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Fostering Empathy is Key for China’s Next Generation to Challenge Anti-Black Racism

Photo by visuals on Unsplash

By China House Fellows Jinhao Bai, Yi Cheng, Jiasui Xie, Ruoyu Yan

“If we want to confront the issue of racism, everyone needs to take their share of responsibility. This ‘everyone’ includes you, me, and all the other individuals living in this planet.“

                                                                                         –A Guinean Student in Guangzhou

Across the bumpy sidewalk in Changshou road and through the tattered glass door of Liwan Plaza, hundreds of small-sized jewelry stores selling stones, shells, zirkon and so on tightly cram the hui-shaped building of seven floors. 

A teenage boy, thin, tall and quiet, Haoyu Wang spends most of his time doing homework, like all other typical Chinese students at this age do. What’s different about him is that sometimes he is not sitting in front of his desk, but behind the glass jewelry showcase table in his parents’ agate store. Occasionally he comes here to be the translater between his parents and African customers ever since 2013 when his parents opened the store.

Haoyu’s parents moved to Guangzhou in the late 1990s and joined in the business of wholesaling on cheap jewelry with foreigners as early as 2001. The family witnessed the influx of Africans to the “chocolate town”, which reached its peak in the early 2010s, and the gradual decline following the government’s stricter imposition of immigration regulations.

Recalling his reluctant early times in helping his parents with translation,  Haoyu said, “I was in the fifth grade, and I was biased towards my parents’ African customers — I knew little about them. I often straightforwardly refused my parents’ request for translation. I told them I don’t understand African accents.”

The turning point came in 2016, when Haoyu got into junior high school. Reading books related to African culture and WeChat articles about the lives of Africans in Guangzhou helped Haoyu reduce his biases and stereotypes.

“I started to recognize the inappropriate comments my parents would casually express on our African customers. Very stereotypical — even they’ve been trading for years. I began to argue with them and tried to change their minds after I gained more understanding of Africans.”

But these were all before COVID-19. During the pandemic, because of self-quanrantine policy, Haoyu’s family stopped their business. While Haoyu stopped helping his parents in the store, he started on something new.

In  April, news articles with similar titles started to flow into Haoyu’s social media feed. 

Panic quickly spread, and it didn’t take long for Haoyu to see voices against Africans, or more precisely, dark-skinned people in Guangzhou. During that period of time, some governmental measures were also taken to displace Africans, hotel-quarantine them, sometimes repeatedly, and have them undergone nucleic acid testing frequently. Moreover, the xenophobic feeling among the citizens was not a hundred percent under control.

“I heard the ones remained in Guangzhou were met by discrimination. People would avoid them, and shop-owners would deny their entrance into the supermarket.” Haoyu paused a little bit, looking down, and said, “When I interacted with them in my parents’ store, they were trying to communicate with me, using Chinese that was not so fluent. I felt a bit sorry because my mum always asked me to wear a mask and stay distance with them when they are talking with me.”

When Haoyu discovered a recruitment message sent by a grass-root volunteer initiative called “atSanyuanli,” which planned to close the language barrier between local officials and Africans while controlling the spread of the virus, in his WeChat moments, he was excited. He immediately applied and was later added to the group chat. He joined the news-collecting task group, responsible for gathering Covid-19 policies and translate them to English and French for Africans to comprehend.

“We had a lot of people in the group-chat. We signed up our available times in the following two weeks in an online shared document. Then the coordinator allocated the time slots and assigned tasks to each individual. I remember one time when I was collecting information and news on the Internet from both Chinese and international media, I found some vicious comments that attacked the Africans. I felt confused and a bit mad about them.”

Initiated as an unofficial project aiming to help Africans in Guangzhou to navigate through the tough times in the pandemic, atSanyuanli was tip-offed to the police department on the Internet and hence encountered some troubles from the authorities. However, the misunderstandings soon got cleared as the volunteers devoted their effort to combat the virus. The Street Offices even publicly praised some notable members afterward.

After being asked that how the volunteers executed their task of calling Africans in quarantine and asking for their temperatures, the coordinator of the project said, “Demanding the data straightforwardly like a robot is definitely a NO. Instead, we asked their whereabouts and check if they have encountered some issues while staying in hotels to comfort them at first.”

However, both the extra workload and the mental burden proposed challenges to the volunteers, who studied or worked during the day and utilized their free time to contribute to this initiative.Therefore, as the local government and social working agencies recovered from the sudden increase of the COVID-19 cases, atSanyuanli accomplished its goal of setting up a buffer zone in the most urgent period and transferred its responsibilities to a later-formed group of full-time volunteers mainly composed of African and Chinese students.

According to the coordinator, among nearly 700 people who had responded to the recruiting post, only less than 100 people actively made through the whole operating period. 

Though the cohort dismissed without a warning, as how the intiative was started, and the volunteers came back to their normal lives, Haoyu says, “For me, it ended. But I still want to continue.”

They Are Who We Are

Different from Haoyu, Kay, another member in AtSanyuanli, continued to interact with Africans in Guangzhou after the volunteer group dismissed.

“Our goal was to publicize what volunteers of AtSanyuanli did during the covi-9 crisis. We wanted to make their stories known by people who were originally not interested in the issue.”

As for how they decided on lauching an online concert on West African Reggae music, Kay said, “Writing articles is like preaching to believers: the articles would only be read by people who were already interested in the topic. And those who don’t care about the issue still don’t care.” 

In comparison, everyone loves music. It has always been a way for people to make new friends and exchange their life experience. As more people would be attracted to come, our stories would be heard by more.”

They named the concert “Feiyiren”, which literally means “not strangers” in Chinese, and “fei” also refers the the African continent. “We want to tell the audience, that there are differences, but not insurmountable. Many people think their lives are mysterious, and then single them out. But just imagine what we would feel living abroad and going through the same stuffs like they did. They feel just the same.”

They invited three groups of musicians to the concert, Angelic Soul Tones chorus, MengHua band, and Doc Africa & Anna & CY. Specially, members of Angelic Soul Tones chorus have all kinds of different backgrounds: some are students and some do business; some have stayed for a longer time while some stayed shorter. They came together to sing and also did church choir. Each of them has their own stories to tell, including some unpleasant experiences in Guangzhou during the covid-19 crisis.

Not everything was expected and planned out ahead while Kay and her friends organized the activity, but the problem they met in communicating with African musicians eventually made both groups understand each other better.

A countdown poster Kay made provoked heated disputation in the group chat. Intended to compare the concert to a travel around Africa, Kay made a poster each day for the countdown to the event, and she put different images of tourist places in Africa on the posters. On one poster was a picture of some elephants. When the poster was released, one of the African musicians was offended as he thought kay was comparing them Africans as animals.

Kay explained to that musician that the picture was used only to refer to the national park in Ghana but not to represent African people. While some members in the group chat argued that the musician was oversensitive, kay later reflected the importance of giving her explanation.

“It takes us little effort to explain it. And while we think it is a minimal issue, we wouldn’t know how serious and significant it is to those being represented.” 

Kay emphasized that both sides should have more tolerance and empathy in the communication. She told the African musicians that what caused the friction was her ignorance and a lack of communication, so that more conversations and a mutual understanding could break down many of these kinds of misunderstandings.

Not everyone in the musicians’ group was offended, though. But kay learned to be careful while representing people who have experienced things that we have not. “We should comply with their ethics and respect their feelings.”

The concert was a success. As over a thousand people viewed the online live concert, kay and her friends made it to spread the stories to a bigger crowd.

Expectations for the Future

Guangzhou reopened in late April, but things didn’t just go back to normal. The pandemic revealed many existing problems in Chinese society, some of the issues weren’t realized or acknowledged by the majority of Chinese before the deadly virus swiped out normality in people’s life.

When Haoyu went back to his parents’ agate store, he stared at the empty hallway between two sides of different agate stores in a trance, and recalled his memories of fifth grade. He had unconscious stereotypes towards Africans back then, and often turned down his parents’ request. to translate for African customers. But now, even he want to communicate with them again, the reality presented impossibility.

Haoyu turned around to ask his mother, who sat beside the counter, “Have you ever thought about becoming friends with your African customers?”

“No.” Haoyu’s mother answered without hesitation. Haoyu felt a little dissapointed.

“Honestly, I think many people in Guangzhou are not intentionally being racist, they just didn’t, or still fail to realize some of their comments, thoughts, or behaviors are inappropriate. They condemn the racial injustice in the US, but on the other hand, they have double standards — they take their superiority over people from the Third World as commonplace.” Haoyu later reflected on the discrimination against Africans in Guangzhou he witnessed during the pandemic.

Conclusion

When being asked about what Chinese young generation could do to promote the communication between Chinese and Africans, an issue that seems too grand for teenagers to address, Kay said that empathy was the first step. First think of them as general people and let your guard down. Put yourself in their shoes before consider our differences. They are just who we are. Nothing further could be accomplished and no gap could be filled if we don’t realize this point.

China House is a social enterprise that brings young Chinese to the global south for research, conservation activities and development projects.

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