Residents in Guangzhou, South China’s Guangdong Province enter a subway station during morning rush hour. Photo: CFP
The dog days of summer are here in China and like every summer, the roasting temperatures have been the subject of many a news item. But recently some of the comments about the heat have been criticized for having a racial tinge.
A July 13 photo posted on popular social networking site Sina Weibo shows an elderly black man resting under an umbrella in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square after apparently suffering from heatstroke. Another photo, posted about a day later, shows Cameroonian footballer Stephane Mbia’s shocked face at seeing the deep tan he got after training in the sun with the Chinese Super League.
The footballer’s photo was posted by his Chinese teammate Ding Haifeng along with the temperature that day, 42.5 C. Ding posted the photo with the accompanying comment, “We must have hired a fake African,” seemingly in jest. One person commented that Mbia must have had his skin “scraped” to get the image to look that way.
Other posts include “African student gets heatstroke on the way to lunch in Ningbo,” and “African lad cries over Chongqing heat wave,” suggesting that Africans should be able to withstand heat. The posts have been widely reposted and shared by Chinese netizens as funny.
However, members of the black community in China have responded both on Weibo and in private WeChat groups, saying that such comments are not funny and reflect ignorance toward black people. The color of one’s skin is based on the amount of melanin in one’s skin, not the weather in their home country.
Lack of exposure
Njeri Kamau, a master’s student from Kenya who resides in Tianjin, said she was offended when she read some of the comments under the photos. She is studying how to teach Chinese as a second language and is a member of a number of Chinese and African WeChat groups, which is where she first came across the photo of the black man in Tiananmen Square.
“When I saw him, I felt bad for him because I understand what he is feeling. It is very hot here in Tianjin compared to weather back home,” she said.
Kamau said that Chinese know nothing about why Africans are black. “They think it is because of the heat. They think we can withstand a lot of heat, which is not true. I get asked every time I get into a cab. I’d be like, ‘Oh it is very hot’ and the driver would be like, ‘I thought you are used to heat.'”
Figures show that the temperatures in Africa vary according to the country and proximity to the equator, though a lot of Chinese associate hot temperatures to the continent in general.
Rhianna Aaron from the US, an educational consultant who has been living in Beijing for four years, said the “jokes” by Chinese netizens were almost expected.
“I could not read it, but my instinct, right or wrong, was that perhaps the comments were somehow saying, ‘Oh why is he acting like it is hot. This is China, not Africa. Isn’t it hot in Africa? How is it that a black man can be afraid of the sun or comments along that line,” she said. “When I did see an English explanation of the article it was pretty much in line with what I thought, and I didn’t really find it funny. But it did not perturb me too much because that is kind of the norm that I have seen in China when it comes to black people or ‘insights’ about the black community.”
After the news of “black people getting heatstroke” went viral, some Chinese experts tried to correct people’s misunderstanding of this issue.
Zhu Huadong, a doctor with the Peking Union Medical College Hospital, said that heatstroke can happen anywhere and to anyone, especially during the early stage of summer when people haven’t adapted to the heat.
“There are no accurate statistics proving that the body’s ability to cope with heat varies among different races,” he said at a seminar on summer heat prevention held by the National Health and Family Planning Commission on July 20.
The Chinese society appears to have a preference for fairer skin, where Chinese who are darker are seen as poor and less refined because their dark skin is associated with working in the fields and perhaps being less educated. Chinese woman are especially affected by such thinking and the value placed on fair skin has created a huge demand for skin whitening products for women. There is a Chinese saying that white skin can hide many flaws.
Zhihu.com, China’s most popular question-and-answer website, has a number of threads like “Do Chinese people discriminate against black people?” and “Why Chinese discriminate against black people?” each followed by dozens or hundreds of comments.
Many of the posts acknowledge that discrimination against black or darker skinned people exists, while others doubt that Chinese dislike any particular racial group, arguing that discrimination is common even among Chinese from different provinces.
Some researchers have tried to explain it by resorting to history.
An article published on blackpast.org, a US-based online encyclopedia of African American and other black people, tried to explain the origins of the stereotypes of black people in China through the 7th century “African slavery in China.” The website speaks of a commercial relationship between Africa and China and of Arab traders bringing African slaves to China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). According to the site, it was during this period that “the first Chinese cultural perception of African people developed.”
“These ‘dark-skinned’ people were known as Kunlun. They were described as lower class, ignorant, scary, and dangerous. Although there were far more enslaved Chinese, some wealthy Chinese preferred the exotic Kunlun slaves,” the article said, noting that the perceptions of the Kunlun grew more complex over time with them being perceived as anything from “strong and mysterious to frightening.”
‘Black is beautiful’
While some members of the black community say that stereotypes of black people are the order of the day, others say change is possible, and that every black person can affect change by being examples of other truths.
“I definitely think it is up to all of us to educate each other,” said Aaron.
She recently started a T-Shirt line called hei shi mei in Chinese, meaning black is beautiful, which is her “grassroots” campaign to combat ignorance.
“I made the hei shi mei shirts to run a minor grassroots campaign to educate people that black is beautiful. Black is not always bad. We are not drug dealers. We are not here to commit crimes … Just all these negative stereotypes. I want people to know and understand black is beautiful. Black is positive. Black is good.”
Hu John, an American who lives in Shanghai, and runs a series on the black experience in China called Black Doc, agrees.
“I don’t want us to take the approach to open every closed mind because that is stressful,” he said. “I prefer us to work with the ones who have shown some curiosity by approaching us – had the boldness to approach you and take a photo. Then if we are able to sit down and eat with them, then they kind of answer the questions they have always had.”
Hu said he has had Chinese friends defend his character to other Chinese.
“In my (immediate lived) community and my Chinese friends that I talk to, the perception of black people has changed because they see me as a living example, as a good person,” he said.
Huang Aiqiong, a high-school teacher from Guangdong, said her perception of black people has changed considerably after she got black friends.
“I only knew them from foreign movies and TV series, in which they are distinguished from the white people. In these shows, white people always have an important position. They work as a CEO. The women are beautiful, but for the black people, they live miserably, and they do not get a good pay,” she said.
“After making friends with black people. I learned that some of them are well educated. They are also quite considerate. My friends are not like the stereotype in the movies you know: wild, stubborn.”
Going forward though, some members of the black community think it would ease a lot of tensions if Web users would first put themselves in the shoes of others before they post images and comments on Weibo.
“It can be summed up in do unto other as you would have them do unto you,” said Aaron. “Everybody knows that they [the Chinese] don’t like to be made fun of or ridiculed or teased for the things that they can’t control, their genetics. So, just in the same way that Chinese don’t enjoy being made fun of for how they look, the same goes for blacks.”
Source: Global Times