“We are different in the colour of our skin, but inside we have the same blood”: How do black people find they are treated in China?
Feature picture: Tourists take photos outside the North Gate of Badaling Great Wall, Beijing. (Image source: Black in Beijing, Youtube)
From its infrastructure footprints across countries in Africa that can date back to as early as the 1960s, to open policies including the granting of visas and business opportunities for labour migrants from African countries since late 1990s, China didn’t appear to have deep-rooted racism towards black people.
However, the COVID outbreak exposes a different story. During this crisis, while Chinese and Asians abroad are encountering, and criticising discriminatory behaviour coming from westerners, anti-black racism, unfortunately, is reportedly seen across the world too. And China is not free from that, especially, in the Southern city of Guangzhou, where it is believed to have the largest African population in the country.
“When COVID first came around, there was definitely a shift in the way that many people began to treat us [differently], it was when the government came out with the anti-discrimination mandate that [this] began to change,” recalled Jasmine Cochran, who has black skin, sitting in a restaurant while she was waiting for food.
She sounded enthusiastic when she had to raise her voice as diners were talking loud in the background, just like any typical Chinese restaurant. Having lived in both North and South China in the past four years, the 37-year-old who was born in California and grew up in Mississippi, settled down in the city of Guangzhou with her husband and two daughters and has been teaching English language and literature at a local high school as an associate foreign expert.
Like many other foreigners who have been to China, curiosity from Chinese towards foreigners might not be something new. But curiosity about their skin colour could lead to frustration. “Sometimes we run into people who…touch us and rub our skin to see if the colour will come off and play with our daughters’ hair as we’re trying to shop in the grocery store and those things are not enjoyable.
“There were people who would run away from us or…put on a mask on or when they saw us coming, their kids would scream or cry,” Jasmine continued.
Image credit: Jasmine Cochran
At school where most of her students, as she describes, are “super respectful”, she was challenged on questions like if she was telling the truth and if she was qualified to teach black history. “We’ve seen a shift in a lot of these attitudes [but] there’s still some work to do,” said Jasmine. That’s when she realised that teaching on history from more black people and people of other ethnicities has never been more important than it is now. “We try to present the truth to them, so that they can dismantle those misconceptions with truth and knowledge,” she added.
Gordon Mathews, a professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, raised an argument in his book The World in Guangzhou that says unlike countries such as America and Australia where migrants constitute a noticeable number of their population, China is a nation which has the lowest immigration rate in the world (approximately 0.07% of the population) and the ideology of ‘race’ in Chinese society is rather ambiguous.
He also suggests that some of the behaviour of Chinese people that may be deemed offensive to black people are out of a lack of exposure to foreigners with a dark black skin colour. And Chaniece’s experience might have set up the case.
Chaniece Brackeen is from North Carolina in the United States and has been working as a consultant at a plant-based company in Shanghai. Having been in China for almost seven years, the life of this 30-year-old expat in China seems to be more of anecdotes. She told how she once met a police officer who was supposed to tell her off as she broke a traffic law while riding on a scooter. The conversation ended up however with a compliment on her Chinese as the officer was impressed with her spoken Chinese. Chaniece seems to be used to compliments and she attributes all kindness she has received from local people around her to her Chinese, and her light black skin.
Although she hasn’t had any unpleasant experiences herself, she understands the challenges that are faced by black people at home as well as in China. “I have a friend who was called as “black ghost” by a kid at school,” said Chaniece, “when you apply for a job, they want white teachers because they assume that black teachers either aren’t like native English speakers or they have accents…some [employers] say ‘white only’ or ‘Europeans’, which is a kind of code word they use for ‘white only’.
“They don’t seem like they’re discriminating, but obviously they are.”
While some blame the stereotyped beauty standards in Chinese society that are overwhelmingly in favour of whiteness, others attribute unfair treatment to black people to biased media output where black people are often depicted in a negative way, which results in poor acceptance in society, especially in China where the knowledge and understanding of black history is limited.
While being accepted by the locals is just the biggest challenge faced by many black people in China like Neal Bartuah said. The 27-year-old young man from Nimba went to China two years ago. Doing International Economics and Trade at the China University of Mining and Technology in Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, Neal seems to have mingled well with his Chinese mates through his hobbies of motorcycling and the piano.
Neal says before the pandemic, he went to motorcycle trips, and hanged out with his Chinese course mates. (Image credit: Neal Bartuah)
Like anyone who just arrives in a new place, Neal wanted to explore the country as much as he could. However, due to budget limitations and restricted part-time work opportunities for foreign students in China, he may have to put off some places on his list to a later point in the future as he plans to stay for a while in China after graduation.
When China went into lockdown during Covid-19, as one of a few international students who did not go back to their home countries, Neal described his life on campus like being “locked up”. “We stay here, because we don’t want to contract [the] virus on our way back…you can’t go out for [a] very long time and [your] temperature…[is]… checked, sometimes, twice a day…you are limited to what …[is]…available on campus,” recalled Neal.
“Some [people] don’t want to come close or sit next to you…that has been seen more often since the outbreak,” he continued, “…we might differ in the colour of our skin, but inside we all have the same blood. And we [are] all are unique in our own ways. So, I think it’s important to accept that blacks are people, and everyone is important.”
Comparing the racism towards black people in America with that in China, Jasmine had more thoughts to share, “In the United States, the whole racism thing goes very deep and there’s a lot of identity involved in it…so it’s much harder to convince people back at home of experiences that black people are having…many Chinese people are open and the world is at a place of listening and empathy that I’ve never seen before. So, that’s been very encouraging.
“Both in China and the US, there are people who don’t believe racism exists. There’s an attitude of, ‘well, if black people would just do the right thing, they wouldn’t have the problems they have.’ That attitude is harmful and dismissive, and to maintain that attitude is to stifle progress.”
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