‘Race’ & Racism in Africa China Relations Research

“Race” and “Racism” in contemporary Africa-China relations research: approaches, controversies and reflections (Pre-print version)

To Cite: Castillo, Roberto. 2020. ““Race” and “Racism” in contemporary Africa-China relations research: approaches, controversies and reflections.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 21 (3): 310-336. DOI: 10.1080/14649373.2020.1796343

Roberto CASTILLO for Inter-Asia Cultural Studies

Department of Cultural Studies, Lingnan University, Hong Kong SAR, PRC.


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.

KEYWORDS: race; racism; Africa; China; research; methodologies

Introduction: “race” and “racism” in Africa-China relations

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.   

“Race” and “Racism” in Africa-China relations research


“Race” and “racism” from the historical perspective 


A great deal of what has been written academically about “race” and “racism” in contemporary Africa-China relations relies heavily on the seminal works by historians Philip Snow (1989), Frank Dikötter (1990, 1992, 1997), Don Wyatt (2012), Julie Wilensky (2002), Michael J. Sullivan (1994), and political scientist Barry Sautman (1994). The works of these scholars are multidimensional, but their specific interventions in relation to the notions of “race” and “racism” can mostly be mapped along the continuum of the historical construction of racial identity in China, as laid out in Dikötter’s work (1990; 1997). 

While it is not the aim of this article to offer an analysis of this historical construction, it is important to note that the more recent literature engaging with the notions of “race” and “racism” in Africa-China relations (see Huynh and Park 2019; Monson and Rupp 2013; Lan 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017; Shen 2009; Bodomo 2012; Cheng 2011; Li 2017; Moyo 2016; Pfafman, Carpenter, and Tang 2015; Galtung and Stenslie 2014; Frazier and Zhang 2014; Sautman and Yan 2007, 2009) often sets out the following historical stages as a basis for their argumentation: (1) China’s pre-modern encounters with blacknesses; (2) the arrival of the notion of “race” and its sinification; (3) the racial thinking turn under internationalism; and (4) post-socialist configurations of racial thinking. Below, I briefly review these stages. 

China’s pre-modern encounters with blacknesses

As noted by Snow (1989), during pre-modern encounters (mostly during the Tang [618-907 CE] and Song [960-1279 CE] dynasties) black bodies were first imagined as possessing mysterious, magical powers; later, associations were made with the slave trade, and black people were dehumanised and linked with savagery (see also Wilensky 2002). In his research on this pre-modern period, however, Don Wyatt (2012) casts doubts as to the conflation between blackness and African origin. Wyatt argues that Chinese historical constructs of blackness exhibit great elasticity and that a number of groups, such as Malays and Khmers, were constructed as blacks in pre-modern times (2012, 9). Regardless of origin, encounters with blacknesses were, like most encounters with foreigners during Imperial China, characterised by a Sino-barbarian dichotomy in which Chinese civilisation was represented as culturally superior (Ho 1985).

The arrival of the notion of “race” and its sinification 

Most scholars agree that the notion of “race” entered China in the late nineteenth century through missionary teachings, Chinese students returning from the West, and Japanese translations of Western political theory (Fennell 2013). Dikötter (1992, 19) argues that its articulation into a racial discourse in modern China was not simply a translation, but the outcome of a “complex process of negotiation and appropriation, as racial thinkers constructed a new worldview with very complex cognitive, social and political dimensions.” This new worldview was articulated into a mode of racial thinking—a “racial hierarchy” informed by eugenics and a teleology of racial development—that placed white and yellow “races” at the top and cast others as inferior human “races” with no future (see Dikötter 1992; and Cheng 2011). Dikötter (1992) explains that in the making of this specifically Chinese mode of racial thinking, “race” was hybridised with “lineage.” According to Lan (2016), this hybrid understanding of “race” was deployed by late Qing reformers as an “ideological weapon to contest white domination” (303). 

The racial thinking turn under internationalism 

By the twentieth century, and during the country’s national formation, the international system China was forced to engage with had been shaped by almost four centuries of European colonialism. The then sinified notion of “race” was crucial for Chinese thinkers to make sense of the international system and to be able to contest it. This contestation was first articulated through the emergence of an early Chinese nationalism, later through the development of an anti-colonial discourse, and finally through the development of a “new mode” of Maoist racial thinking amongst communist elites, during the heyday of internationalism (Zhang 2019; Lan 2016; Pfafman, Carpenter, and Tang 2015). Ironically, in this new mode, China started representing itself as the saviour of the Third World, with a particular bent towards saving Africa from European invasion (Shen 2009). Nonetheless, as Cheng (2011) explains, in the tense years of anti-colonial struggle, official discourse associated the notion of “race” with class struggle and oppression, maintaining that “racism” only existed within Western colonialism. Indeed, the official ideology during internationalism worked to promote the view, still held widely amongst Chinese citizens, that racial issues and “racism” are not intrinsic problems to China (Galtung and Stenslie 2014). In short, a view that posits that there is no “racism” in the country and/or Chinese cannot be “racist.” In this regard, Cheng (2011, 565) also notes that discussions about Chinese “racism” have been historically dismissed as “[i]ll-willed efforts to make Western racism look less evil.” I discuss this later in the section: “Reflection: methodological issues and challenges.”

Post-socialist configurations of racial thinking 

Post-socialist racial thinking ties together many different strands in the historical construction of racial identities in China. Throughout the country’s modern history, “race” and nationality have been diversely articulated into the discursive construction of the so-called “Han race” (Pfafman, Carpenter, and Tang 2015). This construction has served different goals. Among the most important are: resisting foreign powers; increasing internal cohesion; legitimising sovereignty; and, perhaps more crucially, fostering identification with the nation-state (Pfafman, Carpenter, and Tang 2015). Indeed, one of the most defining characteristics of post-socialist racial thinking is the (co)emergence of a process of strengthening “Chinese nationalism” (Sullivan 1994), alongside what some scholars call “anti-black racism” (see Sautman 1994; Cheng 2011; Lan 2016). 

Perhaps the most remarkable development in this final historical moment (which extends until now) is that scholars have found evidence, in both China and Africa, showing that “racism” as a discourse has a political function. This has been noted by Sullivan (1994) in his discussions around the days following the anti-African student protest in Nanjing in 1988, by Sautman and Yan (2009) in the context of Zambia’s Michael Sata and “anti-Chinese sentiment,” and, more recently, by different researchers working on online representation and racial discourses on the Chinese Internet (Zhang 2019; Pfafman, Carpenter, and Tang 2015; Frazier and Zhang 2014). 

Contemporary constructions of racial identities in China emerge from the complex interactions between pre-modern and modern (colonial and postcolonial) histories and discourses. As noted earlier, these interactions have been mapped by the seminal work done by the historians that I refer to above. Nonetheless, instead of using the work of these scholars to historicise the modalities of racial thinking (and the emergence of discourses of racial hierarchy) in China, their work is often presented as evidence of the existence of racial classifications in China (i.e. “Chinese racism”) before the advent of the modern age (Dikötter 2015). 

In the next section, I offer a critical review of more contemporary works discussing “race” and “racism” in Africa-China relations. It is important to note that these bodies of work, the “historical” and the “contemporary,” have both played critical roles in shaping the contemporary representations of the Afro-Chinese “racial” encounter in academia, media and beyond.

Contemporary scholarly engagements with “race” and “racism” 


Rather than reviewing each source individually in this section, I identify four main themes that recur in or pervade more contemporary scholarly production and discussions around “race” and “racism” in Africa-China relations. The themes are as follows: the discourse of “institutional racism” against blacks in China; research into online constructions of blackness in the era of racial nationalism; demythologising Chinese “racism” in Africa whilst deracialising anti-Chinese sentiment; and the need to think in terms of processes of racialisation rather than in terms of “racism.” 

The discourse of institutional racism against blacks in China

For the last two decades, Guangdong province has been at the forefront of African presence in China. Cities in the Pearl River Delta like Guangzhou, Foshan, Zhuhai and Shenzhen, among others, have seen their foreign population management systems tested by the increase of foreign presence (Bork-Huffer and Yuan-Ihle 2014; Castillo 2014). The management or lack of management capabilities in these cities has sometimes resulted in tensions between local, provincial, national and foreign policymakers (Lan 2014). 

These policy changes have been widely felt by diverse foreign communities in the region and discussed by different scholars (see Lan 2015, 2016; Castillo 2016; Mathews, Lin, and Yang 2017; Wilczak 2018). The most widespread implication of these changes is that visa renewal has become increasingly difficult. The legal sojourning status of foreigners in China has never been easy. Indeed, elsewhere I have argued that “foreign emplacements” in the country have historically been precarious (Castillo 2016). Although somewhat outside the scope of this article, this precarity is the outcome of several factors. Among the most defining ones are: the absence of a proper immigration system in the country; and the lack of governmental will to adapt or reform its existing foreign population management systems (Castillo 2016; Lan 2015).

More relevant to this article, however, is that the increased presence of Africans has been construed by some scholars as the trigger for certain local policy changes in foreign population management (see Lan 2014; Haugen 2012). Legal loopholes and a lack of proper enforcement in foreign population management have also resulted in abuses of authority at the local level in Guangzhou (see Castillo 2016; and Castillo and Amoah 2020, for a discussion around abuses of authority, and foreign population management, in relation to the coronavirus pandemic). These abuses are epitomised by the emergence of a “cat-mouse game” economy (Castillo 2016) in which instances of racial profiling and persecution, with a particular focus on black and brown bodies, are pervasive (scholarship, nonetheless, has mostly focused on black bodies). The difficulties that foreigners in southern China face in regards to their migratory status, along with the impact of popular narratives in global media about “Africans (struggling) in China,” have led some scholars and journalists to claim there is a type of “anti-African” sentiment structuring local legal and policy transformations (see Lan 2014, 2016; Basebya 2019; Lema 2019). Lan (2014), for instance, suggests that the Guangdong level “anti-African campaign” may be the starting point for nationwide “anti-immigrant legislation.” 

The existence and implementation of an “anti-African campaign” in China is debatable. However, what matters here is that “race” and “racism” have been conceptually mobilised to structure a discourse of the institutionalisation of “anti-black racism” in the country. This discourse points to the “legal construction of illegality” and its conflation with blackness as exhibit A, if you will, in an early stage of the development of what Lan calls “institutional racism” (Lan 2016, 315). 

While it is crucial to look into issues of law and policy to make sense of how “race” and “racism” crisscross regimes of mobility and the experiences of individuals, introducing a heavily loaded concept such as “institutional racism” is at the very least risky, if not far from accurate. In the United States, for instance, institutional racism makes black men three times more likely to be killed by police than other ethnic groups (Andrew 2018). In the United Kingdom, institutionalised surveillance of black and brown bodies makes them forty times more likely to be stopped and searched than white bodies (Townsend 2019). In Mexico (for a non “Western” example), indigenous Mexican (brown-er bodies) are four times more likely to fall below the poverty line; and have six times less chance of entering university (Fuentes 2012). These are just a few examples in the seemingly interminable history of violent exclusions machinated through complex historical processes of classification, categorisation and management of otherness, that have been produced by colonialism and postcolonialism. Depending on the context, these exclusions are variously (and often interchangeably) referred to as “institutional,” “systemic” and/or “structural” racisms. 

To claim that such a thing as “institutional racism” exists (or may be emerging) in China in relation to black people is to equate decisions regarding local population management (decisions that are not traceable to any nationwide policy and that may or may not be connected to forms of racial thinking and prejudice) to the complex historical processes of institutionalisation of “race” and “racism” that have taken place elsewhere. 

Somehow, the discourse of “institutional racism” in China is akin to that of “Chinese colonialism” in Africa, not only in that it is profoundly attractive to Western audiences (the portrayal of China as a “racist” society somehow seems to palliate “white guilt”), but more importantly in that it often obscures and/or negates the specificity of the violences involved in institutional racism(s) in the American, British and Mexican contexts, and in the European colonial and imperial projects, in general. 

Online constructions of blackness in the era of racial nationalism

The Internet and other digital communication technologies have been analysed as discursive sites for the articulations of (and contestations over) “race,” “racism” and nationalism in contemporary China (Cheng 2019; Zhang 2019). Existing literature on Africa-China relations focusing on “race” and “racism” highlights the convergence of constructions of blackness and Chinese national identity in the online realm (see Shen 2009; Cheng 2011, 2019; Frazier and Zhang 2014; Pfafman, Carpenter, and Tang 2015; and Lan 2017). 

Racial hierarchies and racial threats: the othering of Africans

Tracing and reconstructing the online image of Africa in Chinese cyberspace, Shen notes that the online circulation of ideas is plagued with misconceptions about Africa (2009). Most of these misconceptions are associated to stereotypes about black peoples that can be traced back to China’s premodern encounters with blackness but also to contemporary ideas circulating on the web (Shen 2009). Shen (2009) and Cheng (2011) both report that Chinese netizens mostly imagine Africans as “inferior partners” (in business and politics), and mindless supporters of China, who are generally “poor,” “lazy,” “diseased,” “hypersexual” and ultimately “threatening.” According to these scholars, these perceptions of blackness are crucial elements in the prevailing Chinese discourse of black racial inferiority. 

Interestingly, many of the stereotypes that are used to construct blackness on the Chinese Internet mirror American ones (Pfafman, Carpenter, and Tang 2015). Indeed, Lan (2017) argues that the articulation of what she interchangeably calls the “African”/“black” threat discourse among Chinese netizens is based upon a “transnational circulation of racial knowledge” that manifests in frequent citations of literature, anecdotes and historical incidents originating in the United States and Europe. Within this “threat” discourse, she identifies major, interrelated components, such as Afrophobia, dehumanisation, hypersexuality, criminalisation and low suzhi (meaning poor hygiene, lack of culture, lack of ethics, and lack of respect for rules or common courtesy). 

Lan’s findings highlight how the lack of interaction Chinese netizens have with Africans, the nonexistence of an “anti-racist education” in China, and the prominence of Western racial ideologies are major factors shaping popular Chinese perceptions of blacks on the Internet (Lan 2016, 2017). Generally, however, contemporary research regarding online constructions of identity in China reports that there is an overriding perception that Africans/blacks are not only economically and culturally inferior, but also a threat to the racial purity of the Chinese nation (Shen 2009; Lan 2016; Zhang 2019, Wang 2019).

Cheng (2011) warns that while the dichotomy of inferiority/superiority pervades the history of Chinese encounters with “otherness,” contemporary digital communication technologies allow for the articulation of discourses of difference into a “racist rhetoric.” While deeply rooted in Chinese ethnocentrism, this racist rhetoric has developed along the lines of discourses such as social Darwinism and colonial/postcolonial racial hierarchies, and may be in the process of consolidating with the articulation of racist right-wing populist/nativist discourses among Chinese nationalists (Cheng 2019; Zhang 2019). Indeed, it is in the process of the (re)construction of Chinese identity online, and in the context of the rise of the country, that Shen (2009), Cheng (2011), and Wang (2019) signal to the “othering” of Africans as a common discursive practice. This practice is exemplified by instances of Chinese netizens using stereotypes about Africa and Africans to depict the continent as backward, deviant and pathological, compared to China, which is seen as racially pure and modern. Cheng (2011, 576) notes that a “systematic discourse of race has developed in much more articulate, sophisticated and explicit ways in education and pop culture to accommodate contemporary Chinese nationalism.” As Lan (2017) points out, the spread of this discourse may be fuelled by the state’s denial of the existence of racism in China, and by the anonymous nature of the Internet. 

The “political function” of online racist rhetoric

Research on the intersections between racial constructions, technology and politics is scarce (not only in the context of China, in general, but in Africa-China relations). As such, few sources point to the “political function” of online racist discourses in the context of tightly controlled public spheres in China. For Pfafman, Carpenter, and Tang (2015) and Cheng (2019), racist rhetoric in contemporary Chinese digital spaces is inflamed by the intensity of political and socioeconomic contradictions and conflicts, and used to vent frustration and anger. Pfafman, Carpenter, and Tang (2015), for instance, argue that rather than being simply racist, anti-African rhetoric online functions as a tool for political critique. They claim this type of “racial scapegoating” is used as a form of resistance to the government, and is not so visible in more ethnically diverse societies (Pfafman, Carpenter, and Tang 2015). Rather than simply exhibiting an abstract intellectual or cultural disposition against the African “other,” they claim commentary against African men dating Chinese women, for instance, may indicate a dissatisfaction with the long-term effects of China’s family planning policies. Complaining about the presence of black students with scholarships in Chinese universities may be a critique of the poor quality of education available to Chinese students outside the main urban centres. Pfafman, Carpenter, and Tang (2015) list a number of examples in which, they claim, a critique of government policy is disguised as a critique of Africans. They note, however, that the “irony of legitimising the scapegoating of Africans by adopting rhetoric influenced by foreign stereotypes reveals an interesting tension between globalisation and nationalism” (Pfafman, Carpenter, and Tang 2015, 552).

One of the most prominent examples of this tension between globalisation and nationalism is the well-documented case of Lou Jing, a 2009 contestant on “Oriental Angel,” a popular Shanghai music reality TV show. As a biracial woman of Chinese and African-American descent, Lou Jing’s claim to Chineseness unleashed a heated online debate over racial and national identity, highlighting the impacts of globalisation and immigration on conventional markers of Chinese identity (see Frazier and Zhang 2014). Lou Jing’s case offers an entry point into contemporary Chinese cultural struggles and anxieties over “race,” gender and nationalism. An interesting question here would be: could the pervasive and derogatory expressions found online about Lou Jing’s case also be understood as examples of covert criticism of government policies (i.e. “racial scapegoating”)? Forms of covert political commentary and expression are not uncommon in China. Cheng (2019) analyses this discursive practice as exercised by pro-democracy students in 1980s China, and notes that in places where public opinion is tightly controlled, politically explicit and provocative discussions often reveal undercurrents.

One of these undercurrents may be the online rise of “right-wing populism” in China. Zhang (2019) traces the emergence and appropriation of right-wing populist discourses on Chinese social media that combine the claims, vocabulary and style of right-wing populism in Europe and North America (such as those exhibiting hostility towards immigrants, Muslims, feminists, liberal elites, and progressive values) with previous forms of nationalism and racism in Chinese cyberspace. Although not focused specifically on Africa-China relations, the work by Zhang contributes by opening a path for the recontextualisation of debates around “race” and “racism” in the context of Chinese “racial nationalism” and the local/global axis that characterises the conjunctural space of geopolitics. 

Demythologising “Chinese racism in Africa while deracialising anti-Chinese sentiment”

Adams Bodomo (2009) points out the existence of an asymmetry of power in certain areas of Africa-China relations. This asymmetry is a multilayered phenomenon that manifests not only in trade or politics but also in other areas such as media and scholarship. There is a significant asymmetry in the ways in which knowledge is produced about the “racial” encounter between Chinese and Africans in Africa in particular. Media and scholarly representations of “race” relations in the context of Chinese presence in Africa often assume that Chinese are the “racialisers” and Africans are the “racialised” (Anderlini 2014; French 2014). In other words, Chinese are constructed as the active agents of “racist” discourses and practices, whereas Africans are imagined as the passive victims without agency. Hence, the literature tends to be divided between those who use “incidents of racism” as evidence to bolster the argument that Chinese presence in Africa is primarily motivated by a “racist,” neocolonial drive (Anderlini 2014; Schwikowski 2018; Goldstein 2018); and those who try to bring nuance to the debate, by presenting findings (based on surveys and statistical data) to reject notions of a systemic, racially informed imbalance in the relationship (see Sautman and Yan 2009, 2016; Yan, Sautman, and Lu 2019). Unfortunately, at this stage, academic efforts on the African side have been mired in trying to prove or disprove the existence of “Chinese racism,” rather than focusing on potential new configurations of multicultural or cosmopolitan spaces. 

There is, however, a dearth of scholarship on the implications of longstanding and widespread racist rhetoric in Africa against Chinese and against their presence on the continent. Indeed, in the context of Africa-China relations, only a few scholars have paid attention to the political articulation of narratives such as “anti-Chinese sentiment” and the “Yellow Peril” (Sautman and Yan 2009, 2014; Harris 2010; Park 2013; Yan, Sautman, and Lu 2019).

The history of Chinese presence in Africa is long, diverse and deeply entangled in the complex processes involved in colonial and postcolonial contexts (Park 2013; Monson 2013). Interestingly, in contemporary Africa-China scholarship, regardless of the context in which they take place, anti-Chinese rhetoric (that variously describes Chinese as “uncivilised,” “heathens,” a “threat” to Africans, a “moral plague,” “human rubbish,” “ching chongs,” “yellow savages,” “chinks,” and “Chinese piglets” (Harris 2010; Sautman and Yan 2014) are not commonly cited by scholars in the African context as part of racist rhetoric (e.g. African racism). Anti-Chinese rhetoric and attitudes in Africa are normally seen as non-African, and emerging from a “Sinophobic” (Moyo 2016) Western media; as such, they are flattened into discourses of “anti-Sinicism” (Harris 2010), or diluted in wider, more complex discourses such as xenophobia in Africa. As noted earlier, similar rhetoric is presented by scholars as exhibit A of “racism” when discussing constructions of blackness in the Chinese context (see Cheng 2011; Pfafman, Carpenter, and Tang 2015, etc.)

It could be argued that the power asymmetry in Africa-China relations is the factor driving scholarly interest in the racist rhetoric of the “powerful,” and the reluctance to engage in the rhetoric articulated by the “weak.” “Racism,” we learned through Foucault’s Society Must Be Defended (Bertani and Fontana 2003), is embedded with power and organised through knowledge. So, we must look into the dynamics organised by those in power against those in positions of weakness. That is fair. However, a relevant question here is: in the context of Chinese presence in Africa, who is the powerful and who the weak? Sautman and Yan, for instance, have argued that the complex relationship between Chinese and Africans cannot simply be characterised as one in which the Chinese are in a perpetual position of power. “Chinese have a recent, tenuous presence in Africa and lack political power, determinative influence, or cultural hegemony. They are not positioned to create a public discourse to inferiorise their African hosts” (Sautman and Yan 2016, 2151). Indeed, many Chinese workers in Africa (the bulk of the Chinese population) occupy weak and precarious positions. 

Moreover, Chinese in Africa, Yan, Sautman, and Lu (2019) argue, are also the targets of a range of misrepresentations. From the assertion that Chinese are insular and “self-segregated,” to unfounded claims that they mostly employ co-nationals, Yan, Sautman, and Lu note how these misrepresentations resonate with longstanding tropes associated with “the Yellow Peril” that cast Chinese as clannish people who prosper at the expense of non-ethnic others, seeking to dominate them (2019). African elites articulate these tropes into a discourse that presents the Chinese as the perpetually unassimilable other (Yan, Sautman and Lu 2019)—Zambia’s Michael Sata, for example, masterfully weaved these tropes into his “anti-Chinese” politics. 

Automatically assuming that Chinese are in a position of power within a racialised labor hierarchy, as most Western (and some African) media narratives have done, reproduces the age-old perception that Africans as individuals cannot actively react (let alone discriminate) against Chinese, because they are in a position of “inferiority.” Ironically, it may also reproduce a Chinese ethno-nationalist (Han-supremacist?) perception that assumes that Chinese cannot/should not be mistreated by “inferior” groups (Cheng 2011). Shen (2009) notes how in online constructions of blackness on the Chinese Internet “an unfriendly African attitude towards China” is associated with a “catching up of the inferior African with the superior Chinese”—an attitude that is seen as unacceptable by Internet users. 

Racialisation as a process versus “racism” as an incident

Monson suggests that “‘racism’ is only one of many possible forms of racial thought” (2013, 4). She argues that a focus on racism as incident, rather than on racialisation as a process, may obscure the ways in which racial thinking informs historical constructions of identity both in Africa and China. Moreover, she encourages scholars of identity to think through the processes of racialisation “through which individuals, communities and nations construct and deploy their discourses of sameness and difference” (Monson 2013, 5). Looking at processes of racialisation in Africa-China relations not only points to the need to historicise the ways in which racial identities have been constructed (in colonial and postcolonial settings), but also, and perhaps more crucially, to understand these processes as contextual, situational, contingent and inherently unstable (Monson 2013). 

Following Monson’s suggestions, a number of scholars have taken note of the importance of thinking in terms of racialisation. In their analysis of discourses of “racialisation of labour” in the context of Chinese enterprises in Africa, Sautman and Yan (2016) note that rhetorical racialisation is multidirectional: Africans are racialised by various Chinese actors, and Chinese are racialised by various African actors. Drawing on existing literature regarding processes of racialisation in the West (Omi and Winant 1994), Sautman and Yan (2016, 2150) conceptualise racialisation as a practice that extends “racial meaning to social practices or groups, designates groups to be subjected to unequal treatment, and socio-culturally constructs hierarchy.” Racialisation of Chinese in Africa, for instance, emerges from issues such as pay and workplace safety, but also from Western and local political forces “taking up the cudgels against ‘the Chinese’ as a whole” (Sautman and Yan 2016, 2151). Sautman and Yan note that the existing theorisations on racialisation of labour (e.g. Bonacich, Alimahomed, and Wilson 2008) fail to account for the markedly different role “race” plays in Afro-Chinese encounters across the continent. Thus, they propose a model of “South-South racialisation of labour” where non-whites from one developing country racialise workers or employers of another non-white country. 

Another scholarly effort to think in terms of processes of racialisation as a category of analysis is made by Lan (2016, 2017), who claims racialisation is a bidirectional and multilayered process that is closely linked to knowledge (i.e. knowing about the world). Accordingly, she puts forward the notion of “racial learning” to describe the “development and accumulation of knowledge about racial differences and racial hierarchies through daily life experiences in various transnational, local, institutional and community settings” (Lan 2017, 9). From her work among ordinary Chinese and Africans in southern China, Lan argues that grassroots level encounters facilitate alternative sources of racial learning that have the potential to subvert hegemonic discourses such as that of “race,” and white supremacy but also Sino-African friendship. 

Throughout her work, Lan points to multiple ways in which blackness is racialised in China (some of them were addressed earlier in this article). However, she comments that one of the best ways to understand Chinese processes of racialisation is by focusing on the concept of suzhi. Suzhi is a difficult concept to translate (literally, it is often translated as “quality”), but the conceptual meaning blurs the nature/nurture divide by encompassing three aspects of individual quality: the physical, the educational, and the moral (Kipnis 2006). As noted by Lan (2017), when the term is used to describe different groups of foreigners, the emphasis falls on attributes such as educational level, honesty, discipline, industriousness and skill, rather than on biological differences. While Chinese media narratives such as the “African threat” tend to racialise blacks in China as criminals, and therefore as being “low suzhi foreigners” (Haugen 2012), Lan illustrates how in interpersonal encounters, blacks can also be regarded as “high suzhi,”due to their English language skills, religious piety, and honesty. By looking at the intersection of suzhi and “race” as part of a process of racialisation, Lan’s (2017) work sheds light on how, in the Chinese context, personal virtues and socially appropriate behaviors can sometimes outweigh skin colour and other markers of racial difference.

Encountering complexity: beyond binaries

What is clear from the works I have reviewed is that racialised identities have been a historically significant element in Africa-China relations. These racialised identities are “expressed and experienced in shifting and inconsistent ways across both time and place” (Monson and Rupp 2013, 31). In other words, it is not the same to be a Chinese in South Africa during the apartheid as it is now; nor is it the same to be a black person in 1960s Shanghai or Shanghai today. Contexts matter and to think that there is one single (ahistorical) way of perceiving or thinking about blackness in China or Chineseness in Africa is inaccurate. 

However, as many scholars researching Afro-Chinese interpersonal relations have witnessed, encounters in everyday life settings often involve mutual stereotypes and racialised expectations. When mutual stereotypes are deployed, the ethnic and cultural diversity amongst both Africans and Chinese lack a strong currency (Monson and Rupp 2013). All blacks in China are African, and all Chinese/Asians in Africa are the same, despite markers of ethnic or other identity differences. Racialising stereotypes thrive in these types of simplifications. 

During my fieldwork in Guangzhou some years ago, I spoke to countless newly arrived African traders who made remarks such as “Chinese in the Mainland are ‘uncivilised,’ unlike those in Hong Kong.” Chinese traders, on the other hand, often described Africans as being buwenmingde (“uncivilised”), or as coming from buwenmingdeguojia (“uncivilised countries”). In both directions, the apparent lack of “civility” was mobilised in multiple ways: as a failure to be modern; as coming from an underdeveloped country literally; but also as lacking in education, appropriate manners, and basic courtesy. Indeed, this supposed lack of “civility” is a good example of how racialised expectations operate. In contemporary Afro-Chinese encounters, blackness/Africanness and Chineseness are constructed, at least in everyday life conversations, both in relation to each other but also in relation to an often “invisible” reference point: the West, and ultimately, whiteness (Western whiteness, it must be said!). 

Indeed, in Afro-Chinese racialisations there is no Africa-China binary. Afro-Chinese racialisation processes are prominently triangular. The need to think in these triangular terms does not only emerge from conducting ethnographic research in Africa or China, but also from conducting historical and archival research. Monson (2013), for instance, intimates that historical actors in Africa-China relations talk about “race” in triangular, not binary, terms. 

Another Tanzanian described feeling astonished when he was invited to sit in the front seat of a vehicle with a Chinese driver. In the colonial period, an African would rarely be invited into the interior of a vehicle. One worker said that the British settlers would even allow their dogs to sit in the front seat of a Land Rover, while the Africans would always have to sit in the back. And the idea that the Chinese man would be the driver and the African the passenger seemed to him like a complete inversion of the colonial relationship. (Monson 2013, 1)

This fascinating account is just one among many ethnographic accounts that detail multiple instances in which the West and whiteness operate as (relatively invisible) poles of reference (see Mathews, Lin, and Yang 2017; Castillo 2015; or Sautman and Yan 2016 for more anecdotes). From face-to-face exchanges to geopolitical engagements, real or imagined triangulations with (or against) the signifier West pervade and crisscross contemporary and historic Afro-Chinese encounters and politics.

Accordingly, Monson (2013) calls for a historicisation of difference and “race” in Africa-China contexts through a “triangulation” of blackness, Asianness and whiteness. She draws the notion of triangulation from Claire Jean Kim’s (1999) racial triangulation of Asians in the American context. Monson argues that many of the ideas present in racialisations of Asian-Americans and African-Americans resemble the racial thinking present in Afro-Chinese historical engagements (Monson 2013). Similarly to Monson, Lan (2016) (who also draws from Kim [1999]) argues that the uneven racialisation of blacks in China points to the need to situate “anti-black racism” in the larger context of triangular power relations between Africa, China and the West. While both these authors exhort researchers of identity in Africa-China relations to triangulate, neither Monson (2013) nor Lan (2016) provide a methodological framework or examples regarding triangulation in Africa-China “race” related research.

Contextualising triangulation

Claire Jean Kim’s (1999) original argument elaborates on the formation of a “field of racial positions” in which Asian Americans have been racially triangulated relative to and through interactions with whites and blacks. Kim’s intention was to illuminate the American field of racial positions and how white racial power continues to thrive in it. She notes that, in the American context, triangulation occurs by means of two types of simultaneous, linked processes. On the one hand, through a process of “relative valorisation,” whites valorise Asian-Americans relative to blacks on cultural/racial grounds (e.g. the model minority myth). On the other hand, through a process of “civic ostracism,” whites construct Asian-Americans as unassimilable and thus as permanent outsiders to American civic membership. It is important to note that in these two processes, whites are positioned as the fixed/main reference point. They valorise and construct Asian-Americans and blacks relative to each other and to whiteness. Kim (1999) notes that this is the way in which the American racial triangulation has historically operated to enhance white dominance.

Besides Kim’s racial theorisation (and a number of other studies on Asian-American ethnic identity in the US, see Wu 2002; Espiritu 2008; Robles 2013), the notion of triangulation has also proven useful to go beyond self/other binary schemes in analyses of subjectivity and identity construction. In his study of The Infection of Thomas de Quincey: A Psychopathology of Imperialism, for instance, John Barrell (1991) offers a very useful model to go beyond the apparently exhaustive binary schemes that plague Western academia and thought: self/other, white/black, West/East, etc. Barrell describes a “triangular” dynamic (this, that, the other thing) in the context of Orientalism (and of European fears and anxieties about the East) which proves useful to better capture the global complexities embedded in colonial/postcolonial subjectivities and identities as historical formations.

But, do the logics and dynamics from the American racial context (or from the formation of imperial psychopathologies of mid-Victorian imperial culture) apply to the case of contemporary Afro-Chinese encounters in Africa and China? Thinking through one of the most recent Africa-China controversies could be useful to answer this question.

In 2018 a well-known Chinese actress performed in “blackface” for a skit titled “The same joy, the same happiness” on CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala (Figure 1). Lou Naiming (with exaggerated buttocks, a fruit platter, and a black man in a monkey costume) played the role of a traditional and somewhat confused African mother in a skit about love, tradition, and China’s historical role in Africa. Early media analysis of the incident noted the obvious: the connection between the CCTV’s “blackface” and the long history of this practice in Western popular cultures (Sudworth 2018). A triangular analysis of the incident would be useful not only to historicise this racist archetype, or to contextualise its appearance against the background of contemporary racial thinking and racist rhetoric in China, but also to understand how blackness is currently triangulated relative to Asianess and whiteness in a “rising Asia.” It is worth noting that the appearance of a “blackface” in the skit is not something new to China, or the region in general. Reviewing the history of East Asian media and advertising over the last decade yields a long list of “blackfaces” (Castillo 2018). 

A number of relevant questions emerge at this point: Is the triangulation between Africa, China and the West the only possible triangulation in this case? Are there other “points of reference” that could yield new ways of understanding “race,” “racism” and other processes of racialisation in Africa-China relations? Leaving the triangulation at the level of Africa and China with the West (or blackness and Chineseness with whiteness) may be problematic as blackness(es) and Chineseness(es) (outside the West) were not exclusively co-constituted in relation to whiteness. While very useful, triangulating difference and “race” exclusively within these points of reference runs the risk of both invisibilising other points of reference and leaving the West at the centre. The critical questions here are: what weight should be accorded to whiteness (and the West) in the analysis of the co-constitution of blackness and Chineseness in Africa-China relations? And thinking through Kim’s triangulation, what should be the place of whiteness in the field of racial positions that emerges from contemporary cultural and geopolitical Afro-Chinese encounters? Should there be a fixed place for whiteness in Africa-China triangulations? Can other analytical categories enter the triangulation?

While there are no easy answers to these questions, I believe that the initial steps have to be methodological. First of all: a triangular analysis should not be seen as merely a step up from two elements to three, or from a dyad to a triad. A triangulation is not simply a three-way comparison between Africa, China and the West (or between blackness, Chineseness and whiteness). The Merriam-Webster dictionary (merriam-webster.com 2019) defines triangulation as an operation by which it is possible to find “a position or location by means of bearings from two fixed points a known distance apart,” as in navigational wayfinding. These “fixed points” can also be parts of other triangles (or belong to other constellations). So, essentially, a triangulation can be performed through a triangulation of points in a triangle, and/or through a triangulation of triangles. Indeed, as we shall see, a triangular model allows for multiple configurations. 

Second, what does it mean to “triangulate” in Africa-China “race” related research? And, more importantly, how could it be performed? As noted earlier, the obvious triangulation is that of Africa and China with the West. So, in this case, stories such as the one I cited above by Monson (about the Tanzanian worker who is invited to sit in the front seat of a vehicle with a Chinese driver); or the one from my own fieldwork in which a Nigerian singer in China claims that his dream is “to make it in China.” Adding afterwards, “I don’t give a shit about America… the world has changed and America doesn’t move me” are paradigmatic triggers that invite triangulations in research (Monson 2013; Castillo 2015). In short, it is imperative to emphasise that the need to triangulate emerges from ethnographic fieldwork (from my own work but also from that of many other scholars). To look at the footprints left by European colonialism (as the signifier “West”) in Africa and China when theorising “race” and “racism” is still methodologically and analytically very useful. However, it is crucial to recognise that the West is not anymore (and should not be treated as) a quintessential part of contemporary racial triangulations.

“Blackface” in China: (triangulating) beyond the racist archetype

Figure 1   Spring Festival Gala with Chinese actress in blackface (left).

As an attempt to go beyond the Africa-China-West triad, and to provide an answer to the question about the weight of whiteness, I put forward the notion of “multiple triangulations” to theorise “race” and “racism” in Africa-China settings from multiple bearings, points and/or triangles. Thinking in terms of multiple (potentially simultaneous) triangulations, I contend that beyond the initial triangulation (that of the history of the racist archetype), an analytical triangulation between “race,” gender and geopolitics renders more insightful perspectives.[1] 

Indeed, I argue that beyond the “blackface,” the gendered nature of the skit (e.g. the “damsel in distress” trope) and its patronising, orientalist plot are considerably more problematic than the racist caricature. Below, I provide a reading of the geopolitics behind the caricature that draws from the analytical registers of gender, patriarchy and ethnocentrism. 

The skit’s story was rather simple. Carrie, an eighteen-year-old Kenyan stewardess, asks her Chinese teacher to pose as her boyfriend to avoid a blind date with a Kenyan man organised by her mother. Carrie does not want to marry yet. She wants to work and then go to China to study. In the skit’s resolution, Carrie confesses to her mother and explains her desire to go to China. It becomes clear that Carrie sees China as a way to escape tradition (and her mother’s traditional views on marriage).

The skit intended to highlight the positive aspects of China-Africa relations. It does this, however, by presenting a narrative in which China is seen as a solution to Africa’s “backwardness.” As I was watching the skit, I was reminded of a contestant in the highly popular dating TV show “If You Are the One” (feicheng wurao). Similar to the Gala’s skit, the production of “If You Are the One” portrayed Xiao De (a participant from Guinea Bissau) as a free-spirited girl trapped by tradition (Figure 2). Xiao De saw going to China as a way to escape her fate (an arranged marriage), study, and become an independent woman. In the dating show, Xiao De is strictly looking to marry a Chinese man. Moving to China and marrying a Chinese was for Xiao De, as it is for Carrie, a way to escape tradition and enter modernity—a Chinese version of modernity.

The “blackface” skit, and Xiao De’s portrayal in the dating show, reproduce a narrative that encapsulates the way China approaches its relationship with Africa. Both official and popular Chinese narratives about Africa consistently try to construct an image of the continent as China’s “damsel in distress.” The age-old trope of the “damsel in distress” in film, literature and video games depicts a young and beautiful woman who needs to be saved from a monster by a male hero. In the end, the woman usually marries her rescuer. On both the skit and the dating show, this gendered narrative portrays China as the (modern) male hero and Africa as the princess in jeopardy (or in a dire predicament caused by tradition). 

Figure 2  Xiao De in her last appearance on “If You Are the One” (screen shot).

This trope has multiple iterations in contemporary Africa-China relations and is linked to what I call the “Chinese saviour complex” (Castillo 2018). This saviour complex has been portrayed in popular films such as Wu Jing’s 2017 box-office hit, Wolf Warrior 2, and to a lesser extent in Frant Gwo’s The Wandering Earth (2019), and is associated with what some scholars call “Han supremacy” (see Leibold 2010). In short, behind the Gala’s “blackface” lies a pervasive consistent top-down, ego-boosting narrative designed to proffer China as a way for Africa to enter modernity. This narrative not only casts Africa-China relations along the lines of the binary of Africa as the past/China as the future (see Madrid-Morales 2018) but, perhaps more ironically, it does so through the reproduction of a number of Western stereotypes about both Africa and blackness (Wang 2019).

The Spring Festival Gala is a program full of skits. While the skits are normally comedic, they generally intend to inform and educate the audience about a particular topic (from military affairs and everyday life to other cultures). The “blackface” skit—the first in the Gala’s history to portray China-Africa relations—succeeds in informing its Chinese audience about China’s historical role in Africa. However, what it fails to do is to “educate” viewers on the complexities and realities of contemporary sub-Saharan life. The proof is in the pudding. The skit’s story is supposedly set in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, but all you can see in the background is a savannah. In the skit, this stereotypical African landscape is about to be crossed by a Chinese-built railway—hailed as part of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. Representing “Africa as the past” means associating ideas about Africa strictly with nature and tradition. While “China as the future” leads to the association of China with modernity and technology (Figure 3). In a way, China represents its role in Africa as a “techno-saviour” that aims to liberate Africa (its damsel) from the shackles of tradition, and European colonialism (the monster!). In relation to this, Wang (2019) wonders about knowledge production and the types of Chinese (and African) subjectivities emerging from this seemingly asymmetric relation.   

Figure 3  China’s Central Television depiction of Nairobi and actual Nairobi

Indeed, I argue that a multiple triangulations approach is useful here to reveal the production of a field of gendered and racialised positions in contemporary discursive representations of the Afro-Chinese encounter.As a critical methodological tool, multiple triangulations does two things: first, it opens up a space in Africa-China relations for scholars of identity, “race,” “racism” and media representation to start moving their analyses (e.g. historical, ethnographic, representational) away from hegemonic binary logics and dichotomies around the ways in which “race” and “racism” are (and can be) discussed. Multiple triangulations suggests that a more nuanced understanding of the specificity of global processes of racialisation is gained when dominant “Western” experiences of racialisation (and racism) lose their default dominance and are treated as reference points rather than paradigms (multiple triangulations attempts to do something similar to what the notion of “interreferencing” does in Inter-Asian theorisations: looking for frames of reference that while considering the West are able to go beyond it). Second, and perhaps more importantly, it creates a multidimensional space for the triangulation/intersection of factors that are often associated with/to processes of racialisation (e.g. class, gender, religion, nationalism) but not so much accounted for in Africa-China “race” related research. Discussions about “racism” are often as much about nationalism, ethnicity and “race” as they are about gender, class, patriarchy, heteronormativity and other critical issues. 

Evidently, a wholesale importation of Kim’s (or Barrell’s) models of (racial) triangulation into Africa-China “race” related research would prove insufficient. However, and this is a crucial point I want to make, as a methodological framework, multiple triangulations can serve as an important prelude to and backdrop for future (and more complex, thicker) research on “race” relations in Afro-Chinese settings, and beyond.

Other multiple triangulations

As a conceptual device, multiple triangulations takes up Monson’s (and Lan’s) calls for an intellectual attempt to move beyond binary frames of analysis (e.g. Africa-China), and to foster new and more complex understandings of “race” and “racism” in the twentieth-first century. As methodological tools in the Africa-China research context, triangular models may be useful to disentangle the intricate ways in which the construction of African and Chinese racialised identities takes (and has taken) place beyond the backdrop of a globally dominating whiteness.  

Multiple triangulations could be performed within historical, discursive, representational and spatial analyses. They could include permutations between pre-modern, modern, colonial and postcolonial discourses and imaginaries, and be crisscrossed by contextualised understandings of identity, belonging, culture, mobility, lineage, class, ethnicity and “race,” among other analytical categories. Evidently, thinking about examples of potential multiple triangulations could produce a vast theoretical horizon, way beyond the scope of this article. Below, I briefly provide a few examples of how multiple triangulations may be organised.

In addition to triangulating (hi)stories and ways of talking (e.g. Tazara railways anecdotes, or Africans chasing their dreams in China), multiple triangulations can also be performed through discourse analysis. A potentially fascinating triangulation, for instance, could be the analysis of discourses of racial nationalism and right-wing populism in China and Africa. Here, I am thinking specifically about a South Africa-Hong Kong-Mainland China triangulation, or a triangulation of discourses of xenophobia (South Africa), right-wing nativism (Hong Kong), and right-wing populism/nationalism (China) to provide a clearer picture of the emergence of new racisms. 

Other instances of multiple triangulations could be structured around historic and contemporary forms of representations beyond the Euro-American racial paradigms. Here I am thinking of triangulating forms of representing blackness and Asianness in Nollywood, Hongkollywood, and Mainland China’s film industries. 

Multiple triangulations in relation to processes of racialisation and their urban mapping could also be performed around the spatialities of Chinese presence across Africa (e.g. the emergence of Chinatowns in Zambia, Ghana and Egypt, for instance); or through the analysis of “spaces of blackness” across different Asian locales (e.g. India, Malaysia and China, for instance).

More conceptual triangulations between the co-constitution of black or Asian subjectivities throughout history and under different systems (e.g. socialism, capitalism, neoliberalism) could also be done. There are multiple possibilities in triangulating. Another conceptual triangulation could be performed by looking at Inter-Asian representations of blackness and the ways in which historical processes of Inter-Asian interconnection have informed and disseminated these representations.

By pointing to these potential examples, I hope to highlight how the triangulation of diverse factors (not only identities, or geographical regions) could be performed and how it could be useful to sketch a fuller picture of ongoing processes of racialisation.

Reflection: methodological issues and challenges


Racism and ignorance


In her analysis of “racism” and the Belt and Road geopolitical imaginings in the Spring Festival Gala, Chenchen Zhang highlighted that, as in previous racial incidents, many defenders of the skit were quick to argue that “the connection between blackface and racism is rooted in the specific history of racial relations in the United States and former European colonial powers” (Zhang 2018); and, as such, is not relevant in China. In this sense, criticisms about these incidents in China are taken as the imposition of “eurocentric” value systems and ideologies, and arguments are made that no negative connotations exist between “blackfaces” and “Chinese tradition” (Zhang 2018; Cheng 2011, 2019).

When asked about these incidents, young and educated Chinese often claim that people who produce negative stereotypes about Africa (and blackness) are not aware they are doing it. Naivety and ignorance are the common justifications. Ordinary Chinese, they say, ignore African and global histories and only reproduce what is offered to them by Hollywood. Ignorance is commonly used to deflect criticisms about what some perceive as “racist” attitudes in China.

Racist rhetoric emerging from both sides is often blamed on ignorance or cultural misunderstandings. Ignorance is more often mobilised by government officials and scholars to dismiss criticisms of Chinese behaviours or attitudes in relation to “race” (see Lan 2017). Chinese scholars, for instance, often argue that Chinese society is still struggling to overcome its ignorance about the outside world and that Chinese harbour ignorant prejudices toward not just Africans, but people from other continents as well. Li Anshan, a leading Chinese scholar of Afro-Chinese encounters, suggests that as China becomes increasingly open and ordinary people are exposed to other cultures through global media and interpersonal exchanges, the widespread ignorance that is often mistaken for racism will become a thing of the past (Li 2016).

Scott and Sijake (2016) have noted that the mobilisation of ignorance as a reason behind “racism” in Africa-China relations operates under the potentially problematic assumption that increased cultural contact will lead to the reduction of racist rhetoric, racial prejudice, and ultimately, “racism.” The idea that mutual contact leads to mutual understanding and to a decrease in ignorance and “racism” is called by Sheridan (2016) “moral optimism.” This optimism, he suggests, is akin to that of the early literature on globalisation that failed to consider issues of power and inequality; or to that of the early literature on the advent of the Internet that failed to consider that authoritarianism could also operate through digital technologies. 

Scholarly debates around “racism” and ignorance in Africa-China relations are not only marred by a logic of proving/disproving the existence of “Chinese racism” but, perhaps more importantly, constrained by a binary dynamic in which debates always become comparisons between Asian versus Western “racisms.” Lan (2016) addresses this issue partly by drawing from Stam and Shohat (2012, 281) who note that in comparative studies of racism, the “which is worse?” question is the wrong question. In these binary debates, Asian “racist” rhetoric and attitudes are portrayed as inherently less evil than those of Europeans. “China has racial problems. But murderous racism against blacks is not one of them” is one of the main tropes exemplifying this trend (Lo 2016). Chinese scholars often consider it inappropriate to conflate the Chinese embodiment of “race” (imagined as isolated from historical global racism) with the politicised racisms of North America (based on slavery) and Europe (founded on colonisation and empire) (Li 2017). 

Almost invariably, the primary reference point for any discussion about “race” and “racism” in Africa-China relations is the history of Western imperialism. Sheridan (2016), for instance, notes that almost any attempt at genealogising racial thinking in Chinese history relies on the standards set by Western racism. Resorting to ignorance as an explanation, and engaging in simplistic comparisons such as: “China is not as bad as the West,” are two main methodological issues/challenges when researching, discussing and representing “race” and “racism” in Africa-China relations. 

Connecting with Euro-American literature and audiences

In early 2014, I attended a seminar by a scholar who was working on “African immigration to China.” During the Q&A, audience members challenged the speaker over the use of the label “immigrant.” Given that the talk had emphasised how China lacked the institutional arrangements to deal with the influx of foreigners, how there were no formal/legal paths towards settlement, and how most Africans saw themselves as being en route to other places, why call them “immigrants,” was the question. A senior sociologist in the room inquired more specifically about the appropriateness of using theoretical frameworks from Euro-American experiences of immigration to explain African presence in Southern China. The speaker’s candid but problematic answer astonished me: “I call them immigrants, because there is no other word to describe them, and I use these frameworks, because I need to connect with the existing literature,” the speaker responded. To be fair, the answer was given in haste and the speaker later went on to become a leading scholar of African presence in China. As I came out of the seminar, I could not stop thinking about how constructing Africans in China as “immigrants” forced them into a problematic narrative that reproduced a Western (e.g. Global North) hegemonic gaze on their journeys. This problematic “immigration narrative” often associates notions such as precarity, rupture, illegality, criminality and displacement to the rationales behind the (transnational) movement of dark-skinned bodies. 

More importantly, however, the incident reminded me of something that had been bothering me about the then small body of research dealing with Africans in China: how the need to connect with the existing literature pushed scholars (many of them Chinese) to impose Western models and concepts when trying to make sense of the massive transformations that made possible the emergence of African communities in Southern China. Back then, the case in point was the use of literature developed by the early Chicago school of urban ecology about the urban marginalisation, segregation and isolation of communities of colour in American cities (in the context of the industrial Fordist regime) to make sense of African presence in urban spaces of Guangzhou. “Why do they need to exclusively bring in these American terms and not those of other experiences?” I wondered, while reading through countless articles labelling African presence in the Pearl River Delta region as an “ethnic congregation,” an “ethnic enclave,” a “ghetto,” and a “Chocolate City” (see Zhang 2008; Mathews 2011; Li, Lyons, and Brown 2012).

It is 2020 and research on “race” and “racism” in Africa-China relations continues to underperform and is fraught with methodological issues and challenges. One of the most problematic issues is still the direct (untranslated) importation and imposition of Western, mostly American, ideas and labels to analyse and describe the Afro-Chinese racial encounter. Chua Beng-Huat (2015, 67) notes that “[…] scholars in Asia, who are trained in the Euro-American academies, pluck ready-made concepts from existing literature generated in the latter context, and apply them to local conditions in Asia.” Take, for instance, recent media and scholarly narratives around Africans in China that put forward notions like “afrophobia,” “anti-black racism,” and “institutional racism.” As noted earlier, these notions are heavy with historic resonances in different contexts—not only in the United States, but in many other postcolonial societies. These narratives are problematic not only because all they do is identify a local version of a Western form, but more importantly because their articulation runs the risk of equating the experiences of black people in China with the institutionalised violences against people of colour and indigenous people in the American continent and elsewhere, as noted earlier.

Doubtlessly, it is important to try to situate discussions of “race” and “racism” in Africa-China relations more broadly in the field of global race studies, and to try to connect with the literature. However, using loaded terms to sensationally represent what takes place on the ground, effectively erasing important distinctions between how blackness is constructed and, more importantly, experienced in Chinese and Western settings may not only be irresponsible but also ethically compromising. Exclusively relying on these imported terms to describe African presence in China reinforces a Western hegemonic and racialised perspective/tradition in representing African diasporic communities. Without a doubt, this is a methodological issue and a challenge to overcome in contemporary Africa-China “race” research. 



“Racism is racism, period”: rejecting contextualisation 


Context is not a pure original point, an objective space/time coordinate, or a final resting place. Context is an open structure, the limits of which are never absolutely determinable or saturated. (Gearoid O. Tuathail 1996)

A couple of years ago, in the aftermath of the controversy about the Qiaobi “racist ad,” Pan Qinling, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, went on a vitriolic rant urging the government to impose stricter controls on Guangdong’s African population because, according to him, Africans in Guangzhou posed a security risk. In a journalistic article about China’s fear of a “black invasion” the author gave prominence to a quote from a West African scholar: “racism is racism, period, and although some people would say that in different places it is more explicit, nuanced, or implicit, as long as there are victims we have to call it racism and deal with it” (Chiu 2017). Whilst the scholar is right to suggest that something has to be done about “racism,” the emphasis the journalist puts on his assertion that “racism is racism, period” is symptomatic of longstanding problems in knowledge production about “racism”—namely, a single story/understanding of “racism,” mostly emerging from colonial and postcolonial contexts. 

As a visceral reaction, which as a brown male I have had many times, such an assertion is totally valid. But for the purpose of deepening understandings about how “race” and “racism” are articulated in contexts beyond the West, the “racism is racism, period” assertion obscures and simplifies the complex ways in which “racism” may form and take root in different contexts. Moreover, at least in the Chinese context, such a claim may fuel Chinese dismissals of discussions about “race” and “racism” for what they perceive as a Western ideological orientation. Indeed, media and scholarly representations of “racism” in Africa-China relations are fraught with semantic confusions, agendas and politics. 

While it is not within the scope of this article to enter a debate on the definitions of “racism,” it is important to highlight that in existing scholarship and media reports about Africa-China relations, there is a high degree of semantic confusion, and overlapping, around terms like: “racial prejudice,” “discrimination,” “racial stereotypes,” “racialisation,” “racialism” and “racism.” The interchangeable (messy!) use of these terms to signify “racism” is a characteristic of knowledge production in Africa-China “race” relations. A simple literature review (like the one conducted in the first part of this article) reveals that most authors are comfortable assuming that readers have a universal understanding of these terms, and that they more or less signify the same. However, just as a lamp is not light, racial prejudice is not “racism,” although it may form part of it. Simply put, we all have prejudices and they do not always amount to (or transform into) “racist” views. When the expectations embedded in prejudice become institutionalised (or internalised), then we can talk of an “-ism.” But that does not always happen. In short, when discussing “race” and “racism” in Africa-China research and media contexts, there is a divide between those (the majority) who assume that all forms of racial thinking (e.g. racialisation, prejudice, discrimination, etc.) are equal to “racism”; and those who think “racism” is just one of many forms of racial thought and call for its historicisation (Monson 2013).  

Besides these distinctions, the most striking implication of the “racism is racism, period” assertion is that “racism” does not need to be contextualised. Interestingly, this is a form of thinking that I have commonly encountered among people of colour coming from the West to China. Rejecting contextualisation, especially when talking about Afro-Chinese racial encounters, and imposing the Euro-American racial logic as the standard measurement, goes against the most fundamental belief that to be able to fight oppression and hegemony different and multiple voices need to be heard. Throughout my years doing ethnography among Africans in China, I have seen countless debates between Africans and African-Americans as to why something may, or may not, be racist. Debates that almost always end in disagreement.

If there is no attempt to critically contextualise “race” and “racism” in this day and age of global conversations about Africa-China relations, then how do we know what are we talking about? (By “we” here, I mean the diverse group of researchers, practitioners, students and readers who are interested in this topic). Instead of assuming that “race” and “racism” have self-evident meanings (that “we,” the hegemonic “we” here, all understand), the questions that need to be asked are how have these categories been textualised within certain systems of meaning at various times and in various contexts. How, for instance, has the term “racism” been charged with particular meanings and strategic uses within different networks of power/knowledge across different societies? How has it been articulated/put to use in various times and places? As Stuart Hall (1996) reminded us in Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, while there are certain general features to “racism,” the ways in which these features are modified and transformed (by the historical specificity of the contexts in which they become active) crucially point to the need of thinking in terms of “racism(s),” rather than “racism.”  

 I argue that, in Africa-China research contexts, the term “racism” needs to be critically challenged every time it is knowingly evoked and used—for it often reproduces the misleading view that, “because racism is everywhere a deeply antihuman and antisocial practice, that therefore it is everywhere the same—either in its forms, its relations to other structures and processes, or its effects” (Hall 1996, 435).

The differences are greater than the similarities. In order to unearth these differences contextualisation is critical. Contextualising “racism” may, for instance and at least in the Chinese context, point to the centrality of racial nationalism and to the advantages of framing the negative experiences lived by some foreigners in China as the outcome of “nationalist practices” (informed by racial modes of classification, yes!) rather than of “racist practices” (these are not subtle differences, see what Ghassan Hage [1998] has to say when discussing white supremacy in Australia).  

Without a doubt, contemporary Africa-China research needs to do away with monolithic explanations, that often emerge from hegemonic narratives, in the name of multiplicity, heterogeneity, and ultimately a deeper, more complex understanding of the mechanisms that reproduce racialising and racist worldviews and attitudes. In short, contextualisation is crucial for it serves to reject the universal in light of the specific. It is troubling to find academics and journalists that fail to recognise this. Going to another country to impose your views, even when they emerge out of your own struggles against oppression, is in and of itself oppressing. 

Conclusion: towards a post-imperial vocabulary of “race” and “racism”

Often, when I discuss issues of “race” and “racism” in Africa-China relations with colleagues, I am told that there is no way to theorise “race” without looking at the Euro-American experience. I usually, but reluctantly, agree. I know where they are coming from. “Race” as a category is a foundational element of the postcolonial world we inhabit. It would be naive to try to theorise processes of racialisation without considering the impact of modern, colonial imaginaries in global constructions of “race,” identity and nationalism.

However, when I propose that the West needs to be decentred, and that theorisations of “race” should go beyond it, I am looking for ways to subvert the hegemonic power that Euro-American cultural imperialism wields over discussions of “race” and “racism.” I do not suggest we overlook Euro-American experiences, but more critically, that we escape what Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva (2008) call the “white logic, white methods” that reign over existing methodologies to produce knowledge about “race” and “racism.” In other words, I’m consciously trying to deviate from dominant epistemologies (driven by northern scholarship) so to find ways of talking about “race” and “racism” in Africa-China spaces without necessarily reading the script from the West, as Ruth Simbao (forthcoming) puts it.

Methodologies define the horizon of knowledge production. For as long as we fail to de-imperialise the logics and methods of “race” related research, we will not be able to produce/develop new vocabularies of “race” and “racism.” In other words, without a complete overhaul of current methods and methodologies, we will remain at the level of the “which is worse?” “Who is more racist?” questions. Without de-imperialising debates on “race” and “racism” we will remain at the level of describing (again and again) how Chinese and Africans (re)produce, or mirror, processes of racialisation that emerged in the West: effectively overlooking the myriad ways in which “race” and “racism” may have been reconfigured by the (not necessarily Euro-centric) logics of late neoliberal capitalism. 

In his book on Asia as a Method, Chen Kuan-Hsing (2010) highlights the need to create spaces of dialogue to make sense of the specificities of different cultural practices. In the specific context of Africa-China “race” related research, I contend that Chinese and African voices/experiences need to be the “fixed points” (not the West) in triangular modes of conversation. Multiple triangulations is an early step pointing to, I believe, a movement towards de-imperialising approaches to what we know, think and question. What is needed is more ground-up work, localised knowledge, to help us figure out how “race,” “racism,” racialisation and nationalism actually operate in Africa-China relations. r.


[1] It is important to note that shifting the methodological focus from that of a dyad to a triad may still be seen by some as limiting in the sense that a triangular model may not be able to capture all the complex relationalities that inform identity formations. My choice to remain within the triangular logic in terms of the metaphor (but supplementing it with the “multiplicity” of points/triangles of reference) responds to a commitment of mine to attempt to expand theoretical possibilities in Africa-China “race” related research, whilst remaining grounded and understandable to the layperson (unlike popular theoretical metaphors like the assemblage or the rhizome). Ultimately, to do multiple triangulations requires the methodological task of thinking in terms of multiple modes of triangulation, or relational modalities of triangulation. 


The work described in this article was supported by a grant from the Research Grants Council (RGC) of Hong Kong. RGC Ref No.: 23601618.

Notes on contributor

Roberto Castillo is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Cultural Studies at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. He has been researching African communities in China since 2010.

Contact address

Department of Cultural Studies, Lingnan University, Hong Kong, HSH 101, Ho Sing Hang Building, 8 Castle Peak Road, Tuen Mun, Hong Kong SAR, PRC. Email: rocas@ln.edu.hk.

Special terms

sushi      素质

Lou Jing      娄婧 

buwenmingde      不文明的

buwenmingdeguojia      不文明的国家  

feicheng wurao     非诚勿扰


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