Being Black in China, race isn’t ever something I can ignore. I know that my Chinese experiences are filtered through my personal racial codifiers just like those of my Chinese hosts. Often local people’s responses to the growing Black presence in China are benign, and a brown woman might find herself with a half dozen teenage girls pulling at her coils. Other times, though, the reactions to my otherness is down right maddening. About a month ago while selecting vegetables at my neighborhood market the shopkeeper called me heigui (Mandarin for the “N” word in English) to my face. I did not purchase the vegetables and left them on the counter, thinking of the many times this has happened to me and the number of friends who have shared similar stories. I thought of our historic struggle for fair treatment, taking pride in the notion that against any impulse toward hate, our experience as black people incline us toward forgiveness and love. Practicing these ethics in China means tolerating bias while understanding that locals may never feel compelled by the topic of racism.
That said, I was not at all surprised by the outcry in the Chinese blogosphere regarding the racist comments made in the wake of New York Knick Jeremy Lin’s rise to NBA prominence. One commentator wrote on the Baidu.com article titled “America is not a paradise, there’s racism in every part,” “You can’t do it to white people or black in America but it’s perfectly fine to despise Chinese people.” As an important caveat to what seems like China’s intransigence on the subject, there is a cultural narrative that acknowledges the practice of racism. According to this narrative, however, racism is always something inflicted onto — not dispensed by — Chinese people.
My view of Black history as one grounded in a love ethic coupled with the sense that Chinese society does not compel its citizens to confront their racism led me to a dangerous place — a place where I could regard myself and by extension all Black people as innocent before the claim of anti-Chinese racism. After several prominent African-Americans vocally participated in bashing Jeremy Lin, this construct for me was effectively shattered, forcing me to confront a dual truth. Not only does a similar strain of anti-Asian sentiment exist in certain quarters of the Black public, we are all implicated of bias when it goes unchecked in our communities.
Innocence narratives abound in Chinese and Black communities, and surely bias claims on either side will persist. Given the unfair practices of Chinese entities throughout Africa (Chinese security forces killing Zambian workers in a copper mine, their companies extracting resources and flooding African markets with cheap products — living up to a classical standard of colonial economics) the case that there is a genuine imbalance of power in the relationship between Blacks and Chinese can be made. However on the level of our personal politics there is certainly room for a bit more introspection on both sides. This may begin with the acknowledgement — both Chinese and African Americans have been wronged, but neither are innocent.