On Being Black in China

Long-time China resident Marketus Presswood reflects on his experiences of being black in China and on the history of relations between Chinese and prominent black intellectuals and cultural figures. From The Atlantic:

While China is officially home to 55 ethnic minority groups, the Middle Kingdom is far more ethnically homogeneous than the United States. Han Chinese make up 91.59 percent of the population, and the majority of the remaining 8.41 percent are visually indistinguishable from their Han counterparts. In part due to this difference, race and nationality are often conflated in China. A white foreigner is likely to be called laowai, or “old foreigner,” while a black foreigner is more likely to be described as heiren, or “black person.”

White Americans face no barriers to claiming their nationality, but blacks are often assumed to hail from Africa, a place thought to be more backwards and poorer than China, and one more than likely receiving Chinese government economic aid in the form of loans and infrastructure projects. This leads to either resentment or denigration on the part of some Chinese. The Chinese media tends to focus on the generosity of the Chinese government toward Africa — a sore point among Chinese who feel their government is not doing enough for the Chinese themselves — and not on the valuable natural resources gained or access to lucrative growth markets for cheap Chinese goods.

[…] Growing up in the United States, I looked at Chinese and other Asian people as persons of “color” who shared a similar experience with white racism. There was some sliver of solidarity in being a “band of minorities.” For most black people or other people of color in the American cultural context there is some tacit understanding of the mutual experiences of white racism that binds seemingly disparate American ethnic groups together in solidarity. I naively took that assumption with me to China on my first visit. I did not expect that everyone would welcome me with open arms, but I did not expect what I did encounter. [Source]

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