Is it okay, and productive, to write about Africans in China?
This might seem a strange question coming from someone writing about Africans students in China, but in truth it has lingered uneasily in the back of my mind since I began my research six months ago.*
The problem: when writing about ‘Africans’ the temptation is to uncritically group individuals from the 54 African countries together. As Castillo, a scholar who studies Africans in Guangzhou warns, use of the ‘African’ category tends to “flatten out diversity and complexity” . In research, this creates issues when it is precisely the diversity and complexity that explains a given outcome.
Beyond obscuring diversity, the category “African” is to a certain extent arbitrary. I was struck by the arbitrariness when considering the diversity of my research subjects from all parts of the continent. It occurred to me that a student from Mauritania, for instance, might very well have as much or more in common with a student from Hungary or Colombia as someone from Zimbabwe or Cameroon. Does it make sense then, then, to try to draw broader conclusions about “African students” in China?
My deeper concern, however, is that this type of work potentially reifies the category ‘African’ in a counter-productive way. Most Chinese people outside of a few big, international cities have never met someone from Africa. Information about the continent, though expanding, is still limited. As a result, there is significant ‘other-ing’ of individuals from Africa—with real consequences.
For instance, an admittedly close-minded Chinese acquaintance once summoned me to mediate a conflict with a Cameroonian student. The two had gotten in an e-bike crash leaving both bikes damaged. After some heated discussion we finally resolved the conflict, but both parties were still frustrated. A few days later, reflecting on the incident, my Chinese colleague admitted to me: “They are untrustworthy”. When I asked him who “they” was, he responded, sternly: “black people, Africans.”  Given the paucity of information and limited opportunities for constructive interactions, it is all too easy for people like my acquaintance to draw sweeping conclusions from an experience with one individual.
Another example: black students from various parts of Africa told me that when Ebola broke out in Western Africa they were treated with increased suspicion. Because the continent is often conceived as homogenous, it is easier for misunderstanding to affect many.
Breaking down ‘Africa’ in the minds of individuals would make it harder for these widespread misunderstandings to flourish. I have been excited to see this process occurring on campus, where Chinese and international students and community members do have chances to interact. Many of the international students have enthusiastically described having this type of understanding breakthrough with Chinese friends.
So, my concern with writing about Africans as if they are one group is that I might be inadvertently affirming the production of the African ‘other’ in China.
That said there are certainly reasons why it seems both okay and even important to focus on Africans in China, and particularly African students.
Maybe the most important reason is that the students from the continent that I have spoken with quite often employ the category themselves. Frequently, during the awkward, international student dorm elevator introductions, students have told me: “I am African”. Indeed, ‘African’ is an undeniably salient identity for many of those from the continent studying and living in China—not simply one that is imposed.
Further, the symbolic significance of African student exchanges ascribed by Chinese leadership adds weight to this disparate grouping. Despite the fact that students from Africa actually make up a relatively small percentage of international students in China, educational exchanges with Africa have historically featured prominently in foreign aid agreements and are often highlighted as an important demonstration of bilateral and broader China-Africa cooperation .
More abstractly, writing about Africans in Chinese provides an opportunity to actively engage the existing China-Africa discourse. Within this discourse, Africa is often conceived, if not as one homogenous entity, than at least a discursively useful concept—to be Used With Caution. Contradictorily, while accepting the ‘Africa’ conception potentially reifies it, it also provides an opportunity to enter the conversation, hopefully to add nuance and depth.
As such, in response to my initial question: yes, I think it is okay to write about Africans in China—as long as it is done in a critical and nuanced way. To do so, the category ‘African’ should be consciously utilized, after acknowledging its limitations, and not simply blindly accepted.
* In the next post, I will address a second lingering (perhaps more important) question: is it okay for me, a white outsider from the United States, to write about Africans in China?
 Castillo, “Feeling at home in the ‘Chocolate City’” (2014).
 This conflation of ‘Black’ (黑人) and ‘African’ (非洲人) also creates problems for non-black Africans, like some of the Mauritanians that I have interviewed, and black non-Africans.
 King, “African Students in China” in China’s Aid and Soft Power in Africa (2013) and Haugen, “China’s recruitment of African university students” (2013).