In the wake of a controversial ad, blacks in China discuss their experiences with discrimination

By Zhang Xinyuan Source:Global Times Published: 2016-6-1 20:06:42

Sibanda visiting the Great Wall in Beijing Photo: Courtesy of Samantha Sibanda

When Samantha Sibanda, the founder of the Appreciate Africa Network, first arrived in China nine years ago from her native Zimbabwe, she was immediately enchanted by the country's seemingly endless opportunities. After two years, she decided to settle down in Beijing. Back then, she was optimistic; unlike many other countries, China didn't seem to have the same kind of deep-rooted racism that can make life so hard for black people.

It wasn't long, though, before the honeymoon period began to wear off. In 2009, for example, Sibanda applied for an English-teaching job, for which she was soon granted a phone interview. The employer was so impressed by her resume and interview, that she offered Sibanda a job on the spot.

"But when I got to that school, the first thing the woman who hired me on the phone said was, 'Oh, you are black,'" Sibanda recalled.

"She then took back the job offer, because she said that they couldn't hire a black English teacher, because the parents and students wouldn't like that," Sibanda sighed. "That was the first time I realized that racism also exists in China."

Sibanda's feelings of disappointment and anger have been shared by many black expats living in China in the past week since a Chinese advertisement for Qiaobi laundry detergent went viral online.

In the advertisement, a young Chinese woman is doing laundry when a black man wearing paint-splattered clothes walks in. They look at each other suggestively, but when the man leans in for a kiss, she places a tab of detergent in his mouth and shoves him into the washing machine. After a few seconds of washing (punctuated by screams), out emerges a fair-skinned Asian man in a clean white shirt, to the woman's apparent delight.

The advertisement, which spread quickly around the world after being posted online, appalled both Chinese and foreign viewers.

"I think the advertisement is a huge insult to the whole black community," Sibanda said. "They don't care if some behavior has racist implications, and that it would hurt people."

Despite a backlash that spanned the globe, many Chinese viewers have said that they initially didn't understand what made the advertisement racist. Max Wang, who runs a China-Africa trade company in Beijing, and deals mostly with clients and partners from Africa, said that the advertisement didn't raise any red flags in his mind until he began hearing complaints from black friends.

In fact, China isn't the first to bring racial stereotypes into the laundry world; the commercial is a rip-off of a similar Italian advert for color detergent released nine years ago, in which a geeky Italian man is transformed into a muscular black man, to the tagline "Colored is Better." 

Though Qiaobi initially dismissed criticisms, saying that the commercial was meant to be provocative, it finally buckled to public pressure, issuing an apology for the ad and decrying racial discrimination. Controversy surrounding this incident remains heated, but it signifies a growing national debate about race. As an increasing number of foreigners settle in China and the country becomes more diverse, racial consciousness and sensitivity should be encouraged to make the country a real international hub, say experts.


China is still relatively new to discussions about racial differences and racial consciousness, which can be a challenge given the country's growing number of foreigners. Photos: IC

Suffering unfair treatment

The rapid development of the Chinese economy, along with flourishing international trade between China and Africa, as well as other regions around the world with large black populations, has attracted a growing number of black transplants to China.

Take Africans in China for example. According to a report released in September 2013, Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province, is home to 20,000 Africans. Guangzhou, Yiwu in Zhejiang Province and Beijing have the three biggest populations of Africans in China. At present, there are no statistics that pinpoint exactly how many Africans live in China in total.

The reason Sibanda came to China in the first place was to pursue business opportunities. A purveyor of plus-sized clothes in Zimbabwe, she soon discovered that Chinese factories could churn the clothes out faster and offer her more fabric options. When the first batch of China-made clothes arrived in Zimbabwe, they were a hit. Sweetening the pot was the fact that, at that time, China and Zimbabwe were promoting trade, which meant that flights to China were very cheap.

Despite the economic advantages, many black expats say they've suffered unfair treatment in everything ranging from their personal lives to the job market, thanks to pervasive stereotypes that paint black people as uneducated, rude and poor.  "Some Chinese employers don't hire us because of our skin color even though we have the qualifications," Sibanda said.

The problem isn't just limited to English-teaching jobs.

Munyaradzi Gwekwerere (pseudonym), a 32-year-old account manager from South Africa, said that despite attending a prestigious university in South Africa, as well as obtaining a master's degree in the US, he has been rejected three or four times for jobs due to his skin color. "It usually goes like this, they see my resume, hold a phone interview with me, say they're impressed with me, and then ask me to come in to work out the details of the job," Gwekwerere said. "But when they see me, and realize that I am black, I never hear back from them."

Gwekwerere said he's even stopped including his photo and nationality in his resume, because he knows it will banish any chance of getting an interview.

Both Sibanda and Gwekwerere feel that, in some ways, the racism in China is even worse than in Western countries. Sibanda lived in the UK for 12 years, and Gwekwerere lived in the US for two years, and both said that in those countries, although they may have experienced rudeness, they were never refused jobs due to their race.

Discrimination doesn't stop in the workplace. Gwekwerere said that he is frequently refused service by taxi drivers, and that he often gets stares when he's outside of downtown Beijing.

Racism in China even extends to an institutional level, according to Sibanda, who said that it's more difficult for Africans than other foreigners to renew their work visas, meaning that fewer are able to stay in China.

Liang Yucheng, a sociologist from Sun Yat-sen University who has spent the past six years studying Africans in China, has observed the same trend.

"The number of Africans [living in China] peaked around 2012, but in recent years, that number has decreased by around 10 percent," he said. "I suspect that's because China has a tighter visa policy now. The fact is that some Africans have the problem of illegally staying in China after their visas expire. Countries will tighten their visa policies for a certain group of people if that happens a lot."

The contribution of cultural differences

Peter Mu, the founder of Boto Education, an English-teaching school in Beijing, confirmed that many Chinese schools don't like hiring black teachers. Mu's agency hasn't hired a black teacher for years.

"It's mainly because Chinese parents think that people of color, black people, or people from India, have accents and are not qualified to teach their children, even though English is their official language," Mu said.

"It's not just aimed at black teachers. Most Chinese parents just have the confused idea that only white people can speak good English. Another reason is that most Chinese parents approve more of WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) culture, and want their children to learn from that."

Mu, who claims not to be racist himself, then proceeded to say that in his experience, black teachers have problems with punctuality, honesty and following the rules.

"After many problems with black teachers, we sort of just gave up on the whole community. It's not definite, it's just that we have better choices when hiring," Mu said.

Liang said that conflicts of this kind are caused by cultural differences.

While Chinese people are already familiar with Western culture, which values punctuality and efficiency, African culture is different, he claimed.

"Africans are enthusiastic, warm, easygoing, like to enjoy life, optimistic, creative and don't pay attention to small matters," Liang said. "Those are their characteristics. Chinese and Africans need to understand each other's cultures and characteristics."

Racism under debate

Unlike Western countries, many of which have a long history of racism that originated with the slave trade, China is relatively new to discussions of racial difference. It wasn't until reform and opening-up that the country even started encountering people of other races, and figuring out how to deal with diversity.

Not that Chinese people are wholly unaware of racism as a concept. According to a BBC report this month, China ranked second in a 2008 World Public Opinion poll of 16 countries asking whether governments should work to prevent racial discrimination, with 90 percent of Chinese respondents affirming that racial equality is important.

While China may value racial equality in theory, the problem is that the vast majority of the population has no experience interacting with black people, according to the report.

Liang agrees that many Chinese people lack education in racial consciousness.

"Ninety-two percent of Chinese people belong to the Han majority, and the other ethnic minorities don't have many physical differences from the Han people. China also doesn't have a history of multiculturalism until recently, so we have no knowledge of what constitutes racism and what will offend other races," Liang said.

The key, he said, is increased exposure and education - maybe even on an official level.

"In order to become an international city or country that welcomes diversity, the Chinese government needs to release laws that protect foreigners, as well as educate the Chinese public about racial consciousness," he added.

As for Sibanda, she's optimistic.

"A lot of Chinese have never seen a foreigner before. But as more foreigners come to China, and as more Chinese study overseas, they are starting to see people of different races equally, and understand them better. I believe more Chinese will come to realize that we are all the same," Sibanda said.

"Until then, I know it's a little tough for black people to have a good life here, but we need to be patient."

Newspaper headline: Race in the Middle Kingdom

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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