[Opinion] Of washing powder, Afrophobia and racism in China

From The Conversation Africa 

By Roberto Castillo

Is Afrophobia really on the rise in China?

Roughly two months have passed since the Qiaobi detergent advertisement went viral. The advert, in which a Chinese woman shoves a black man into a washing machine only for him to emerge as a shiny, clean, Asian man, prompted Western media to call it “the most racist ad ever”. At the height of the controversy, commentators from all over the world quarrelled endlessly over whether or not the advert was evidence of China being a racist society. Eventually, the Chinese government intervened and the company behind the offensive advert issued an apology.

Across my social and academic networks, the ad caused a major storm. Everyone from traders to academics and advertisers weighed in. With tensions running high, African traders in Guangzhou were quick to point out that Chinese ignorance in race-related matters was probably behind the advert.

Academics debated the need to “contextualise” racism and racial prejudice in China. They also highlighted how international media tend to portray China and the Chinese in a negative light (especially in the context of Sino-African relations). At the same time, advertisers pointed out that adverts like the Qiaobi one are influenced by the long history of racist advertising in the West. They also explained that the advert showed how Chinese advertisers were unaware that their adverts could have a global reach.

Racialism and a rising China

Despite the fact that “race” as a biological category was discredited long ago, racial thinking or “racialism” is still common in China. Racialism is the belief that humans are naturally divided into biological categories called “races”. Sometimes, the term racialism is used interchangeably with “racism” to mean a race-based way of thinking through human differences.

Contemporary racial thinking in China is informed by historical ways of imagining “otherness”. These ways centre around differences such as skin colour, class and “ethnicity”. Contact with 19th-century European colonialism and racial theories was also influential. More recently, the “rise of China” within the context of global consumerist societies has stirred up ethno-nationalist sentiments that affect how Chinese people think about “race”.

In China, like other places, racial thinking is often accompanied by stereotypes and prejudices. Dark skin, for instance, is often seen negatively. This is something many of us foreigners have to live with in China.

Within this context, the Qiaobi advert was seen by some as proof that there’s racism in China, and as evidence that “Afrophobia” was on the rise. Those who “see” Afrophobia are quick to point to Chinese hiring practices, which prefer white foreigners to black ones.

Any non-white foreigner living in China knows that these practices do not only discriminate against black people. They extend to other dark-skinned people. So, while deplorable, it’s not exactly Afrophobia.

Despite little concrete evidence supporting claims of Afrophobia or “Anti-African” campaigns, these claims are often picked up by Western media. Some journalists seem all too ready to cast China and the Chinese as “racist” and Africans as the poor victims with no agency. This pattern is replicated in coverage of China as a “neo-colonial” power in Africa.

To equate Chinese rac(ial)ism with racism in the West is intellectually and historically dishonest. Rac(ial)ism and racial prejudice in China are still far from producing the exploitation, oppression, discrimination and murder that racist worldviews continue to produce in the West.

In short, while there are deep-seated forms of rac(ial)ism in China, the rise of “Afrophobia” is difficult to prove. The issue is much more complex than that.

‘Race’ and racism in global media

In most of the articles and comments following the offensive Chinese advert, people from all over the world used the terms racism, stereotypes and racial prejudice interchangeably. It quickly became clear to me that we haven’t figured out how to talk about “race” and racism in globally inclusive ways.

The conversation is usually dominated by the American ways of talking about “race” and racism. Needless to say, using the black/white binary paradigm of race as a measuring stick for racial issues in global and non-Western settings is problematic. If the many “racist” comments I’ve heard from African men about their Chinese counterparts is any guide, the problems highlighted by the Qiaobi advert are far more complex than what the American binary suggests.

Figuring out who’s the racist, or if this or that is racist, or if the Chinese are racist, is a waste of time. Rather than being black or white, it’s a complex matrix of practices that reproduce global systems of exploitation and oppression. Despite our skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, “race”, nationality or faith, we are all, to different degrees, participants in these systems.

White supremacy the Chinese way?

As pointed out early on during the Qiaobi controversy, the advert is a revamped iteration of old Western racist tropes. To understand why such iterations emerge in China – and elsewhere in Asia – it’s important to look at how contemporary global media imaginations are influenced by long-standing racial theories and ideas. Enter white supremacy.

As I write this piece, a tram covered in advertising stops in front of me on Shipyard Lane in Quarry Bay, Hong Kong. In the advert, a young, handsome, white guy in a suit is levitating in front of a building. The Chinese words next to him are about leadership and success.

On the next tram a blonde woman wearing a Swarovski ring is being admired by a young white man. Any survey of street advertising in this, or any other big Asian city, will show that white bodies are pervasively used as the markers of success, power, beauty and romance.

It is hardly news that global media are deeply shaped by a racial hierarchy that frames whiteness as a superior state of being. What I find fascinating is how these racially informed imaginations are negotiated by people in China when they imagine themselves and the world they live in.

These negotiations have to be factored in against the backdrop of the “rise of China” – a rise that has led many to believe that the country will take up the reins of the global capitalist system.

I believe that there are few indications that China would be willing (or able) to transform the (old imperial, capitalist, white supremacist and patriarchal) structures and practices that inform contemporary capitalism and that are, ultimately, behind the Qiaobi detergent advert.

For me, these reflections were the main takeaways amid the uproar that followed the advert controversy.


13 comments on “[Opinion] Of washing powder, Afrophobia and racism in China

  1. this piece made me recall how China (the state) defines itself globally as part of the South/ developing countries regardless its economic high records.
    also, I think this piece questioned the legacy of the south solidarity not only the white supremacy.

  2. Chris Stiles

    I’ve lived in Guangzhou for six years and I’m a fluent Mandarin speaker. I wonder how many average Chinese people you’ve had conversations with about this, because based on your article, I see gaps in your understanding about “afrophobia” in China, particularly in the Guangzhou region. First of all, I agree with you that it is difficult to equate racism in China with racism in the west (particularly the USA). But there is most certainly a strong current of “afrophobia” in Guangzhou, and one need look no further than the choice of language to prove it. I am regularly told in conversations with taxi drivers, restaurant workers, foot massage therapists and other regular people that they either distrust or are afraid of Africans. In fact, they very often use the word “feizhouren” (African people), not “heiren” (dark skinned/black people), which I think makes a strong case that it is indeed afrophobia, and not simply your run of the mill discrimination against darker skin. For example, all sorts of anecdotes are going around about Africans not paying their taxi fare, so taxi drivers often fail to stop for black men or women trying to hail a taxi (they think they’re all African). I’ve had taxi drivers tell me flat out they will not take African customers, despite my futile attempts to present another viewpoint about the issue. In a more egregious example, there was a police raid on one of the schools in the company I work for. Our teachers are all legal, but there was an issue with teachers issued visas for Guangzhou working in Foshan and the police (likely for reasons of local “guanxi”) ordered the school closed until the issue was resolved. Although it was not the fault of any of the teachers, the police decided to take one of the teachers down to the police station to harass and intimidate them. Guess which teacher they took? That’s right, the only black teacher in the school, and holder of a South African passport. They took her to the police station, locked her in a restraining device, and harassed her to the point she was in tears and completely fell apart. If this is not racism specifically of Africans, I don’t know what is.

    • I have lived in and travelled all over China for 11 years. China is not a nation of racist. However, in Guangzhou and FoShan u will come across some ignorant folks, mainly because the China has no sense of cultural diversity. But they are very tolerate of others cultures. If the Africans were all Russian or British they would experience the same issues. Two different cultures side by side are gonna have issues. If, the Chinese truly hated the Africans they would all be gone in a day! China has zero issues with cancelling visa’s!

      • I disagree with this comment 100% I do not believe that the Russian or British would get the same treatment and that is because people with white skin are treated differently than non fair skinned people in China. Having white skin affords white people in China with a certain privilege. Two, just because you have travelled all over China in the last 11 years does not make you an expert in Chinese race relations. Three, you are talking from your own perspective. If you are a white man in China because you are not black you will not be familiar with certain ques or racially motivated biases because that is not your reality. So I think to try and reduce this conversation to “all foreigners face discrimination” is besides the point. Yes foreigners face discrimination but varying degrees of it. your experience does not validate the experience of all foreigners racially, socially or economically, so please be mindful of that.

  3. Roberto Castillo

    Thanks for commenting, Chris.
    Yes, of course I’ve heard those comments from taxi drivers. They say the same thing about Arabs, Indians, or Uyghurs. Ask them. So, again, not Afrophobia.
    Now, I’m not at all saying that there’s no prejudice against Africans (or blacks). There are plenty (btw, many of these issues have been documented on this blog). But I don’t see it as something uniquely (or systematically) happening to black people, as sometimes represented by media.
    As you may know, there’s plenty of prejudiced views on dark-skinned people and in general about the foreign or ethnic ‘other’.


  4. The author lives in HK and still does not understand the Chinese people?! Perhaps because he is not in the mainland…but the notion that he seems to contrive excuses for a people because of their race (funny how that works) but puts whites into stereotypes, tells a lot about his outlook. The author seems completely detached from reality in China. The Chinese are amongst the most race conscious people I have been associated with. And I say that negatively. Yes, racism is embedded throughout their culture. The author seems to want to wrap some western notion around his definition- that somehow, unless your ancestors owned African slaves or banned blacks from taking buses, that racism does not exist. Tell that to the Tibetans and moguls. And yes, tell that to the blacks who don’t sit in university ivory towers in HK, for they know how racist Asian (and Chinese) people really are.

  5. Roberto Castillo

    Thanks for your comment.
    I have never implied that Chinese are not ‘race’-conscious or that Chinese culture (whatever that means to you) is not embedded with racial thinking.
    My problem is with the ways in which people talk about ‘race’ and racism in general, as if the Euro-American experiences were the only measuring sticks. Often this leads people to mistakenly evaluate racial issues. As they use the prism of their own experience elsewhere and are not very interested in even listening to the specific conditions that make these abhorrent practices to emerge in China.
    So, what I do here is try to provide context to something that also affects me: Racism and the forms it takes in China. I do not intend to minimise your experiences or sufferings, or anyone’s.

    • But you make it sound as though this is a new phenomenon. That’s where you are wrong. If you are not a Han, then you don’t measure up. This is often the thinking of the average Chinese person, and its inexorably linked with the official (government) Chinese viewpoint that manifests into national policy. You also seem to argue that bigotry and (though you don’t really call it racism) is almost an unintended consequence of western influence, based on your examples. Again, this view tells me you don’t understand Chinese history and only seem to render your comments based on limited exposure to Chinese culture in a very western HK environment. In the US, the definition of racism is based on who has power – which is actually an eroneous definition. But dominance of the Han Chinese population is unmistakable and their views toward race is no less pernicious – irrespective of how you define it.

      • Roberto Castillo

        I clearly stated that this is not a new phenomenon: ‘Contemporary racial thinking in China is informed by historical ways of imagining “otherness”. These ways centre around differences such as skin colour, class and “ethnicity”. Contact with 19th-century European colonialism and racial theories was also influential. More recently, the “rise of China” within the context of global consumerist societies has stirred up ethno-nationalist sentiments that affect how Chinese people think about “race”.’
        By the way, the ‘natural’ conflation between individuals and the state (between China and the Chinese – as when a Chinese does something this becomes representative of ‘China’) is an old trope that presents Chinese people as agency-less automatons. Old racist thinking, if you ask me. So, let’s move on.
        You’re comment about the definition of racism in the US actually points to something very interesting: how do ‘we’ in global conversations/settings know what is meant by ‘racism’? Context and specifics are crucial here.
        Thanks for engaging, though.

  6. As you said: “To equate Chinese rac(ial)ism with racism in the West is intellectually and historically dishonest. Rac(ial)ism and racial prejudice in China are still far from producing the exploitation, oppression, discrimination and murder that racist worldviews continue to produce in the West.” Again – you seem to limit your understanding to western principals and examples… Please spend some time in mainland China and read up on historical racism toward so-called ethnic minorities. And yes – whatever “phobia” you want to coin, there is anti-black racism that is systemic and cultural, your comparison with US history, notwithstanding.

    • Roberto Castillo

      Thanks for the suggestion. As for your comparisons, I believe that the history of Western colonialism, racism and slavery, and it’s many ways of extending into the (global) present is incommensurable with the history of Chinese internal colonialism. The history of the so-called ethnic minorities in China, while tragic, is no different to the histories of many other minorities in other countries.
      If you want to inflate China’s internal ‘racism’/colonisation to the point of equating it to racism in the West be my guest.
      The keyword in that paragraph you quote is ‘to equate’. These are incommensurable, meaning you can’t equate them.

      • Not to be rude – but your western bias and experiences that you bring to an Asian nation are apparent. You too, have an “inflated” perspective on racism that is euro-centric. But if you attended American universities, that would certainly explain your tilt. That said, at least u have been polite in your correspondence, and perhaps I a little too personal. Thx

      • Roberto Castillo

        I may have a bias, we all do, to some degree. Not sure if it’s a ‘Western bias’, as I do not identify as a ‘Westerner’. As for the universities, I was lucky enough NOT to attend American universities. Skipped the American brainwashing :).
        Again, thanks for commenting and discussing. I got some good ideas from this.

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