Race and Sensitivity

Written by Julen Madariaga on September 16th, 2009

The discussion about racism in China keeps coming back every once in a while, and each time it arouses the strongest passions. This is a post I’ve been wanting to do for some time, following the interesting comments we had in March, and as a conclusion to the Xinjiang series.

The story that sparked the debate this time is that of Lou Jing, a Chinese half black participant in a TV talent show who has been the object of racist remarks on the internet. I don’t think this is in itself significant, netizens of all countries are well known to post outrageous comments that they would never utter in real life. But quite apart from that, it is clear that there is a particular attitude to race in China that shocks many in the West, and this bears some reflection.

Because it is not just immature netizens, but also respected people with names and surnames who support jokes like this, or write comments like this. Of course, in many cases what we see is just a visceral reaction to accusations coming from the West. It is ironic and surely annoying  for many Chinese to think that, even in a field where China has always fared better than them, the arrogant, patronizing Westerners still feel justified to give them public lessons.

But after the first wave of heated comments has passed from both sides, it is worthwhile to look at things calmly, and see what is the reality behind these misunderstandings. And the reality is that it is all too common in China to hear such statements as “Uyghurs are dangerous” or “Africans are less intelligent”, or even, surprisingly enough, “whites are more capable than Asian”. All of them rather startling comments to a Western ear, but which Chinese never ascribe to racism.

In fact, most seem to follow the simple logic: “there is no problem in China because, unlike Westerners, Chinese are not racist”. This idea clearly comes from the fact that the large majority of Chinese have no experience with different races other than the studio material produced by the propaganda department, where nations are smiling children in colourful costumes. And behind it all is the “Union of the Peoples” inherited from the communist doctrine, which still stands on what might be described as the center of the country:

Mao said

Mao: “For the union of the peoples of the World, hurrah”

I am not implying that this communist ideal was not sincere. It was, and it probably still is for many people. The problem is that, while some decades ago this surely was in the vanguard of tolerance and respect, in the globalizing World of today it just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Because sure enough, the Chinese are right to say that it is not for Westerners to dictate acceptable racial attitudes. But neither is this a prerogative of the Han. Ultimately it is the peoples that feel discriminated, be it Africans or Uyghurs, who should  have a major say. For in any dispute, it is not the offending, but the offended party who decides (within some reasonable limits) what words or attitudes are insulting.

Ultimately, the development of new racial attitudes in China will have important consequences for the whole World, and in particular for its own national interests. The process is still in its initial steps, but already some key challenges are apparent: internally, as more minorities are questioning their treatment by the Han; and externally, as China tries to expand its influence in strategic regions like Africa and South America. All the soft power obtained in these areas will be worthless if the Chinese fail to show convincing respect to the peoples living there.

And again, is China racist?

So is there really a problem, and if so, what can be done to solve it? As some Chinese would have it: Is it wrong just because we say that Asians are better at math and black Americans better at basketball? In other words, is China racist?

From my own observation, China is in essence no more racist than most other countries. Which is to say, very much indeed. Because that is how most of the World is today, and how it has always been. If there is a notable difference between China and the West, it is just one of appearance: we are better at hiding our prejudice.

Indeed, in the West we censor ourselves to a point that it is hardly even acceptable to ask questions like the one in italics, which boils down to: “Do different races have on average different sets of skills?” The non-prudish answer to this is obviously yes, as can be learned from simple observation. Different races, just like different genders, tend to have slightly different characteristics, and this diversity has never been a problem for honest, open minded people, but rather the opposite.

The problem comes when obtuse individuals choose to focus partially on these differences, and then theorize them in a way as to satisfiy some low psychological needs. And at times such individuals have even convinced enough people to be able to rule their country, invariably leading it to ruin and to shame. From old Sparta to imperial Japan, history shows that short-sighted ideas of ethnic purity do not yield best results, groups based on those premises consistently falling behind the creative power of diverse societies.

So, knowing that in every country the obtuse are legion, what has the West done to prevent those outbreaks which oppose diversity and “brought untold sorrow to mankind”? Recognizing that human stupidity knows no bounds and cannot be eliminated, Western societies have instead learnt to sweep it under the carpet. And in an amazingly short period of time, in the second half of the XX century, they have developed a series of norms to regulate speech, enforcing them through the power of the socially acceptable. This non-written code, derisively known as PC, ensures that individuals can remain as prejudiced as ever, but will refrain from making it public, or else face social exclusion.

In the meantime, China’s insular society has never really felt up to now the need to develop these restraints, and so its racial prejudice is able to run free in conversation, shocking the sensitive ears of the occasional foreigner, and earning little goodwill from the peoples they are supposed to befriend.

Should China follow the West?

There is a natural resistance from the Chinese to adopt any kind of PC solution, mostly because they don’t feel the problems described apply to them: in the history of racist madness, they were mostly on the receiving end. And it is fair to say that, as a people, Chinese have always been one of the most tolerant, accepting different religions and cultures at a time when their counterparts in the West were already going berserk to eliminate the infidel. Why would such a civilized society need to apply the same rigid standards of restraint as the wild West?

It should not, in my opinion, and China is right to ignore upfront many of the Western over-reactions. In a healthy community there is nothing essentially wrong with calling a black “black” or a yellow “yellow”, like Chinese and other peoples do. The complex, guilt-ridden American style PC is best suited for the conditions of that particular country, and should not be forced onto the Chinese.

But this is not to say that the system should not be improved. From my observation of some of the affected communities in China, it looks like the present state of affairs is far from ideal. Chinese should work to modernize their rusty, communist era conceptions and little by little come up with a more realistic, more equal and less condescending racial attitude that will be key for the success of the coming challenges, internal and external. And the State alone cannot undertake this modernization. Like in the West, it is society at large, with its authors, and celebrities,  and other public role models that should join in the effort.

Chinese have a golden opportunity now to build their racial attitudes starting almost from scratch, from intelligence and generosity rather than from guilt, and to regain the image of tolerance and good sense in international relations that their country has deserved.

Sharing is free, support my work:

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • email
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Haohao
  • StumbleUpon
  • Technorati
  • LinkedIn
  • Netvibes
  • Reddit
  • Posterous
  • Live
  • QQ书签
  • MSN Reporter
  • 豆瓣
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • MySpace
  • FriendFeed
  • Print

Comments so far ↓

  1. Sep

    Everybody is sort of racist in some degree, like preference over their own race over others. Unfortunately, that’s something that you can’t get rid of. In Chinese Society people should be reserved and you should be careful what you say otherwise you people will think of you differently. Thus the reason why many westerners think that the Chinese government censure them when they actually censure themselves. In cyberspace however, many netizens including the Chinese can say whatever they want because they think it won’t lead back to them. And from some of these comments that they seem to be more frank about it because they can’t discuss about it in real life, maybe it is out of curiosity or lack of interaction of people of other races.

    Much of the racial attitudes within the US has been mostly ignored until the 1960′s much because of atrocities toward minorities or actual laws against minorities. In China, there is none of that, and China don’t think it is an issue, much like issue of racism in Western countries.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Sep

    I agree with most of what you say, except for the “censorship” bit.

    I don’t think you can compare the self-censorship implied in political correctness with the government censorship on the Chinese media. I used the same word (unfortunate)to describe both realities, but it doesn’t mean that they are the same or even comparable. In fact, they are essentially opposite: One is designed to repress different opinions (reduced diversity) whereas the other one aims -with variable success- to afford more protection to those who are different (increased diversity).

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Sep

    Nice blog post Uln. I think you’ve hit the proverbial nail on the head regarding Western-style racism. I grew up in a part of America is that is entirely racially homogeneous and it was uncommon that racial attitudes were ever uncovered, because as you said, Western social norms call for everyone to be quiet on the issue. But I discovered in high school that there remained a great deal of what I considered to be old world racism, almost a secret caste system governing life opportunities independent of aptitude.

    While I agree with you that racism will only hurt China’s ability to integrate more thoroughly with the rest of the world, I find the stories I’ve heard about Chinese racism to be like a breath of fresh air. This is because mostly what I’ve heard is Chinese people vocalizing that there is a difference between races. Having just graduated from Oberlin College (where being PC is almost a religion), I find honesty about the difference between races to be a much better starting point for learning racial understanding and developing a productive relationship between cultures.

    Anyways, like I said, nice post.

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Sep

    Oh, as things become more global, Chinese will learn, just like everyone else.

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Sep

    Hi George, long time no see!

    Sorry for late response, I have been a bit stuck these days with a a bunch of silly ducks.

    Actually, I was also brought up in a very homogeneous city. When I was a kid there were no blacks living there and I remember the first time I travelled to Madrid I stared in amazement every time we crossed one on the street, to the embarrassment of my family.

    I also remember how, in the local paper there were news of racial riots in other areas of Europe, and many of us would comment: man, those countries are so racist! Then some years later local economy bloomed, and lots of immigrants from all over the World came in, and I realized that among us there were as many racist as anywhere else.

    I tend to see China now as my hometown 30 years ago, except that, with the massive population here it will take much longer to see those kind of social changes, if they ever happen at all.

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. Nov
    Jordan White

    My problem with your argument is just because the Chinese are more frank about it does not make their racial attitudes right.

    Everyone on Earth needs to correct their racial attitudes and understanding.

    USA’s problem is they act like they solved the problem.

    China’s problem is that they don’t think they have a problem.

    Both are horrible ways to deal with the problem and what they need to do is directly address the problem.

    [Reply to this comment]

  7. Nov

    I don’t know so much about the US, but speaking of China, I agree that their completely ignoring the problem is not a solution.

    For the moment there hasn’t been any major consequence, because the number of people of different races in China relative to the total population is minimum. But the Urumqi conflict has at least a part of racism, and it is to be expected that if China continues to ignore the problem there will be more problems happening in the future.

    [Reply to this comment]

  8. Nov

    This is a very good post regarding race in China, and race relations in general, and I’ve learn a lot. Thank you.

    Actually, this is a very good website regarding China in general since I haven’t (not yet) got the opportunity to travel there. I stopped reading blogs and other individual view-point websites because it’s mostly semi-nationalism (I agree that it’s justified to a certain extent), fighting ideals with more ideals, gossip-news-”infotainment”, and criticisms. I found a few good blogs, like yours, and mostly stay away from the Chinese discussion boards that are in English.

    Nothing wrong with criticisms but they usually come from and within a specific area of interest or mentality. Often I have to read a lot about that area of interest or specific viewpoint to understand criticisms which may not make sense objectively or may not agree with my opinions. So it’s great you can post this topic in such a nice way.

    This post reminds me of an undergraduate research paper I wrote in 2004 comparing racial attitudes in the US and Brazil. Frankly speaking, people will eventually learn and find solutions to problems but it will have to happen on their own terms within reality, for many reasons.

    [Reply to this comment]

Leave a Comment

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Schwarze Teufelchen und grüne Mützen – und was das Internet wirklich über die chinesischen Meinung verrät | Daily China
  2. Foreigners Attacking Chinese Racists Reveal Their Own Racism | CNReviews
  3. CN Reviews looks back at 2009 - part 2 | CNReviews