“Racist” or “not-racist,” the better question is whether racism is being (re)-produced or deconstructed in China

The scandal of the Qiaobi ad has come and already largely  passed. If scandals have replaced collective rituals as moments of social reproduction (as my old professor at Chicago John MacAloon claimed), then the debate over the ad has done its work in bringing back to life the online community of commentators, scholars and practitioners following , studying and practicing relationships between Africa and China. But like other online scandals, the discussion has already begun to move onto other topics. The details of the advertisement have already been widely summarized: a Chinese woman places a Qiaobi detergent capsule in a black man’s mouth (it is implied but ultimately unclear if he is a boyfriend/husband etc.) and stuffs him in a washing machine. At the end of the cycle, a “cleaned” Chinese man emerges.  The ad is a direct copy of an earlier Italian ad which merely reverses the transformation (a frail white Italian man is transformed into a muscular black man). The trope of “washing” black skin to make it white has of course appeared before in Western advertising. And as Dai Na-Mei reminds us, a hospitalized Franz Fanon once described a nightmare he had of having been “put through the washing machine.”

The controversy over the advertisement has centered on either the racism of its content, or racism within Chinese society. This has meant both the use of the ad to demonstrate/confirm that racism exists in China, and the use of contextualization to argue in myriad ways that the ad, or at least Chinese society at large, is “not as racist as you think.” The responses to the ad in either case have grappled with the question, “Are the Chinese racist?” This may not be the best question to ask. The better question would be, “Where and how is race and racism being (re)produced in Chinese society, and where and how is it being deconstructed?” Race and racism are the products of social interactions and inequalities rather than simply a set of prejudiced attitudes. The response to the controversy, however, has focused primarily on the latter, contributing to the conflation of racism with ignorance. This is not surprising. “Racism” is frequently talked about as a set of problematic attitudes or opinions that a person may possess in varying degrees, rather than an assemblage of systematic practices (including discourses) which produce inequalities based on constructed notions of race.

In conflating racism with “ignorance” or “attitudes,” the debate has been less about the quality of relationships between Chinese and Africans/African-descendant people, and more about the identity of Chinese in a global hierarchy of tolerance and civility. A reason for this is that the primary reference point for any discussion about “race” in China is the history of Western imperialism, and the fact that “Whiteness” continues to inform global hierarchies of value. Whatever genealogies to racial thought in Chinese history, it is near impossible to talk about them today except through the lens of the standard set by Western racism. This is true not only for foreign observers who interpret Chinese attitudes based on their experiences in the United States or Europe, but also for Chinese. What this means is that these debates also are about the identity of Europeans and European-descendant peoples, against which Asian racism serves as either the dark attic of their own “forgotten” stereotypes (i.e. the afterlives of Darkie Toothpaste and Sambo in Asia), or the “they-do-it too” validation for  racist ideology.

A routine debate has unfolded on a China-Africa listserv I follow between those arguing the Qiaobi ad is indicative of a problematic discourse of race in China, and those arguing the reaction to the Qiaobi ad is indicative of a problematic Western discourse about racism in China. On close examination, there are actually a number of facts the two sides seem to agree on, but as is often the case with international scandals involving Africa-China, “East-West” tropes of geopolitical competition leads any particular commentary to be suspiciously read by some as either apologia or driven by covert political motivations.

If there is one thing people have (mostly) agreed on is the need for contextualization, to avoid blanket statements like “the Chinese are racist.” How one contextualizes is another matter. Robert Castillo has offered a good overview of the different “readings” and “explanations” usually offered to explain incidents of anti-black racism in China. The first is that what looks like “racism” is better understood as “colorism,” an aesthetic preference for fair skin originating in the association between darker skin and working under the sun, and therefore, “classism.” The second is that it is rooted in historical prejudices towards darker skinned southerners (which were extended towards Africans in the late 19th/early 20th century via Western racial theories). The third explanation is that Chinese anti-black attitudes are informed by Western racism, popularly expressed as the “Hollywood-made-me-racist” argument. Castillo supplies an additional explanation concerning the Qiaobi ad in particular: “policing Chineseness, and the policing of Chinese femininity.” A potential union between a Chinese woman and a black male (it is unclear in the ad whether he is from Africa or not) is “corrected” by producing a Chinese man. The fact he is a Chinese man rather than a “white” European (an imagined alternative to the ad Chinese internet commentators sardonically suggested) suggests that in addition to the invocation of global racial hierarchies, there is the anxiety of Chinese women looking outside the population of Chinese males. This was in fact a major theme of the 1988 (male) anti-black riots in Nanjing, as Castillo points out. His assessment of these explanations is that each is simplistic in isolation, and he is right to identify the problem with “global (colonial and postcolonial) imaginaries of racial superiority” rather than a distinctively Chinese racism. It is never an either/or. Expressions of racial prejudice can emerge from the intersection of multiple forms of discrimination.

The practice of contextualizing racism, however, raises the question of how one chooses to define racism and where one locates it. Castillo defines racism in terms of structural racism, and draws a distinction between that and the surface manifestations of racial prejudice. Based on his experience and research with the African community in Guangzhou, he argues that systemic anti-black racism like that encountered in the United State or Europe does not exist in China. Therefore, expressions of racial prejudice in China are better understood to be the products of “ignorance.” Nicole Bonnah’s response to Castillo raises the point that calls to contextualize before calling something “racist” opens “up a pandoras box of accessing who’s eyes and ears are beholding and defining these ‘contexts’. Evaluations of racism using this practice would undoubtedly be formed based upon positions of privilege or under-privilege.” To provide an example from the American context, it is often the privilege of the dominant group to define what is or is not racist, and to thereby dismiss those on the receiving end of “being sensitive.” Bonnah writes that “racial prejudice in China as a result of colonial and postcolonial ‘imaginaries’ of racial superiority doesn’t just look like racism – it is.” It is a semiotic question because even if the signifiers of racism (in this case, the ad) can be argued to not signify a single referent (a Chinese racism or an imagined ur-racism), a signifier of racism, once out there in the world, is not just a representation of racism, it is racism. It is racist because of the global context, not just the Chinese context.

Qiaobi’s public response to the controversy was a combination of denied intention to harm combined with criticism of international media for “over-sensitivity.” Ironically, it’s a very “American” response. In the United States, controversies over racially offensive discourses usually attract counter-complaints that the offended populations are “sensitive,” or that the racism is in the eye of the beholder. But this is often the point. Those on the receiving end of devaluing, dehumanizing discourses are often better able to recognize their import than those who produce them. The producers of the Qiaobi ad may not have recognized their product as “racist,” nor may they even have harbored any explicit hostility towards black individuals. Nonetheless, the long history of the black=dirty motif in Western advertising, anti-black attitudes within the Chinese public sphere, and the reading of the ad as racist means that the ad is racist, or at the very least, the ad becomes racist. The ad has contributed to the archive of global anti-black racism. It cannot be unproduced.

The debates, however, have largely been about China, and the contests of contextualization have been restricted there. As Michael Herzfeld writes, the use of disclaimers to argue that this or that racist opinion or policy is “not racist” has already become a globalized form of contemporary racism. Contextualization is important, especially as a corrective to self-affirmative American and European interpretations, but in the Chinese context, it can become a conservative position which deflects critical attention to the object itself: racism in China.

But what does “racism in China” actually mean? What kind of object is it? I have noticed two versions of contextualization used when observers respond to blanket claims that “the Chinese” are racist towards black individuals, and in their attempt to contextualize racist situations involving Chinese society. The contextualizations I describe here are “academic” in the sense of being distinct from the popular “readings” and “explanations” Castillo summarizes. This does not mean they are exclusive, as the boundary between the “academic” and “non-academic” is constructed and fuzzy in practice, but there are distinct arguments which can be associated with the scholars who have commented on the issue.

The Genealogical Contextualization

The first type of contextualization might be called the “genealogical” contextualization. It is a historical contextualization that identifies a concrete object, “anti-black racism,” and traces its emergence and evolution over time. The time scale varies. Dikotter and Wyatt trace it back centuries, but the more compelling treatments have linked it to the modernity of Chinese nation-building projects (cf. Cheng 2011).

These treatments have argued the discourse of anti-black racism is closely linked to nationalist anxieties about the place of China and Chinese in the global hierarchy of value. There is a long genealogy to this going back to the encounter between the Chinese empire and Western imperialism in the 19th century. The narrative is well summarized by Dai Na- Mei (戴娜美) in Chinese here. There were prominent Chinese reformers who adopted the racial and Social Darwinist perspectives of such Europeans as Francis Galton to critically analyze the place of the “yellow” in the global racial hierarchy. There was a dark side to the progressivism of famous Chinese reformers like Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao. Dai quotes Kang Youwei in Datong Shi as writing ,“The difference between white people and yellow people is not that great, China can still vigorously catch up, but the blacks are an ethnicity (族性) which is already too inferior.”

The anti-imperialist solidarity of the People’s Republic of China with African liberation movements did create counter-currents, but when Maoism came under critical evaluation in 1980s China, so did China’s alignment with Africa. Based on my own experience listening to Chinese expatriates in East Africa, I think Maoist anti-racism may have even had the unintended effect of reinforcing global hierarchies. A shared history of being the victim of imperialism did not necessarily entail an elevation to equality. Instead, for some Chinese I have met, the interpretation of African society through the lens of Western colonialism reinforces the association of “blacks” with “slaves.” Chinese interlocutors I encountered in my fieldwork would sometimes explain various perceived deficits in the character of local people in terms of “backwards” social development: being a “slave society,” lacking local cultural agency etc. When they would ask me whether “the position of blacks in the United States were very low,” it was not necessarily a critique of structural racism, but a commentary about the “low position” of “blacks” in general as a consequence of an imagined ethnopsychology. Furthermore, the sentiment among some that Chinese expatriates in Africa are not “respected” because they did not achieve the same Hegelian mastery as Europeans is an example of how easily the moral evaluation of the same political assumptions can be flipped.

Following the beginning of Reform and Opening, Chinese reformers turned away from the solidarity of the Maoist period and resurrected earlier projects of Chinese modernity defined under an internalized white gaze (cf Anagnost 1997). As before, “blackness” became an oppositional category against which “yellowness” might aspire towards “whiteness.” As Sautman argued, when Chinese students protested against Africans students in the 1980s, part of their demands could be understood as a rejection of a Maoist internationalism that aligned China with Africans rather than with Anglo-Europeans, a stance which aligned with the liberalism of the subsequent 1989 protests. In the context of the 1980s, Cheng argues, this was linked to resentments that China remained poor. Twenty years later, perspectives about Africans are linked to a more self-confident Chinese-ness. This may be questioned, however, when one considers both internal divisions within China as well as continuing forms of self-criticism. Despite China’s “rise,” there remains a deep ambivalence about both the strength of China as a state and the strength of individual Chinese as migrants.

The problem with this genealogical approach, however, is that it flattens the possibilities of what a Chinese discourse of race might be. The construction of a textual cannon linking the writings of Kang Youwei to the language of 1980s student protestors excludes alternative voices and singularizes the Chinese discourse of race to a master melody against which individual perspectives are either in or out of tune. The work of Dikotter, Wyatt, (early) Sautman, Simon Shen and Cheng Yinhong sometimes reads like an extended series of examples, a kind of “gallery of shocking statements” primarily intended to prove that racism exists in China. In some cases, the volume of quoted statements are so offensive as to almost make it difficult to remember anything else about the articles.

For context, it would be worthwhile to compare online Chinese racism to online American racism. If online American racism is read as the public revelation of secret attitudes behind “covert” systemic racism, than what does “overt” Chinese racism reveal if, as Castillo claims, “covert” racism does not exist in China? Do online attitudes correlate with how Chinese individuals interact with Africans they may actually meet?

Cheng and Shen both emphasize how thoroughly racism “permeates” Chinese society. Shen goes further to make claims about how “the Chinese” think and feel. The problem is that this excludes entire categories of people whose experiences and discourses might trouble what we mean by “the Chinese.” For example, one of the key sites of anti-black racism Shen and Cheng identify are (male) Chinese denunciations of Chinese women who date and/or marry African men (the unfulfilled outcome of the advertisement) . But we do not hear what these women have to say. To privilege male Chinese opinions is to concede the right to who determines what “the Chinese” think. There has recently been attempts to address this (Shanshan Lan and Allen Xiao. Forthcoming; Yu Qiu, Forthcoming). In a recent piece, Min Zhou, Shabnam Shenasi and Tao Xu suggest that although views of Africans online are generally “negative,” those in Guangzhou who have direct interactions with Africans in business may have more positive views than those who do not. In all these cases, contextualization would mean avoiding singularization and focusing more on the positionality of where racial claims are being made.

Statistical Range (or Marketplace of Ideas) Contextualization

The second type of contextualization might be called the “statistical range,” or “marketplace” contextualization because of its affinity with the neoliberal metaphor of a “marketplace of ideas.” In this interpretation, there are no “discursive formations,” or singular “Chinese racisms,” but rather one billion Chinese individuals, and within this set, the entire spectrum of ideas about race may be found.  This is exemplified in the argument of Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong’s  op-ed, “One Bad Advert Doesn’t Make 1.4. Billion Chinese Racist.” The target of the op-ed is of course the singularization that too often occurs when people makes claims about “the Chinese.” All too frequently, what applies to one Chinese individual is rapidly assumed to apply to every possible individual within that category. Sautman and Yan review survey studies to argue that racist attitudes are less prevalent in China than assumed.

Racism in this case is treated as a measurable individual property. There is a difference between the claim that an entire population is racist, or possesses racist views, however, and the claim that a discourse of race is prominent in a society. There is a common slippage in ordinary use between “population” and “society.” Population in this case can be defined quantitatively as a set of individuals counted in the Chinese census. “Society” in this case could refer to a shared frame of reference, a public sphere with common points of linguistic, cultural and experiential reference wherein any individual might recognize “Chinese society” as an object to which they relate in some way or the other, and are able to make varying degrees of generalizations about.

Of course, these are both imprecise definitions, but the point I am trying to make is that the kind of claims one can make about either category are substantively different. A population, however defined, is relatively fixed, it has a number. It can be sampled and surveyed to produce statistical data. Each individual can be assigned a variable (in this case, “racist” or “non-racist,” however the researcher chooses to define those terms, and whatever methods they use to determine  them). The method already assumes there will be variation, but one of the products of the method is to produce data about the proportion of variation. These numbers are then used to make arguments about the norm, which in translation, often come define the entire population in a kind of “winner-takes-all” argument. Mobilized for the geopolitics of comparison, populations are ranked by their comparative racism. Sautman and Yan cite this literature not to “prove” (although they often seem to suggest) that Chinese are “less racist” than Europeans, but to disprove the assumption Chinese are “more racist” than Europeans. In either case, we learn less about racism itself and more about the ongoing politics of comparative hierarchies which continue to define debates about the “rise of China.”

There are many problems with this, one of which is the assumption of methodological individualism that the measure of racism is the measurement of attitudes possessed by individuals. This is not to say such measurements do not have value. It is important, as Sautman and Yan point out in a listserv discussion, that among respondents in Nanjing, there has been a change in how people talk about race between 1994 and the present, to the extent one could argue people are less “racist” now than they were in the early 1990s. The problem is rather the classification of individuals as “racist” or “non-racist.” This is implied when Sautman and Yan are discussing the fact there are “only a few surveys exist that compare Chinese racial/ethnic attitudes to those of Westerners, but so far they show that the former are by no means more racist than the latter.  That is the case moreover even though almost everyone seems to agree that those Chinese who are racist are less apt than Westerners to disguise their views” (Italics mine).

The identification of a sub-category of those “who are racist,” but “disguise their views” to varying degrees, reflects a persistent way of talking about racism as an individual rather than social possession. It is problematic because it helps elide an understanding of racism as a total social phenomena. In an American context, individuals who are white frequently deny they are “racist,” while not only holding opinions which are racist, but also participating in social practices which reproduce racial inequalities. This is not just a matter of disguising attitudes, but also engaging in practices these same individuals themselves may not understand to contribute to “racism.” For example, decisions on where to live and enroll children for schooling need not be explicitly understood to be based on race, but on considerations of “crime,” which can be either coded,, affective-for example, internalized anxieties when driving through certain neighborhoods-or seemingly well-intentioned. The undecidability between the intentions distracts attention from the similarity of effects, but in the United States (and not just in the United States), moral self-definition is premised on intentionality.

The Production of Race and Racism

In the case of China, where these same forms of anti-black discrimination do not exist in the same systemic manner, the issue is more complicated. Castillo himself defines racism in terms of structural racism: “a covert, systematic, and persistent (e.g. that is almost inescapable) form of discrimination embedded in social institutions (like the mighty American police, in case you were looking for an example), that grants privileges to one group while denying them to others.” By this definition, although there “are plenty of racial prejudices and forms of discrimination” which are “overt” rather than “covert,” Castillo argues “’there is no structural racism’” in China.” By decoupling racial prejudice from systemic racism, the explanation for Chinese anti-black attitudes is attributed to being “still very ignorant, naive, or plainly idiotic.” Castillo and others have attempted to separate prejudice from racism, suggesting the former is a universal feature of human life which can be the basis for, but does not necessarily lead to, the latter.

What then, do racial prejudices, discourses or practices in China do? Does their “racism” depend on their intention or their effects? If anti-black prejudices in China do not contribute to systemic racism, then what are their effects? In the context of a global hierarchy of value which often devalues “blackness,” whether or not Chinese prejudice is Chinese racism is not just a Chinese issue. As the debate has revealed, the Qiaobi ad exposes both Chinese and Western practices to question. Attempts to isolate the problem as either “Chinese” or “Western” does not answer questions about racism, it engages the geopolitics of comparison between status quo hegemonic powers and would be challengers. It also overlooks the broader situation of global inequality, including the relation of “Africa” to the world. Differences between how “the West” and “China” interact with the people who live there are ultimately less significant than the forms of inequality, dependency, and cultural hierarchies that continue to produce themselves in interactions between African societies and external actors (notwithstanding the complexities of agency and mutual constitution). The Qiaobi ad should be considered in this context rather than only in comparative domestic contexts.

Furthermore, setting the definition of racism as something possessed by individuals ignores the dialogical properties of discourse; the articulation of individual attitudes do not exist in isolation from each other, people express views on race with reference, implicitly or explicitly, to other views in circulation. Anti-racist views among elite individuals in the majority group, for example, might identify non-elite members of the majority group as embodiment of the racism they wish to disavow in themselves. In the United States, this can be seen in the practices of social distinction white American liberals adopt towards “rednecks.” In my fieldwork in East Africa, I found Chinese expatriates willingly criticize different devalued categories of “low-quality” or “low cultural level” Chinese for their presumed prejudice and impatience with locals. These same individuals would present themselves as being better educated or understanding of cultural difference.

Nonetheless, even if not everyone uses the same racial terminology, there is a set of observations and comments people make about locals which indexes similar observations and comments made by those who do use explicitly racial terminology. In other words, even though there is a diversity of perspectives on “race” and cultural difference among Chinese expatriates, there is nonetheless a convergence on a shared set of cultural generalizations about heiren (black people).

For example, I met individuals who would express seemingly nuanced perspectives on race, and critical attitudes towards the attitudes of other expatriates in one situation, but participate in racialized discussions in other situations. I remember a conversation once with a couple of Chinese friends whose discussion turned to the challenges of living in East Africa. One of the young men began to describe problems with his employees and with police officers in terms of problems with “heiren,” and after a few minutes, he began to speak of them with a derogatory label I do not wish to reproduce here. He had done this before, so I was not surprised. If I had to classify him, I would lean towards the “racist” category. What did surprise me was that another individual, who had expressed anti-racist sentiments on other occasions, one who I would have put  in the “non-racist” category, did not respond to this. Furthermore, she actually contributed to the conversation by sharing her own experiences with the “unreliability” of  heiren. These discursive interactions produce heiren as a conceptual category with an assumed set of ethnopsychological characteristics. This is not uncommon. Shared conversations of complaint about locals, whether face-to-face or online is an opportunity for each individual to share their own experiences. In other words, Chinese expatriates share a set of common complaints, even though the stance and perspectives they take on these may vary. One does not need to be a committed racist, however, to contribute to the production of racist discourse.

Even when expatriates disavow “racial discrimination,” and otherwise argue for a kind of cultural relativism, they nonetheless operate in terms of generalities about “ways of thinking” (siewei) particular to either distinct cultures or to people at a particular stage of social development. This is of course not unique to the Chinese, but what is interesting is that Chinese more readily use heiren (black person) as a descriptor for individuals whereas other expatriates will use a more varied set of terminology which may nevertheless be racially coded. “Racial sensitivity” does not necessarily mean possessing enlightened anti-racist thinking, but can also simply mean a sensitivity to the appropriate use of language.

Castillo sees the Qiaobi ad as an opportunity for “people in China [to] learn about these global sensitivities.” An opportunity will be lost, however, if it just morphs into efforts to police how Chinese talk about race, that is, another exercise in “raising civility.” This has happened before. Following an incident in 1979 where Chinese students attacked African exchange students, the government’s response was to improve the “internationalism” education of Chinese students.

This is an aspect which has been overlooked in the debate about whether the Chinese are “racist.” There is a different dynamic in conversations among white Americans I know. White Americans are just as prone to make the same kinds of generalizations, but will steadily avoid the use of “black,” preferring instead more particularized terms. For example, an American friend of mine in a coastal region of East Africa once described having friendships with “Arabs” and “Indians,” but not “the local fisherman.” In the United States, there is a “call-out” culture which sanctions improper use of racial language. Among the Chinese with whom I am familiar, not so much. Although one well-established businessman once shared with me an anecdote about a Chinese Foreign Service officer threatening to revoke a nearby man’s passport after overhearing him using a derogatory term to describe Africans. But of course, with the rise of a new public sphere online, and especially with the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, it is questionable whether “overt” racist discourse in the United States ever actually left. Comparing the racist things Americans say online with the racist things Chinese say online, for example, may be like comparing apples and oranges.

Ignorant Racism and Experienced Racism

And this brings me to my final point. If American expressions of racist discourse about “blacks” signify American histories of racism, what do Chinese expressions signify? A number of commentators have argued Chinese expressions are signifies of ignorance rather than racism. The leading scholar of African studies in China, Li Anshan has even published an editorial arguing “Chinese ignorance of race should not be confused with racism.” As he writes, “China is still facing serious challenges in its dealings with the outside world. Ignorance is persistent, and some Chinese harbor prejudices toward not just Africans but people from other continents as well.” He links this to a history of Chinese ethnocentrism before arguing that “Ethnocentrism is common among people who are isolated and incapable of achieving mutual understanding.” In these cases, it is “understandable,” but is a different case from “modern colonialism” in which ethnocentrism is converted into racism… to justify the military, political, and economic domination of foreign people.” He then provides a list of individual stories where Chinese overcame ignorance and prejudice towards black-skinned foreigners. [A good response from Gregory Scott and Luyolo Sijake which has just been posted can be here.]

Castillo too has argued that one difference between the Chinese context and other contexts is that in the former, people’s attitudes are much more flexible, they are willing to “learn.” An event like Qiaobi thus affords positive effects. In European societies, however, racism is so “entrenched” that people are resistant to acknowledge it.

Although Castillo does express concern that the geopolitics may lead to an increase, rather than decrease, of Chinese ethno-nationalism, a number of commentators express a kind of “moral optimism” that with greater contact between Chinese and dark-skinned individuals, whether from Africa or elsewhere, racially enlightened attitudes will develop. The implication is that through increased contact and interactions, mutual understanding will increase, stereotypes will be challenged, and that the signs of “racism” which are observed are products of a “closed” past which is rapidly changing.

This is a problematic assumption. While ignorance is certainly an important contributor to racial ideologies, it should not be assumed that less ignorance would mean greater racial sensitivity. Or rather, there are different forms of ignorance. There are forms of ignorance which are based on inexperience, but there are other forms of ignorance which are themselves the product of experiences interpreted within problematic frameworks. An obvious example of this is the entire field of “scientific racism” in the West. At the same time scientific research has challenged the racial typologies of the past, there are still otherwise educated people in scientific circles who continue to problematically argue for the intelligibility of “race.” This is just to say that the opposite of “ignorance” is not necessarily “enlightenment” about racial issues. The moral optimism that mutual contact will lead to mutual understanding echoes the assumptions of the early literature on Globalization. Missing from that literature of course were considerations of power, inequality and insecurity.

In talking about interactions between Chinese and Africans, for example, it is important to consider the structural features of the encounter. Take for instance the experience of Chinese who go to Africa to do business or to work. Among such individuals, there is an entire genre of everyday conversation and complaint about heiren that I have already mentioned above, which is not simply about colorism, but about an entire package of “cultural” complaints which are full of stereotypes (i.e. punctuality, reliability, trustworthiness etc.). These stereotypes are regularly linked to individual experiences such that any particular difficulty is reflected upon as a product of something essential and internal to heiren. It is of course possible to attribute certain reactions as well to “ignorance” (as many Chinese I know do regarding their impatient compatriots), but these interactions and experiences themselves contribute to new forms of “knowledge” which produce new forms of prejudice and discrimination. In my experience, the most depressing instances are cases of what, borrowing from Michael Herzfeld, might be called a “wounded humanism,” wherein an individual claims to have had positive views of “Africans” before coming to work in Africa, based on either state-sanctioned narratives of historical friendship, or personal beliefs in human equality, but whose individual bad luck in Africa has led them to believe in some version of human inequality. Needless to say, setting up businesses in a foreign country can be a risky endeavor, and it is on such frontiers of capitalism that stories of betrayal and “friction” abound. The creation of “culturally intimate” knowledge between people brought together in such circumstances is not necessarily liberal cosmopolitanism. Compare to the claims, “classic among ethnic groups that share common borders, to the effect that ‘we know what they are like from our own close experience,’ but with the added twist that it could not be directly attributed to racism.” Herzfeld refers here to prejudices among ‘culturally similar’ Europeans, but there is something applicable to the case of any form of emerging cultural intimacy. Add to that situations of market competition, labor regimes, patron-clientage etc. Experience in and of itself does not produce tolerance. The mode of interaction is important. What kind of interactions produce racism, but also, what kind of interactions can deconstruct racism?









2 thoughts on ““Racist” or “not-racist,” the better question is whether racism is being (re)-produced or deconstructed in China”

  1. Hey Derek,
    This is a very interesting discussion. I just read 3/4 and I’ll finish in the next couple of days. But meanwhile, I wanted to let you know that I’ve posted it at the bottom of this page: https://africansinchina.net/compilation-opinion-and-analysis-pieces-about-the-notorious-racistchinesead/

    As I was reading, I was thinking that it would also be interesting to talk (not in this piece) about the many ‘racial/racist’ remarks that Africans make about Chinese. In particular about Chinese men. I’m not aware of many discussions about this: ‘racism from Africa to China’, if you will – but Oh God, how many bad things have I heard!
    It’d be wonderful to find a study about this, wouldn’t it?

    One other thing that this thoughtful piece reminded me of is that I think that if we remain at the level of ‘who’s racist’, ‘this or that person is racist’, ‘what’s racism’… and so on and so forth, we may be kind of wasting our time. I totally agree with you that the whole thing has to be thought in terms of an ‘assemblage’ (a global assemblage, if you will), rather than as an individual matter.

    I’ve been pursuing this idea for the last couple of weeks and I’ve writing about how we may need to go beyond the ‘race’ / ‘racism’ discussion and into how ‘white supremacy’ works in tandem with global capitalism (beyond the white/black paradigm of race discussions) and to bring this into an inquiry of how when China participates from global capitalism it may be also (re)producing some of the ‘imperial supremacy’ upon which contemporary market capitalism works and thrives… this, again, I think goes beyond black & white explanations.

    I’m still thinking and writing through this, but I believe that in a way it could generate a more productive framework to discuss race and racism in global (SinoAfrican) spaces.

    I really appreciate your piece (so far)


    1. Hi Robert,

      This response was supposed to posted last June, but I discovered it never was, so better late than never.

      Thank you for sharing the piece.

      I agree it would be worthwhile to study “racial/racist” remarks by Africans regarding the Chinese. But there is so much to work through regarding Chinese remarks about Africans that it would be quite the challenge to give an equal treatment that did not simply reduce the conclusion to the benign, but inequality-blind “mutual misunderstandings.” But what I think you might be asking for simply is a study just on African (in the plural) racial discourses. This would be worthwhile, and like with looking at Chinese discourses, it would be important to not just argue it’s about ignorance. What makes me uncomfortable,however, is that alongside critiques of anti-Chinese rumours/attitudes in Africa (ex. cannibal meat cans), I have encountered Chinese critiques of “African ungratfulness,” so like with the hesitance of many to talk about Chinese racism (because of how easily discussions slide into a register of anti-Chinese racism) it takes a lot of work to find a position from which to critique. And there is also the question of inequality. This one is tricky because if one only assumes the Chinese are at an advantage, and that African discourses about the Chinese are a “weapon of the weak,” one may reproduce a problematic assumption.Chinese discontents towards employees can also be phrased in similar terms to discontents towards police officers, but the power dynamics are quite different in the two situations.

      The challenge of shifting the topic to global racisms is to avoid the dynamic wherein discussions of Western racism deflect attention from discussions of Chinese racism and discussions of Chinese racism deflect attention from Western racism. I think one needs to be cognizant of where one is making a critique and who the audience is. It is easy to critique Chinese racism in a Western institution and watch everyone in the audience shake their head, but it is also easy to critique Western assumptions about Chinese race in a Chinese institution. Whatever any of us outside of China have to say about racism in China will not matter as much as what a critical discourse about race within China will do.

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