I am accustomed to living with the color of my skin at the forefront of my mind. As a black woman from the United States, I constantly experience the repercussions of living in a society with race heavily etched into its social make-up. So, when I prepared to move to China, the fear of racism, discrimination, and prejudice became an imminent concern.
So, what was the first thing I did as I packed my bags? I did what any other sensible person would do when faced with complex, nuanced problems such as race and identity: I googled “Being Black in China.” What I found simultaneously shocked and reassured me.
Racism, discrimination, prejudice were all red-hot words that caused many people’s blood to boil. I read accounts of foreigners visiting or living in another country with the fear that they will experience issues of social, even racial, tension. This seemed to be especially true of people of black, African, or African-American descent, who notoriously experience racism, as minorities in other countries.
I found comments on China’s social media site, Weibo, calling Africans “devils” or stating that they hated Africans, who are permanently or living long-term in China. I also found comments of users describing “high-quality” light-skinned black girls, versus “ugly” dark-skinned black girls. However, I also found accounts of black foreigners, who found living in China an exceptionally pleasant and rewarding experience.
So, incidentally, my Google search didn’t give me a definitive answer to the question of how black people experience China. Today, after living in China for almost a year, I reached the conclusion that there is no definite answer.
Thus, when one of my colleagues wrote an article titled Being Black in China, I read it excitedly, but hesitantly.
TWOC’s recent article, Being Black in China, explored the world of black and Chinese social relations, through an interview with Jennifer Bonne: an athlete from the Seychelles, who currently studies at Beijing Sports University.
Bonne offered her perspective on living in Beijing and interacting with Chinese people:
“I don’t know maybe it is because I am self confident, but I feel proud; I feel here like I am one in a million. I feel special and there is a typical spotlight, but, let’s say, it is something positive rather than negative.”
Jennifer’s experience and perspective, while completely valid and respected, represents only one perspective of the black experience in China. Like myself, several others noted the article focused on one person. Naturally, the article elicited a flurry of response from many of our readers in the world of social media.
“Coincidentally you’ve chosen to write from the perspective of someone who seems to ignore the bigotry that happens to them or doesn’t take it as seriously as others might,” stated a Tumblr netizen.
In order to address the many passionate comments of our readers, I interviewed black, African, and African-American students at Beijing, University.
Kendall Tyson (far left) and Peking University Students
Similarly to Jennifer, many of the students were enthusiastic about studying at Beijing, University. They too experienced the celebrity-like attention and often found the curiosity from locals endearing, rather than insulting.
“I can sense that Chinese are so curious; when they see you, they touch your hair, they took pictures,” explained Hanatalovldona Ramahalosa, a student from Madagascar.
However, Ramahalosa also described a devastating experience of her friend traveling in rural China.
“They asked him to speak, because they wanted to make sure he was human. He said he was never coming back to China,” Ramahalosa recalls.
Ramahalosa’ roommate, Syuzan, interjected that racism is more prevalent in the rural regions of China. In larger cities, such as Beijing, which has experienced an influx of foreigners, since the 2008 Olympics, the blatant racism is less prevalent.
However, Syuzan, also pointed out that this doesn’t extend to a lack of prejudice in the workforce: “You can’t find a job teaching [English] if you are black.”
In many cases, Chinese people seem to want white language partners. To many black and African people living in China, this isn’t a new thought. I’ve seen several signs in cafés and dormitories asking for tutors, yet adding the disclaimer that only white male Canadians or Americans apply.
“They don’t realize that so much of Canada and the US is black,” laughed Ramahalosa.
Kendall Tyson (woman on right) at a language partner mixer in Wudaokou, Beijing
Seemingly, much of the racism or prejudice seems to stem from a lack of knowledge about black people. When speaking to my teacher at Beijing, University, a Chinese woman, she explained that most of what she knew about black people was from movies, in which they were usually criminals or athletes.
Nearly all of the interviews mentioned the perception that many Chinese people are afraid of black or African males. Armand Holmes, both a writer at TWOC and student at Beijing, University explained that he also experienced the misconception of the black male criminal.
Once, while walking at Beijing, University with several friends, Holmes walked toward the trashcan to throw something out. He didn’t notice a Chinese woman standing next to the bin. However, the woman clearly noticed him walking toward her and screamed. Despite the fact that she was on a crowded street and Armand was with several friends, she still viewed him as a threat.
On the other hand, Holmes frequently meets Chinese friends playing basketball on campus. In many ways, China seems to suffer from placing black men in two categories: a threat or a basketball superstar.
Armand Holmes (middle) at a bar partying with new Chinese friends
The common misconceptions of black woman are less easily defined. Sometimes our skin is fawned over, other times we are told to not tan or to be more pale.
In the article where Bonne is interviewed, she jokes about the lack of darker foundation and black hair products in China. While this is presented as a light problem, it reflects the larger difficulty of living in a society, where white is still the epitome of beauty.
Personally, I’ve had Chinese women tell me I should use whitening soap; however, I’ve also had people tell me that the only reason I am able to get a job in China as a teacher is because I don’t look too dark. My Irish heritage from my mother’s side of the family definitely shines through. With hazel eyes and light brown curly hair, I obviously have a little something-something mixed in me.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that all Chinese people find dark skin unappealing. Bonne, as well as several of the Beijing, University interviewees mentioned intercultural dating. However, while spotting black and Chinese couples isn’t impossible, it presents its own difficulties from strange looks to familial disapproval.
“My grandparents would never want me to marry a black person,” a Beijing University student of Chinese heritage explained.
Over and over again, in the conversation about black and Chinese relations, I’ve heard the word “curiosity,” or “ignorance.” While some black people don’t find the reactions they receive from Chinese people offensive, some have had truly troubling experiences. Like any country, ethnic relations in China are complex.
As one blogger explained: “It’s up to the person who experienced the prejudice or the racism to call it what it is.”