Africans in China race Research

“Race” and “Racism” in contemporary Africa-China relations research: approaches, controversies and reflections

Some years ago, during a lecture I was giving on media representation, “race” and “racism” in Africa-China relations in a Hong Kong university, a student from Nigeria raised her hand and made a remark that blew my mind and left me thinking: “you cannot compare the history of racism against Chinese to the history of racism against black people. In terms of racism, only blacks can speak. In fact, when it comes to Chinese in Africa, they are as racist as Europeans.” The student was one of the most brilliant students I have ever taught, a great conversationalist, with ample international experience across Africa and the West. After a brief discussion (during which other African and Chinese students intervened), we managed to agree as a class on the point that the histories of “racism,” racialisation, and racial prejudice are the outcomes of complex historic, transnational and global processes. And, that these processes are not exclusive to one group or geographical region; and, perhaps more importantly, that they cannot be written within one single “history of racism.” The Nigerian student, however, remained hesitant, and not fully convinced. 

Ever since I started researching and teaching Africa-China relations in 2011, I have been in countless discussions where questions about “race” and “racism” in contemporary engagements between Africans and Chinese have emerged. This is a common experience for researchers of Africa-China relations. Historian Jamie Monson (2013), for instance, notes that audiences at her talks focus more on “race” than the historical sources she has found. In my experience, questions related specifically to “race” and “racism” are more likely to come from Western audiences or journalists, or from non-Western students and scholars in Western academic environments. Indeed, Western audiences often racialise conversations about Africa and China. When I find myself in the midst of these conversations, I normally start by explaining that while Africans and Chinese both have a “racial consciousness,” and that there are some “racial tensions,” these do not characterise Africa-China relations. I often argue that as the contact increases, it is evident that there is a significant amount of ignorance about the racial histories of the other—as shown by my Nigerian student’s remarks. 

For the last decade, there has been a scholarly and media fascination with Afro-Chinese engagements. Academic literature in the field of Africa-China relations has increased exponentially (see Alden and Large 2019; Li 2015) and a simple online search for Africa-China related topics yields innumerable media results. The fascination with this renewed engagement is in no way exclusive to the West. In her book Mapping the New African Diaspora in China: Race and the Cultural Politics of Belonging, Shanshan Lan (2017) recounts how the educated classes that are part of her social circles in China are fascinated with African presence in the country, and how they form their opinions and “racial knowledge” about Africans mainly through the Internet. Recent online research in China suggests that social media and the Internet are indeed critical vehicles for the dissemination of racial and national identity formation discourses (see Zhang 2019; Cheng 2011). Within these discourses, the notion of “race” may be more important than previously thought. In fact, stories discussing racial issues are among the most popular and commented stories on Chinese social media and Internet fora (see Pfafman, Carpenter, and Tang 2015; Shen 2009).

Over the last five years, as Africa-China relations have moved beyond the honeymoon period and into a more complex stage, a number of incidents have exploded into global controversies about “race,” “racism” and racial hierarchies. Given this context, research on “race” and “racism” in Africa-China relations has been scarce and fraught with methodological issues and challenges. In this article, I first provide a critical analysis of the ways in which the existing body of Africa-China relations knowledge engages with the analytical categories of “race” and “racism.” After that, following Monson (2013) and Lan (2016), who have both argued for the need of a “triangulation” to better understand “racialisation processes” in the relationship, I introduce the notion of “multiple triangulations” to both analyse these processes and to distance the discussion from Euro-American binaries and dichotomies around “race” and “racism.” This is followed by a brief discussion on one of the most recent controversies relating to “race” and “racism” in Afro-Chinese mediascapes. Towards the end of the article, I reflect on the most common methodological issues and challenges in the research on Afro-Chinese encounters. Finally, I discuss the need to develop a global (post-imperial) vocabulary of “race” and “racism,” and indicate what may be the early steps towards doing so.

Before proceeding, it is important to note that discussions about “race” and “racism” and about the nature of the power and racial hierarchies emerging from Afro-Chinese engagements are highly contentious and multiperspectival. They extend from intimate and individual experiences, to digitally mediated transnational interactions, to global representations and discourses. An overarching characteristic of the discussions around the controversial incident I present here, however, is the lack of space for contextualisation or a deeper understanding, which undoubtedly include a critical reflection on the meanings associated with “race” and “racism” in the diverse and evolving African and Chinese contexts. What usually happens is that the debates around these issues get quickly colonised by the “hegemonic power” (Dirlik 1993) of Euro-American cultural imperialism and its binary discourse of “race” and “racism.” 

A few cautionary notes are in order. First and foremost, this article does not aim to answer questions such as: are the Chinese in Africa racist? Is China a racist society? Or, is there racism against Chinese in Africa? Moreover, the article does not make a case against the use of notions such as “race” and “racism” in Africa-China relations. Instead, as the reader will see, the article makes a case for the reconceptualisation of these notions (outside the Euro-American logic) before they are summarily applied to current Afro-Chinese encounters. In order to do this, it provides a critical take on how the notions of “race” and “racism” are articulated in literature and media; and puts forward a conceptual formulation that attempts to expand theorisations on Africa-China “race” related research. Second, and final, in this article I do not capitalise black/blackness and white/whiteness. I am aware that in the American racial context there are cases for, and against, the capitalisation of both blackness and whiteness but I am not writing from that (or to that) context.

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