– Gregory Scott and Luyolo Sijake
After reading Professor Li’s piece “Ignorance of race not equivalent to racism”, we, as people of African descent from highly racialized societies currently living in China, felt it necessary to address and respond to some of the issues raised in the piece. In addition to being a response to Professor Li’s piece, the purpose of this article is to draw attention to attitudes and behaviours that are present in China that embody the foundations of racialism. Through this article, we also aim to emphasize the urgent need to address ignorance and racism in China, phenomena that by no means simply fade with time and greater exposure to other groups. We present the view that racism and ignorance are in fact fundamentally interconnected. As foreigners who have had various positive experiences in China, we write this article principally in the spirit of mutual understanding.
The core of Prof Li’s article rests on the idea that a clear distinction should be drawn between ignorance and racism. It is certainly the case that groups from all parts of the world hold incorrect perceptions of people they are unfamiliar with, but the problem is that these misconceptions, this ‘ignorance’, necessarily shapes the way in which people treat one another. So when a commercial like the Qiaobi detergent commercial re-enforces the notion that all people of African descent are dirty and not acceptable as they are, it is not difficult to connect the dots between this view of ‘black people’ and their mistreatment, or discrimination against them. Whilst curiosity itself is benign, ignorance is always bad. Even though it is true that ignorance of race isn’t necessarily equal to racism, it is undeniable that ignorance has underpinned some of history’s worst racially driven atrocities. Are these acts to be excused, citing ignorance as the justification?
It was unfortunate to see that most references Prof Li chose to make to the African continent and its people were negative. As done in the detergent advertisement, the stock photo used for the article further perpetuates a particular stereotype often used to portray the entire African continent. The photo icon that accompanies the article on Wechat shows a malnourished boy with unidentified sacks in the background, implying, among other things, that the African continent can be summed up as being in a perpetual state of abject poverty. In fact, Africa is the world’s fastest-growing continent with 5.6% GDP growth per year, and GDP is expected to rise by an average of over 6% per year between 2013 and 2023. Over one-third of Sub-Saharan African countries posted 6% or higher growth rates, and another 40% have grown at 4% to 6% per year. This is a clear sign of growing prosperity.
It is no myth that Africa has and continues to suffer from a range of problems due to ethnocentricity that have led to hostility towards foreigners and has even caused tensions among different groups on the continent. However, to frame ethnocentricity in Africa by using the example of Malian cannibals as a comparative case to the great ancient empires of Italy, Greece, India, and China is frankly insulting. There was no lack of affluent empires in Africa prior to the advent of European colonialism and subsequent unending expropriation of resources. Mali, home to Timbuktu, is a good example. In its golden age, the town’s numerous Islamic scholars and the extensive trading network made possible an important book trade to which the Sankore Madrasah campus contributed greatly. This established Timbuktu as a globally renowned scholarly centre.
In addressing ethnocentricity in China as it relates to appearance, in particular, it would be misleading to assert that Chinese people today view themselves as the benchmark for beauty. Everywhere you look, western symbols of success, power or beauty are glaringly present in the cars people drive, clothes they wear and the way they seek to appear physically. There are arguably no persistent prejudices harboured by newer Chinese generations towards people of European descent. At the time of the ‘reform and opening up’, these prejudices may have been palpable, but 30 years later one can see that European culture has influenced China immensely.
It would appear that all things European have become the touchstone by which many things are judged. Almost every status symbol in modern China is American or European. As one walks down the street in Chaoyang district, Beijing’s richest district, one can see many different models of Audi and Porsche roar past you on the street. Here one often walks by women using Louis Vuitton and Chanel bags, donning jewellery bought from NYC-based jewellery store, Tiffany’s. Prejudice towards Europeans has been transformed into a pursuit of status and power through the obtaining of everything European and American. Plastic surgery is also more and more common in China. Jawline restructuring, nose realignment, and double eyelid surgery are common procedures undergone by more affluent Chinese women often in pursuit of a typically European appearance. So even in the world’s second-largest economy, with a population of over one billion incredibly hardworking, beautiful people, the beauty standard has been imported from nearly 4000 miles away.
It is also in areas that should have nothing to do with appearance where people of African and even Asian descent, among others, are the victims of mistreatment or discrimination resulting from “ignorance” amongst Chinese people. This is exceedingly evident in the English teaching market in China where eloquent ‘non-white’ English speakers and highly qualified English teachers are often denied jobs in favour of less or equally competent ‘white’ people who often times aren’t even from English speaking countries. Judging someone’s ability based on their colour is one of the clearest forms of racism that exist. Here we clearly see the key problem in how ‘ignorance’ translates directly into discriminatory behaviour. The fact that Chinese parents make decisions about their children’s education based on how someone looks as opposed to their credentials should be concerning. Are we to say that this too should be excused as an act of ignorance? The conclusion drawn in the article that racist acts by Chinese people should somehow not be considered racist is clearly questionable.
It thus follows that the way in which Chinese people view and refer to people of African descent cannot be compared to the way in which they refer to ‘white’ people. Sternberg, Grigorenko & Kidd (2005) states, “Race is a socially constructed concept, not a biological one. It derives from people’s desire to classify.” The term “hei ren” in Mandarin Chinese is a term often used by Chinese people when referring to people they deem to be of African descent. The inherently racist term “hei ren” conflates an entire continent of nearly one billion people with 54 different nations, 3000 distinct languages, and a global diaspora that includes an additional 200 million plus people spread throughout the world on nearly every continent and refers to them with the over reductive term “hei ren”. Rarely are foreigners of European descent referred to as “bai ren” (white people) but rather as “lao wai” or “wai guo ren”, simply “foreigner”. Despite these terms having xenophobic origins they are far more respectful of the variation that exists amongst ‘white’ people, who are nearly one billion of the world’s 7 billion plus people – the same proportion as black people on the planet.
The conclusion in Prof Li’s article that the misconceptions held towards people of African descent will dissipate with the passing of time and greater exposure to different people is deeply problematic, it would, in fact, make more sense that these attitudes become exacerbated with greater exposure. We have only to look at societies like the USA and South Africa to understand that even where different racial groups have been in contact for centuries some of the most inconceivable misconceptions and deep-rooted forms racism persist. We write this article in the hope that these kinds of misconceptions, myths, and fallacies will not shape the future that lies ahead in this increasingly globalised society.