as a whole. From the bottom of my heart, thank you so much.

We hope that Cibu and Ratner Companies will seek out, listen to, and involve a diverse group of employees, consultants, and consumers as they choose their new names—and that Asians and Asian Americans are a part of that group, especially if Cibu plans to pursue another “Asian-inspired” theme for their products. In the meantime, we want to thank everyone who signed the petition or wrote to encourage Cibu to reconsider its offensive branding—this change would never have happened if so many people hadn’t taken a stand against racism and harmful stereotypes in marketing. Many of us will be watching with great interest to see how Cibu proceeds with its rebranding.

Shiuan’s story:

While this was not the first petition I have created (my previous one protested an article stereotyping Asian women’s vaginas by 8asians) this was a wonderful learning experience, and best of all I got to meet fellow activist Asian sister, Nicole! (Thank you to T.F. Charlton for connecting us!)

I first became motivated to act when Cibu deleted my comments on their Facebook fan page immediately after posting. I had already thought of creating a petition. But with that one act, I was truly inspired.

In one of Nicole’s emails to me, she wrote that she felt as though she had “zero power over these people or their company.” I quickly disagreed: I explained that I had previously created a petition and that petitions can be powerful statements and a catalyst in changing a company’s policy by leveraging the power of individuals. It’s a perfect strategy in this day and age of viral, social-media activism.

Nicole—even as a busy mom and student—quickly created the petition, which T.F. Charlton, Shelby Knox, and I all briefly edited before it was posted. Before we knew it, our petition had exploded to several hundred signatures within days! I agree with Nicole that Ratner Companies’ recently released statement is absolutely a direct consequence of all those who signed and shared our petition.

The statement from Cibu makes us feel hopeful. However, we won’t be content until we see that they have truly replaced all of Cibu’s horribly racist product names. We certainly hope that they hire diversity consultants in their new rebranding process.

You can sign the petition here if you haven’t already. If you’ve already signed, thank you! Feel free to share widely.

ETA: As of this post, Ratner has still not changed the Cibu product names — and hasn’t given a timeline for when they will. Please reblog this far and wide—and please sign the petition, if you haven’t done so—to let the company know this isn’t OK!

Shiuan Butler is a writer and relationship coach. She speaks and leads workshops empowering women’s relationships and sex lives. Find out more at www.shiuanbutler.com.

Nicole Soojung Callahan is a mother, Korean adoptee, writer, grad student, and publications director at a nonprofit. The story of her reunion with her sister was published in Somebody’s Child: Stories About Adoption (TouchWood Editions, 2011). Email her at nikki @ jhu.edu.