What the Chinese Taught Me About Racism

So what can a privileged Caucasian American male add to the debate over race relations in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world? I can share what I’ve learned from the Chinese.

During the protests in Ferguson, Missouri over a white policeman’s killing of an unarmed black teenager and the grand jury’s decision not to prosecute, people of all ethnicities took to the streets in an attempt to force a more meaningful discussion on racism and its implications.

As usual, the discussion didn’t seem to get very far. And then I read an article on CNN by John Blake that I think went a long way to explaining why. The article was entitled, The New Threat: ‘Racism without racists’, a term used by a Duke University Sociologist and the title of a book written by Eduardo Bonilla-Salva.

An example: In a famous experiment psychologists showed people a picture of two white men fighting – one with a knife and the other unarmed. They then showed participants a second picture of a white man with a knife fighting an unarmed black man. When they subsequently asked the participants to identify who was holding the knife most participants correctly identified the man with the knife in the first picture. In the second picture, however, most participants – black and white alike – incorrectly identified the black man as the one holding the knife.

So why can’t we have a meaningful public dialogue on this issue? According to Blake it’s because we’re speaking a different language. Many white people, he notes, say, “I don’t see color” and that “Justice should be colorblind.” If the grand jury made the decision not to indict the officer then that was the right decision and there’s no issue of racism.

But there is racial bias. In another study professors from the University of Chicago and MIT, according to the CNN article, sent 5,000 fictitious resumes in response to 1,300 help wanted ads. They were identical except for the name. Some were given names typical of Anglo-Americans while others were given names more frequently associated with African-Americans. And the ones given the Anglican names were called for interviews at a 50% higher rate.

There are only a few hundred thousand ex-patriates living in China today; with a population of 1.4 billion people. And not one Chinese person has every said, “I don’t see color; I don’t see your foreignness.” I am a foreigner and that is what I am referred to as – to my face. I have round eyes and a big nose and children in particular are not afraid to stare at me because of it.

But not once in my time here have I ever been harassed in any way simply because I am a foreigner. Not once has a policeman in a public place asked to see my identification or asked me why I was there. Not once have I been made to feel like a victim of suspicion. Not once!

If, however, I walk into a shop I know with 100% confidence that the shopkeeper will charge me a higher price than he or she would charge a Chinese person. Not once, on the other hand, has a Chinese person approached me and started a conversation in Chinese.

I AM A FOREIGNER. AND THAT’S OKAY!

There is no pretend. A Chinese person and I can talk openly and freely about our differences because neither of us sees being different as being bad. We are who we are.

We’re all biased. We can’t help it. When I see an older Chinese woman approaching a queue I am quietly standing in I immediately brace myself to prevent her from cutting in front of me. And many times she will try. But sometimes she won’t.

Business hosts inevitably assume that I will want to dine in a Western restaurant. I don’t.

Waitresses will inevitably bring me a fork and spoon without my asking. I don’t need them.

At any tourist spot, a big nose is a magnet for trinket sellers. But when I say, in Mandarin, ‘get lost’ they immediately back off, no offense taken. In their mind I’ve merely cleared up the ambiguity.

Likewise, tourists visiting Beijing automatically assume that no one speaks English. Many are fluent.

Many will interpret a kind gesture of aid to be the precursor to a trick. Sometimes it is. Often it’s not.

The point is that when we talk about being Chinese and being a foreigner we talk in the same language. We don’t pretend that differences don’t exist.

The Chinese will be the first to volunteer that they will never field a world class football team. Their culture doesn’t lend itself to team sports. They are better at diving, gymnastics, and track and field.

Behaviors can reinforce biases, of course, and the Chinese realize this. The government has a massive educational campaign underway to teach people how they will be expected to behave when traveling abroad. Wait in line. Don’t spit. Don’t urinate on the side of the road. Cover your mouth when you sneeze. Etc. (Spitting and sneezing, by the way, are issues of traditional Chinese perceptions of health, not civility.)

It’s not judgmental. It’s very matter of fact. It’s an informative dialogue.

Mr. Blake is right. We need to stop believing we don’t see color, or ethnicity, or wealth, or beauty. We see all of these things. We can’t help it.

But we can talk about it. And if we talk candidly and openly perhaps then we can develop a common language and finally make some progress on the issue.

Most Chinese will candidly tell you that it will be a long time before the Chinese football team competes for the World Cup.  It's just not how they're wired.  But it's not judgmental.  For now, it just is what it is.
Most Chinese will candidly tell you that it will be a long time before the Chinese football team competes for the World Cup. It’s just not how they’re wired. But it’s not judgmental. For now, it just is what it is.

Note: The author also writes novels under the pen name of Avam Hale. You can find them in the Amazon Kindle store and they can be read on any mobile device loaded with the free Kindle App, available for all operating systemsCopyright © 2015 Glassmaker in China

Copyright © 2015 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.

2 thoughts on “What the Chinese Taught Me About Racism

  1. “In a famous experiment psychologists showed people a picture of two white men fighting – one with a knife and the other unarmed. They then showed participants a second picture of a white man with a knife fighting an unarmed black man. When they subsequently asked the participants to identify who was holding the knife most participants correctly identified the man with the knife in the first picture. In the second picture, however, most participants – black and white alike – incorrectly identified the black man as the one holding the knife.”

    Blake failed to check primary sources to verify the supposedly classic experiment. His description of it varies wildly from the experiment that probably serves as the ultimate source (Boon & Davies).

    http://www.zebrafactcheck.com/cnn-misreports-classic-study-race/

    1. Thanks for pointing this out. I don’t pretend to be an investigative journalist but I try to be accurate.

      Blake’s journalism aside, however, I think it’s hard to argue that bias does not exist.

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