Heads-up to foreigners: “racism in China” is a cross-cultural conversation landmine

Conversational Landmine
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).

Specific Differences
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:

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.

11 thoughts on “Heads-up to foreigners: “racism in China” is a cross-cultural conversation landmine”

  1. “National volleyball team gets first black player”

    um… even I was slightly offended by the title when I saw it, it did come across racist. This is a great piece of material to fuel this discussion.

  2. Very interesting article about perception of racism in China!

    In response to Zhao Bin:
    I don’t understand how it is racist to say that a team get it’s first foreign/black player.. (but perhaps there was something that I missed, since my Chinese is not good enough to read the article very well) If a team in Canada got a new player (for any sport) from Brazil, would it be racist to mention it?

    I find in North America, (or perhaps I should say the US, because I have personally never seen this reaction from Canadians), there tends to be a tendancy to sometimes be oversensitive about mentioning someone’s race. (when there is no racism intended) I think it can be read into too much..

    But there does exist a lot of racism even still. So I am not denying it.. perhaps just criticizing what people perceive as racist, when there isn’t anything racist intended.

  3. Very interesting, and I completely agree with the need to address it. I was brought up to believe that we Chinese have little racism, and that we all get along in our happy little world. It wasn’t until college, when I began to frequent Chinese blogs and forums, when I was astounded by the staggering amount of racism, nationalism and Han-ethnocentrism. This is more than constant pain and annoyance for me, as I deal with this almost daily from perusing online and talking to my sometimes less-than-tolerant friends. I’m glad that there are people who are willing to talk about this issue, and in an intelligent and sensitive way as well.

    If you haven’t been on the AllLookSame website, I direct you to its Philosophy statement: http://alllooksame.com/?page_id=16, which is a little bit of a tangent to this post, but I feel very relevant in spirit.

  4. @Bryce:

    There is a difference between mentioning RACE and mentioning NATIONALITY. Saying “Xxx gets its first Brazillian yyyy player.” is different than “Xxx gets its first Mestizo yyyy player.” One is a nationality, one is an ethnicity. “Black” could be an African American, a Nigerian, an Australian, just anyone with Black skin…and that’s where a racial connotation comes in play. The point here is that if a Canadian team adopts someone from another country it implies pride in internationalism, yet if a team adopts someone from a particular ‘race’ and points it out, it’s implying that “Canadian” = “White”, segregation based on color not nationality.

  5. Funny how people mention the USA but it seems most of the Chinese people I know who have gone to the US and Europe say that they have experienced more racism in Europe and were surprised that they had basically no harsh treatment in the US.

    I also find it interesting how some Chinese think of themselves as a race.

  6. because, out of sheer laziness, we westerners tend to lump chinese as a race, japanese as another race, korean etc etc…

    we tend to not even realize that they are all part of the same “race” and the ethnicities are what’s different

    then, ethnicities are a whole other bag of worms

    examples… 56 officially recognised ethnicities in China, but we all know there’s more (do we? how many of us realized this before we came over?)

    how many white folks in Nor/Am really are connected with their roots? a person with scots roots… are you a gael or a pict?

    all i am saying i guess is… what is racism? race? ethnicity? religion? culture?

    we do pic on the locals for their seeming racism, but in all fairness, the ethnic groups pretty much keep to themselves with very little integration. and the majority of folks here have no real contact with other folks from other places.

    we were lucky we grew up in multicultural environments, that we can gain this insight to help us adjust to new cultures, adjust, not integrate, or wholly accept.

    all we can do is, be patient. have some conversations and lead by example.

    to stereotype, i believe that most chinese folks are quite polite and congenial, and they genuinely have an interest in other people.

  7. First of I have to emphasise there is racism. Second discussing it in this country in my own opinion is a waste of time they will never get it (understand it). It took the u.s much blood shed and discussion to make it a major issue there but look at the state of race relations there today. I’ve been denied a job in this country simply because i was black. In a city like Shanghai many blacks who have stayed long enough and get to know the Chinese well are not all that free in public because Chinese are especially sensitive towards blacks and many just look down on blacks. And when I say black I don’t mean Obama black I mean staright out of Africa black. If anyone says there is no racism in China they should be go choke on a…

  8. Without being too much of a national chauvinist, I would say that the average Chinese person would face less open racism in the United States, (and Canada) than in Europe.

    For one, people of Asian descent in America are viewed as the “model minority”, which is problematic in itself (a model for whom?), but nevertheless still positive. Asians have a reputation for hard work, traditional family values, group-empowering decision making, etc. etc. – and while that is certainly a monolithic conception of what it means to be “Asian”, it does capture some of what has made a number of east Asian societies very successful over the past twenty years or so. In fact, as I understand it “Asians” are more successful on average in the United States than “white” people.

    Secondly, there has been a longstanding historical presence of Asian groups in the United States, and while they certainly were not treated fairly, they are an accepted and familiar presence. There are Asians in the United States whose families have been in the country for more than a century, Asians count as a fixed and integral part of the nation’s history and recent Asian immigrants have an established precedence for claiming full status not only legally, but culturally as well.

    Thirdly, there is a culture of immigration, by which I mean there are no “native” groups, other than the indigenous groups that were mostly wiped out by the European settlers. So no one ethnic group (other than the natives) has the rightful claim to North America more than any other group, and the fact that the land was basically stolen undermines any sort of “we were here first” claim.

    Finally, there is a long history of racial violence in the United States, which until recently was mostly one sided – “whites” committing violence against “non-whites”. That has changed, and I think everyone has learned the importance of, if nothing else, keeping your mouth shut.

    All of this is important not just for Chinese people who are immigrating to Canada or the US, but also those who are just temporarily studying or working there, since it is not possible to immediately distinguish between an American of Chinese descent and a Chinese person in America.

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