Nicole SooJung Callahan first became aware of a rather problematic beauty line when her husband returned home from a recent trip to Hair Cuttery. There he had witnessed a misguided attempt at marketing “Asian themed” products. Grooming products on the shelves donned names such as “Dry Kwon Do,” “Hi-Ya!,” “Washabi,” “Shang High,” “Sticky Rice,” “Spring Roll,” and “Mousse Lee.” Perhaps the most disturbing names were “Miso Knotty Leave-In Detangler” and “Geishalicious” shampoos and conditioners accompanied by Facebook ads featuring a fully nude figure meant to represent a “Geisha.” Callahan discovered soon after that the company responsible for unfurling these reprehensibly named items into the market place is Cibu International.
“That’s when I started researching and found out that Cibu is part of the Ratner Companies family, which also includes the Hair Cuttery, Bubbles, Salon Cielo, Salon Plaza, and Colorworks salons,” says Callahan. “Altogether, Ratner Companies has a huge presence, and it’s primarily through their salons that Cibu products are sold.”
Callahan first reached out to the company by participating in a post on the Cibu International Facebook page made by a friend, along with other women of color. In a classic PR blunder, Cibu International responded only by deleting the dissenting comments while letting other comments stand, such as one Facebook user’s joke proclaiming “me love you long time!” in response to one product.
Callahan’s next step was to send Cibu International a private Facebook message. Callahan describes them as being “polite” overall. However, the content of their responses clearly indicated that the company just didn’t understand that what they are doing is wrong.
“She seemed to be trying to make me feel guilty for bringing up my concerns at all,” says Callahan. “And while she was always courteous, it became clear that she viewed me as a “radical”–her word–who was out to make trouble because of my own personal “worldview”/agenda.”
Callahan says that the company’s representative defended the products by holding firm that the product names were not racist because there was no “racist intent.” The representative suggested that Callahan was simply taking the product names too personally.
“I don’t harbor negative feelings or opinions about her or anyone else at Ratner Companies – but I do feel very negatively about their product names” Callahan clarifies.
Callahan did not let this stop her. “The company rep I was in touch with did talk with other PR people at Ratner Companies, and they expressed some openness to changing the name of just one product – ‘Geishalicious’ – but only after existing stock had been depleted,” she says. “There was no openness to changing any of the other offensive names, including ‘Miso Knotty’.”
Callahan then started her Change.org petition at the suggestion of a friend, Shiuan Butler. Butler along with other friends, assisted with the wording while Change.org’s Shelby Knox gave advice on the overall petition. The petition has been shared far and wide on social media networks as well as on popular blogs such as Angry Asian Man, Disgrasian, Miss Representation, Lela Lee of Angry Little Girls, and many others.
“I had no idea what to expect when we started the petition,” says Callahan. “I am hoping that with every signature, every email, every contact via Facebook, Cibu and Ratner Companies understand that you don’t have to be a ‘radical’ to find their product names wildly offensive.”
When asked why she thought products would be labeled this way, let alone appeal to customers, Callahan replies, “The misappropriation and “cutesy” mocking of Asian cultures is nothing new in marketing, certainly, but I really can’t imagine what Cibu was thinking, in this day and age, to market and sell products with names like this.” Callahan found the accompanying art and cartoons particularly appalling. “Even if I absolutely loved a product, I’d be too embarrassed and offended to ever buy something with a name like ‘Geishalicious’ or ‘Miso Knotty’” she says.
After a great deal of effort to reach out to the company, including enduring the erasure of her opinion as a woman of color from public view on Facebook and the dismissal of company representatives who labeled her a “radical,” why did Callahan pursue asking the company for change?
Callahan cites other recent racist “jokes,” marketed to consumers, such as the “Sexy Geisha” outfit sold by Victoria’s Secret last year and their “Eastern Delights” line of lingerie. “Things like this do add up” states Callahan. She feels these products reinforce harmful stereotypes. “They keep us from actually thinking about and trying to know and understand people as individuals as opposed to those stereotypes. They send a terrible and degrading message to the groups being mocked and reduced for profit.”
Callahan adds, “As a Korean American woman raising two multiracial children, it really disturbs me that instances of cultural appropriation like Cibu’s are so prevalent in marketing and selling of products. Sure, it may “work” in some cases – to entertain, amuse, titillate, and ultimately make money – but at what cost to a company’s integrity, and the identity and personhood of people of color who have to watch this happen time and again?”
Callahan admits there has been backlash against the voices who have spoken out against the product names. Some people have responded to the original conversation on Facebook by saying, “What’s the big deal,” “Don’t you have anything better to do?,” and the classic “There are bigger problems in the world—don’t go looking to be offended by every little thing.”
“If people’s response to other people voicing their concerns is to become defensive and attack the messengers, I think that are absolutely the wrong response,” says Callahan. “As difficult as it is, we can’t just shut down or stop listening whenever we hear people of color talking about racism and appropriation.“
What does Cibu International need to do? Callahan says that the overall look of the product containers seem fine, it’s the product names that must be changed. “The racist names need to go,” says Callahan. “They’re completely unacceptable.”
LGA readers can help our fellow adoptee send a message to Cibu International that it is unacceptable for the racist misappropriation of Asian culture and the sexist exotification of Asian women to appear on their products and advertising. Every single time Callahan’s Change.org petition receives a signature Cibu International receives a direct email urging them to change their product names–814 to be exact. Callahan also urges readers to visit Cibu’s Facebook page and comment discouraging their continued racist marketing. Remember to keep following the story of this campaign to create change to ensure that Cibu International hears the message and responds appropriately to this issue.