Racism, ignorance and humanity in China
Richarde had not been in China for more than a few hours when a man turned to him and asked:
“Why are you black? Don’t you take a bath?”
This and so many similar anecdotes from black African students in China that I have spoken with would seem to corroborate recent representations of many Chinese people as, well, racist. The recent explosion of media coverage of a Chinese restaurant in Kenya that was barring black people after 5pm (#RacistRestaurant) has created an opportunity for important discussions about the racial tensions undeniably present in increasing Afro-Sino interactions. For some, the incident has also simply confirmed what Howard French calls a “kind of casual primary racism” of Chinese people.
When I directly asked Richarde, a young Congolese engineering student living in Zhejiang, China, if he thinks Chinese people are racist, he responded with different story than I was expecting:
When he first met one of his teacher’s children, the wide-eyed boy managed only to stutter: “Oh, you are black…” Fast-forward a few months and when the same boy introduced Richarde to his classmates, he repeatedly insisted: “This is my brother! This is my brother.” “There are very bad things in China,” Richarde reflected, “But it’s not their fault. We talk and he understands that I am not too different than him.”
Coming to China to research Africans, I (perhaps too eagerly) expected to witness a lot of racism. In the stories shared by virtually every student of being reminded of their blackness by some Chinese person at some point or another, I found what could be conceived as the very racism I was looking for. Richarde and many others, however, interpret this prejudice using a different term: ignorance. One East African even put it the following:
“I know racism. I have seen racism. But here, this is not that. This is ignorance.”
Puzzled by this distinction, I called to mind the clearest example of racism that I have ever witnessed: a white South African woman calmly explaining to me, “You simply cannot trust blacks. They are lazy and will try to take advantage of you.” Here is racism openly avowed, and no doubt even Richarde would agree.
So why are comments about ‘blacks’ in South Africa unmistakably racist, whereas similar comments about ‘heiren’ [黑人] in China are – still maybe racist, yes – but conceived by some of those affected as ignorance instead? One clear reason is that China does not have South Africa’s long and painful history of institutionalized racism. Further, the majority of Chinese people outside of a few cities may have never met a black person, leading some students to conclude that many Chinese people are just, understandably, “curious”.
In other words, there are structural reasons that might explain why many of these students emphasize Chinese ignorance rather than racism. But beyond these, the more students I talk to the more I realize that the act of choosing to interpret prejudice as ignorance is also a conscious assertion of power. It is to say: I will not let this prejudice define my experience here in China nor my relationships with Chinese people.
That is certainly not to suggest what these students experience is not racism. Being black in China means likely facing discrimination, and calling it what it is important. As a friend pointed out to me, ‘naming’ can be an important means of empowerment. That said, while a number of white, non-African academics and journalists have emphasized the racism faced by Africans in China (or recently in Africa by Chinese people), these students have demonstrated another way of asserting their power. In actively conceiving prejudice as ignorance instead of some immovable “kind of primary racism”, Richarde and some of his classmates are creating space to engage in constructive conversations with Chinese peers. They are allowing for the possibility of changing peoples’ minds and, ultimately, cutting through prejudice to a shared humanity.
As Richarde reminded me in response to my questioning of the racism he faces: “We are firstly human, before we are black or yellow or white.”