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Hatred and Hospitality: See the Complexity of Racism in Guangzhou

File photo of small alley in Guangzhou's African community. FRED DUFOUR / AFP

By China House Fellows Andy Zhang, Jie Cang, Ziyu Lin and Yirong Xu

“We don’t want gifts and apologies: We want our dignity…We have fractured this world.” – Kevin, student

“But I thought racism doesn’t exist in China…it wasn’t embarrassing, it was dehumanizing.” – Iris, teacher

Born and raised in a small town of 10,000 in Mississippi, Iris was no stranger to racism throughout her youth: “I remember I was in kindergarten, the very first time, I was met with racism. And it didn’t stop after that.” She would become a teacher, tackling racism by teaching students the past and present of her community, creating an initiative to normalize the successes of minorities in America.

Kevin was born in the West African country of Guinea. He is now a junior and one of the handful of African students at the Jinan University of Language and Culture, as well as a salesperson and model working in Guangzhou.

Both had made the decision to move to China 3-4 years ago– Iris with her husband and two children, and Kevin alone–to seek better job opportunities, education, and experiences abroad.  They eventually joined a growing community of 11,000 African expats and other foreigners of African descent within a megacity of 20 million, becoming a part of a community of minorities living in one of the least diverse countries on the planet.

Stereotyped a Standout Minority

Oversexualization, distorted imagery and cultural differences are but some of the factors that

Plague the African community in Guangzhou, which taken to extremes lead to real world experiences of discrimination.

For example, when asked about Africans flirting with locals, one employee at a telecom store stated that “they (Africans) like to seduce Chinese women”, and that many women are fooled into marriage. She also added that they maintained poor hygiene, “using perfume to mask their foul body odor”.

A taxi driver also reflected that he wouldn’t accept black passengers because “their odor was too strong”, and many others have commented that Africans are “Dirty and not very polite”, or that they are “illegal immigrants and thieves”.

Behind these differences in perceived reputation and cultural differences are a combination of factors that divide the local and African communities. According to Chen Liang, a doctor at the Center for Immigration and Ethnic studies at the Sun Yat-Sen University, there are three such factors to consider.

The first is language. Only students of the African community in Guangzhou know one of the few languages spoken internationally–English, French, Arabic–or Chinese. The majority of migrants speak either Swahili, Pidgin or Somali based on their country of origin, effectively reducing communication to simple words like “yes” or “no”. This also has the added effect of disrupting any cultural exchanges.

Second is where the communities are located. The areas of Xiaobei and Sanyuanli in the Yuexiu and Baiyun Districts respectively have become the two main concentrations of Africans in Guangzhou, with most living in rented housing units or hotel rooms with friends and family.

Thirdly is media coverage of Africans. Liang states that there exists an impulse to alienate and portray the African community as problematic, downplaying their contributions to economic development in the region and propagating stereotypes of smell, untrustworthy and oversexualization.

The presence of racial stereotyping and thinking ultimately results in action and discrimination. Iris detailed how she has seen discriminatory job postings, saying “I will see one that says, ‘Black people don’t apply’ or ‘White people only’. Here in China!” and that when people saw them they would scream, and cry, and point and laugh or run in the opposite direction.

While at work in her school, she had students refuse to learn black history from her–a black woman–stating “I don’t believe what you say about black history until a white teacher says its true” or “Well, I don’t think that you are qualified to teach us Black history because you’re biased.”

Kevin also had similar experiences, where when he approached people, they would become scared of him, and only until he spoke to them in Chinese would they say “Oh, Chinese. Very good.” On the subway or the bus, people would avoid sitting next to him; walking on the sidewalk, people would cross the street to avoid walking near him.

Clearly, stereotyping and discrimination due to language and lack of interaction, as well as biases in media coverage has fostered an environment where those who accept and propagate these ideas eventually, either consciously or unconsciously, disrupt and harm the lives of others. Negatively impacting the very people that may be attempting to bridge the cultural divide.

Interactions Dispel Stereotypes

However, the attitudes of Guangzhou locals and the experiences of the African community are not purely negative. “Just because racism exists in China doesn’t mean you are racist”, Iris emphasized after recounting her abject experiences of being discriminated against in China.

In fact, many people in Guangzhou understand and accept members of the African community, with one perfume saleswoman saying that “there will always be the good and the bad. But for every 100 customers I have had, there are likely only two I feel negatively about.” Another stated that “they actually cause no trouble here.” Believing that most are fairly nice, with only a few exceptions.

An African woman working at a
local barber shop in Guangzhou.

In general, members of the African community have impressed Guangzhou citizens with their politeness, overcoming the negative stereotypes that precede them.

In the form of specific experiences, Africans “won’t bargain forcefully and they appreciate my difficulties”, said one saleswoman; “they proactively buy tickets for our games, which sometimes many Chinese won’t do”, one personnel in a mall indicated; and “they offer to help open the door for us and say ‘please come in.’ in Chinese”, recalled a dweller.

Even more importantly, their kind gestures have been reciprocated by the local people. Not long after her initial arrival in China, Iris wanted to get a tattoo when she “didn’t speak anything other than ‘nihao’”. The local tattooist that was introduced to her through her friend however took care of her, offering to pick her up drove her to the destination as she was not familiar with the way.

Even with the language barrier, they had a pleasant exchange about their opinions on basketball during the tattooing process using apps on their phone. After the tattoo was finished, the tattooist invited Iris to have meal with his family and kindly drove her back home in the end. As she recalled, “this is one of my favorite memories here in China.”

likewise, Kevin also had some nice experiences engaging with peers and other locals, stating that “some of my Chinese friends are willing to invite me home, and young people always call me to play football with them.” Reflecting that like many locals, he “would never see one negative person as representing the entire country of China.”

Interactions like those detailed above have incredible power in minimizing or shattering the aforementioned stereotypes, helping build bridges and overcome challenges between the two communities.

The Impact of COVID-19

“The funny thing is that China is the safest place at that time, so it was my turn to call my family to be safe”. As the pandemic subsided in March, Kevin, still determined to go back to China in order to finish his paper, left his home in Guinea once again, not knowing what a post-Covid Guangzhou would bring.

He was directed to land in the city of Chengdu first, then travel to Guangzhou. However, after landing in Chengdu, he was forced to quarantine in a hotel at a price of 800 RMB a day–a price which he could not afford–for being a foreigner entering China at the time. The hotel staffs shut off the windows in his room and he wasn’t allowed to set foot outside his door, effectively placing him under house arrest.

Officals frequented his residence to test him for the virus and installed a camera to keep tabs on him, all the while telling him that “Africans and people from Wuhan are not allowed to go out”. When Kevin asked them “why are Europeans and Americans not quarantined and forbidden to go out like us?” They responded: “Not our problem.”

Iris would return from India with her family after the pandemic mostly halted in China as well, also not anticipating what lied ahead. Similar to Kevin, she and her family were tested frequently and quarantined, and she had also noticed a printed notice glued to their front door,

warning others to call the police if anyone inside were seen out the house.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the experiences of Africans in Guangzhou that had changed. Some locals have also had a shift in their attitude towards the African community. Taxi drivers, realtors and others working in high exposure jobs have become more wary of Africans, highlighting requirements for nucleic testing.

But it’s not all bad news for the African community in Guangzhou during COVID-19. According to Iris, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign affairs and its response to discrimination during Covid was good enough. Compared to the discrimination against African-Americans she had experienced in the US–One instance of which ended up with two black men being arrested by cops from Starbucks just because a white barista got scared–what the Chinese government did completely shocked her: the places that had previously refused to serve her colleagues were miraculously forced to serve them after they had called the authorities.

In conclusion, the cultural differences and language barriers between the two ethnicities have contributed to the discrimination of the African community in Guangzhou, yet they will likely remain inevitable for an international metropolis like Guangzhou–the gathering spot of global immigrants to China.

The reality is that there will always be two sides of one coin. For many local people in Guangzhou, the African community here is not an opposition or an enemy, while for others they are aliens. And evidently, each person, whether African or Chinese, has had their own experiences and views of the exact same topic. So even with Covid-19 having generated a new wave of conflicts and led to negative impressions between both the African community and Guangzhou citizens, the debate over racism in China is still far from settled.

Author’s Note: The names used in this piece are pseudonyms to protect the identity of the sources interviewed.

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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