I guess this is one of those things that most foreigners in China discover sooner or later, though I didn’t realize until recently that this is a sensitive nerve for a lot of Han Chinese (Han are the majority ethnic group in China at 92%). Apparently the idea that there could be racism in China is outright rejected by a lot of Chinese: “‘Racism’ is never in Chinese minds,” says one commenter from Hong Kong. “We don’t have racism issues.” Yet multiple glaring, text-book examples of racism instantly and effortlessly spring to the minds of foreigners who’ve spent significant time in China. They’ve experienced or witnessed it for themselves, and they can’t believe that anyone would seriously deny that it exists. The Mainlanders, however, are offended that a foreigner would even suggest it.
My point here is that foreigners and Chinese need to tread carefully if having cross-cultural conversations about “racism.” Culturally we approach racism differently, and this combined with Mainlanders’ sensitivity regarding how Westerners view China means the potential for miscommunication and/or offense is immense.
Overweight Baggage Fees
The average foreigner and the average Mainlander typically understand “racism” in very different ways. It’s a loaded subject inside and outside China; each of our respective societies and cultures still struggle with diversity. Obviously not everyone in China thinks the same, and as Westerners we have our own historical baggage that hinders our understanding and handling of race and diversity today. The same commenter I quoted above says that we (non-Chinese) are often guilty of “using foreign concept to understand Chinese” and she’s right. All of us, Chinese and non-Chinese, have inherited ‘issues’ from our cultures and histories, and we bring that with us to discussions about racism (even the people-categories I’m using in this post reflect this).
I’ve only just recently accidentally stepped on this particular conversational landmine, so what follows are just my initial impressions. It seems that when Mainlanders hear the word “racism” they think first of institutional racism, like Nazis and segregation and apartheid. They get offended because to them it sounds like we’re accusing “China,” their state/race/civilization, of deliberate and extreme racist policies (that are usually associated with foreign nations). But North Americans often first think of individuals’ behaviours, like a manager’s subconscious hiring preferences or a person’s choice of friends, and individuals’ attitudes and thinking (personal biases, prejudices, and stereotyping). The North American can’t understand how the Mainlander could expect to be taken seriously when denying the obvious existence of racist attitudes and behaviours among many individuals in China, while the Mainlander is offended that the foreigner would lump their nation in with segregated South Africa and Nazi Germany. Neither side does a very good job of communicating to the other, even when trying to explain.
Online Discussion Drama
Here are a few recent links to articles and ‘conversations’ about race issues in China that demonstrate how muddled this topic can be:
- A “foreigner” in my own country, “yellow” people, and other funny Chinese racial talk (ChinaHopeLive)
- Understanding popular Chinese notions about “racism” (help me out here!) (Fool’s Mountain)
- How should foreigners feel about being called “鬼子,” “鬼佬,” “老外,” etc.? (Fool’s Mountain)
- Chinese Racism: Yes, It Exists, But Why Won’t They Admit It? (CNReviews)
- Young, gifted and black: China unveils Ding Hui, its new Olympic hope (Times Online)
I don’t suggest you actually read through all the comments, especially on the Fool’s Mountain links; it’s not worth your time. But a quick skim will at least give a taste of what some Chinese with good English have to say about it.