This is my reply to Nicole Bonnah’s piece, which, in turn, was a partial reply to my piece. Read these two pieces first here (Roberto) and here (Nicole) before reading ahead.
Nicole, as I told you in a previous conversation, I truly appreciate that you took the time to engage with some of the ideas that I shared on my blog. Here, I intend to give you a formal reply. I will leave it at the level of ‘post comments’, but feel free to reply as you find more convenient (if you want to reply at all).
Also, as I told you on Twitter, I agree with most of your ideas and I do not find that our pieces are in stark opposition but rather in a fruitful conversation. Rather than parting ways with you here, I am hoping to get our ideas and understandings closer. So, here I offer ‘my two-cents’, as you say, on certain aspects of your piece that called my attention (or that made me feel something). It is important to note, however, that I fully respect your insights, and appreciate your experiences in China. Here, I only intend to share with you what I think, in a fraternal way, rather than explaining/arguing that things are like this or that. I am also looking forward to see the work that I hear you have been doing.
For the sake of clarity, I have divided this reply in six sections.
First, I do believe that you dissected some of the things I wrote and approached them separately. Thus, at times taking them out of context, in order to make your argument. I am not fully against this, but I hope that by having extracted the paragraphs and quotations below, I have not done that to your writing.
Second, when I say that ‘I am often suspicious of people/students arguing that China is a ‘racist’ society’, I am referring to those – as noted in my post – that have never been to (or have little experience in) China. It is not uncommon to find people that arrive in China with many preconceived ideas (prejudices), and narratives about racism are amid these preconceptions (I partially did this 10 years ago). As Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong argue in this SMCP piece, people tend to generalise about a ‘Chinese tendency to be racist’. By me saying that I am suspicious 1) I am not absolutely denying the possibility that ‘racism’ could exist in China; 2) I am highlighting the fact that many people have prejudices about China and that I am not necessarily alright with that – at least not when I teach, or write.
I understand that you have it that China is not a ‘racist society’ but that ‘racism is well and alive in a number of different arenas throughout China’. I partially agree with you. Certain practices that could be read as ‘racist’ emerge in the experiences of different individuals (despite the darkness of their skin) in their journeys throughout the country (I have personally experienced this). Often, as you may agree, these practices affect and impact on the lives of foreigners (I personally did not get some jobs because I am not white). What strikes me from your discussion is your suggestion that ‘racism’ does not need to be critically analysed as ‘context based’. I read this as: racism does not need to be contextualised, correct me if I am wrong. It is almost impossible for me to accept this premise. It goes against my most fundamental beliefs about the need for different/multiple voices to fight oppression and hegemony (I hope not to sound academic/militant here but the need for critical contextualisation has been clear to me since before I got into academia – and it may as well be the reason why I abandoned my journalistic pursuit).
Having said this, I like to think that I understand where you are coming from when you talk about opening up “pandora’s box”. There is always the risk that people with more power would define/shape/lead the definition/interpretation of what anything is (i.e. as in when white people try to explain away racism in the ‘West’, I will come back to this below). I hope I am correctly interpreting your fear. In my understanding, in particular when we live in transnational spaces, this risk is higher if we do not fight to highlight the importance of contextualising.
Indeed, I find your (partial) rejection of the need for context in this case a bit paradoxical. My reading of your piece is that you are actually trying to provide certain context. Weren’t you trying to explain/argue whether or not ‘racism’ exists in China? (Or whether or not the ad is representative of deep-rooted ‘racism’?). To me, you are attempting to contextualise what you have found in China (e.g. the ad and other practices) using your background and your experiences as a ‘Black British’ woman and mixing them with your experiences in China. This is what I value most in your piece. However, since you are a journalist, it kind of troubles me that you may not recognise the need to contextualise such problematic issues as the ones we are discussing.
As I hinted in our tweet exchange, my take here is that if we fail to contextualise the racial prejudices and discrimination that (may) lead to what you call ‘racism’ in China, then, what are we talking about? Especially when this conversation is ‘global’.
If ‘we’ do not make an attempt to critically contextualise what you call ‘racism’, then what is ‘racism’? How are ‘we’ supposed to know what we’re talking about? And this ‘we’ is the bunch of people from different cultures/languages that have read both our pieces – and that are thinking through these issues right now. Is ‘racism’ self-explanatory/self-evident (globally)? Does it need no explanations? Is it a ‘given’ that ‘we’ all understand? Is it, then, something that exists by itself in ‘nature’ beyond all social constructions (how many times have I heard white people saying that ALL human societies are ‘racist’?)? And if so, how do ‘we’ understand it? Is there only one way to understand it? Who defines what is racism constituted of (or what qualifies as ‘racist’)?
If we do not provide context to certain practices that may be decoded by some people as ‘racist’, then are we supposed to import explanations from other places (e.g. other ‘contexts’) like Britain and the US? Wouldn’t this be ‘Eurocentric’? Yes, I know that I am taking this a bit too far, but there is a reason. I believe that if we do not attempt to contextualise we run the risk of allowing ‘Eurocentric’ (and by this here I don’t necessarily mean ‘white’) views to tell/impose a single story of what constitutes ‘racism’. The same goes for anything else that goes without contextualisation. I have been through a fair share of discrimination in my life to let things be explained by one single story/answer.
Now, contextualisation is not ‘evaluating’, as you seem to imply. To provide context is also not to ‘justify’, ‘defend’, or ‘splain away’, as an award winning journalist (Oh me God!) seemed to suggest on Twitter. To contextualise is to do away with monolithic explanations in the name of multiplicity and heterogeneity. Contextualisation serves to reject the Universal in light of the specific. In this day and age of hyper-communication and transnationality, I believe the work of contextualising to be of paramount importance. I cannot overemphasise how much I believe that by contextualising we are more likely to protect against powerful, hegemonic, voices taking over. So, if ‘racism’ is not a given and it is a social construction as I hope you will agree, then it follows that in different societies this complex and multilayered phenomenon would have ‘specific’ characteristics. Why not try to unveil/unearth/understand them in their specificity? Should we allow our anger (from ‘racist’ experiences elsewhere) to take us into a higher moral ground from where to judge other ‘culturally specific’ forms of ‘racialisation’?
Contextualising is important because if I try to contextualise your ‘rejection’ of the importance of context, then I may be able to understand that some people coming from histories oppression would be sick and tired of ‘contextualisation’ – especially when this ‘contextualisation’ has been historically performed by the oppressing group and used as a justification. Here, I am thinking of some white people in Australia (don’t know if it’s the same in Britain) when they attempt to ‘contextualise’ (in a justificatory sense) and diminish the violent, brutal and destructive history of their presence in the continent/island, in order to appease their own guilt (or to distance themselves from guilt). Had I grown up exposed to this type of ‘contextualisation’, I would certainly also reject contextualisation outright: ‘Enough’, I would cry. But when we go to other lands (or move in transnational settings), when we get immersed in other cultures, things are a bit different. Especially, when you go somewhere outside the ‘West’. I hope that you can see that in this case, I am not trying to ‘contextualise’ – in that justificatory sense – Chinese racial prejudice, and obviously I am not trying to appease my mind here. I am trying to understand the Chinese cultural context to see what happens, why it happens, what forms this may take in the future, and how to bloody fight this!
Anyway, I think it is enough with contextualisation (for the moment).
I do not want to get into definitions here. I have provided what I think is my understanding of ‘racism’ and I fully understand that you may have some things to ad to that. That is the beauty of exchanging ideas (Actually, I think that if we put our ideas together, we will get a more solid/robust argument, rather than a contrasting one). So, when you claim things like:
Racism is not always covert, nor systematic or persistent. Racial prejudice or isolated acts of racial discrimination is a part of the make-up of racism and is not always institutionalised but can manifest itself in a number of ways. This includes, expressed thoughts and deeds that perpetuate ideals of Eurocentric beauty, superiority and the subjugation and discrimination of those that do not meet these ‘ideals’.
Racial prejudice in China as a result of colonial and postcolonial “Imaginaries” of racial superiority doesn’t just look like racism – it is. Just like imperialist views of the East and Africa as primitive nations can be added to the many “global imaginaries” people contend with – naivety, and being “confused” as a result of this, would and does not stand as a legitimate rationale to maintain sentiments of racial prejudice or superiority over another.
Although, I find myself mostly in agreement, I have certain qualms. I strongly believe, for instance, that racial prejudice and racism are not the same thing. I noted this in my piece. Simply put, we all have prejudices and they do not always amount to (or transform into) racist views. Yes, when the expectations embedded in prejudice become institutionalised or internalised, then we can talk of an ‘-ism’. But that does not always happen. In the case of China, these types of prejudices (that we now call ‘racial prejudices’) date from before European contact and are exemplified by the ways in which the Han (which didn’t call themselves ‘Han’, then) imagined ‘otherness’ at the borders. As you may know, these prejudices got revamped and built into a more solid body of ‘knowledge’ (I like to think of it as a ‘body of stupidity’) after Chinese thinkers tried to accommodate Western racial theories with Confucianist hierarchies and ethnocentric perceptions of Chineseness.
I, as well as you, have interviewed (talked to) a number of black (and brown) people in China, and I have also listened to different narratives and experiences. Many of the people that I been working around and befriending have it that in China, once you learn the language and are able to perform ‘Chineseness’, things change. Prejudice (which I think is mainly an ignorant response) fades in both directions once you learn to communicate with Chinese. This is reported by most of my contacts and it is something I underwent my self while living in the country. Now, I am not saying that prejudice magically disappears once you speak Chinese, but things change – generally for good, ask around! Prejudice is different to racism in that it may transform, change, or even disappear (at the individual level). Racism, on the other hand, is – as you know – much more resilient and does not go away (easily), as American and European histories of (murderous and violent) racism show. In other words, prejudice tends to disappear when people meet and befriend (NOT in Europe? Well, maybe not). I wish racism could just fade like this.
Also, I have always felt that going to another country to impose your own views, even when they emerge out of your own struggles against oppression, is itself oppressing. I do not know what goes on in your circles, but if I have learnt something from Africans in China is that while many of them find issues of racial prejudice and discrimination, they are usually very careful when it comes to qualifying these practices as ‘racism’. This is a perception, I must disclose, that I found more amongst Africans that have lived many years in the country. From my conversations with both young and old, newcomers are more prone to interpret certain practices as ‘racist’.
All this makes me think of your point of racism being ‘well and alive in a number of different areas throughout China’. I wonder: when was the moment when you decided to qualify those things you saw in China as being ‘racist’ (or as evidence of ‘racism’)? Is there a process behind this statement? Did you get to this point after number of years/experiences? Did this feeling emerge early on in your sojourn in China? As you claimed in an interview for The China Africa Project, ‘being a Black British woman makes you be particularly sensitive to certain issues’. Did you allow some space for those issues not to take over your experiences and, more importantly, your interpretation of things you saw in China? Or, did you decide to use your British experience ‘lens’?
Subtext reading without context: Is the black male a ‘helper’?
I found your readings of the ‘subtext’ very interesting. As I told you during our brief exchange, I believe that in terms of reading subtexts (which is a 2nd or 3rd level of semiotic analysis), our backgrounds and experiences are crucial, and determine what we ‘read’. They provide a context to the ways in which we ‘decode’ meanings embedded in any cultural object (e.g. the ad). Here, I will go back a bit to the discussion on ‘contextualisation’. I believe that your reading of the ad (e.g. ‘that he is the “help” in the house and is over-stepping his boundaries) cries for some contextualisation. As I told you, my original reading was that he is the husband, boyfriend, or fiancée. This may emerge out of my own research. For the last 6 years, I have been working around many Africans that have married Chinese women and many live in nice apartments like the one in the ad. My question here is: without paying attention to the Chinese context (e.g. Black males are marrying Chinese women in many cities) how accurate is a reading of the subtext that places the black man as a ‘helper’? In the Chinese context, I would say, not very accurate. The ‘policing of Chinese femininity’, a point in which we both agree, is not interested in preventing Chinese woman from having affairs with the ‘help’ (btw, there’s no black helpers in China), this policing is more interested in telling Chinese women: ‘do not marry Blacks’, or ‘the ascending glittering Chinese man is your portion and what is good and right’, as you rightly put it.
As you may know, encoding and decoding (and ‘preferred readings’ and so on) are crucial stages in the process of communication. Cultural objects (like the ad) are greatly affected, thus, by the context in which they are produced, consumed, etc. A reading that places the Black man as the woman’s partner is the result of thinking in contextual terms. If I was a ‘Westerner’ that has never been to China, maybe I would have bought into your ‘help’ reading. You may disagree with this, and this may be due to diverging forms of decoding the ad… but you have to agree that a context-based reading makes more sense than a decontextualised one.
Here I want to comment on the following: ‘the choice to use an African man was a purposeful one and a reflection of the growing Afro-Phobia in different Chinese districts’. I am not going to dispute your view. You may as well think this. But really, a growing ‘Afro-phobia’? Why call it ‘Afro-phobia’?
You and I both know – as many a China watcher – that a lot of things have changed for foreigners in the country in the last couple of years, and most of them NOT for good. I am not an expert, but some people talk about a conservative backlash throughout the country. Some others even talk about the reactivation of behaviours last seen during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ (Mao forbid!). My friends in the English education sector in China report the radicalisation of measures of control in terms of content dissemination, as they had not seen in years (witch-hunting included). There are myriad factors involved here: among the most important, the crisis of over-production that the country is undergoing. In China, every time there is a crisis like this one, ethno-nationalistic fervour arises (gently stirred by the Party). Xenophobic attitudes and practices are often associated with these periods. (I went to Beijing a couple of months ago and, in all my years in China I have never sensed more tension against foreigners than this time. I did not sense the friendly environment I was used to when I lived there in 2009ish).
My point here is two fold: first, why talk about ‘Afro-phobia’ without considering a possibly wider phenomenon of ‘Xenophobia’? (Note: I’m not claiming that there is Xenophobia in China). Second, since you argue that this Afro-phobia is ‘growing’: What is the evidence behind this statement? You seem to suggest that practices such as job denials or ‘racial slurs’ are evidence of this ‘growing’ Afro-phobia. These things have been happening for a long time, and while they are horrible, I hardly see them as evidence of something ‘growing’. Here, I want to highlight that it is not only ‘black’ people that fail to get teaching jobs. This also happens to many non-white people, although, in all honesty we must highlight that there are a lot of ‘blacks’ and ‘browns’ actually teaching English in China (Yes, sometimes remote China, but still China). The way many Chinese see this, is that you fail to get the job because they are looking for a ‘white person’, not because you are ‘brown’ (I got this explanation a couple of times). Also, you did not bring this one up but the problem with taxis drivers not wanting to take black people is also often presented as ‘exhibit A’ of ‘racism’ in China. This also happens to non-black foreigners, a lot, and it is mostly a prejudice. So, how do you gauge this ‘growing’ Afro-phobia? I wonder.
Western media often frame these (and other) incidents as evidence that the Chinese are particularly ‘racist’, or that there is a specific form of ‘Chinese racism’. For me, this is profoundly problematic not only because it tries to justify racism in the ‘West’ by saying: ‘Oh, look, it also happens in China, and it’s a Chinese “form”‘; but also because it blurs the long standing historical racist practices and policies discriminating against Chinese. I am not sure that these incidents in China are symptoms of ‘Afro-phobia’ rather than perhaps (but most likely) some type of Xenophobia mixed with a whole host of other factors. I truly believe that there is no evidence whatsoever to claim the existence of a systematic form of ‘Chinese racism’. In a similar vein, I do not see any evidence as to an ‘Anti-African immigrant’ campaign in Guangzhou, as has been claimed by some academics. Talking about ‘Afro-phobia’ and ‘Anti-African campaigns’ always sells (and will attract media attention*) because it does two (tricky) things: first, it casts Chinese as ‘racist’; and second, Blacks as ‘victims’. This, needless to say, serves the purpose of both satisfying ‘Western’ fantasies about a ‘racist China’ (I call this #RacistChinaPorn), at the same time as it soothes/appeases the guilt of some people in the ‘West’.
I doubt that making claims such as the ‘growing Afro-phobia’ one is of any help to the general discussion and, more importantly, to the improvement of the issues we’ve been discussing here. Certainly not helpful if what you want to do is provide a clearer, comprehensive perspective on what is going on in China, as I like to think we do. (Actually, ‘Afro-phobia’ may work better to describe what is going in India, although I am not acquainted with the situation there). I personally believe that telling a more comprehensive, complex China (and Africans in China) story benefits us all and pushes forward in the struggles against different forms of oppression.
I really appreciate your engagement in this conversation, it has been a learning process for me.
* Because these narratives fit perfectly with the ‘China pollutes’, ‘China the despot’, ‘China the neo-coloniser’ narratives that racist fear-mongers in the West have historically spread about China (and without much self-critique of their own implication).
Ps. Yesterday I overheard this: “We always blame China and the Chinese for copying, not being original, not having the capacity to be original. So, why is it that in the case of this ad we don’t take the same approach? They’re just copying, it’s not theirs, then it’s not their fault.” – While I don’t necessarily agree with this, I thought it was an interesting comment on the ways that global discussions approach the ‘China thing’.