It’s novel to be on the losing end of China’s racism problem. I still feel powerless to change it
Picture the scene: you sit down on a subway seat, and the 6 people closest to you slowly, but noticeably, move away. Or, you enter a coffee shop and you feel multiple pairs of unnerved eyes flicking towards you. Someone says loudly in a language they think you don’t understand: “Why is she allowed in here?”
It sounds like a scene from a civil rights era film, but in the past week or so here in mainland China, it’s something white and non-Chinese people have encountered or seen on social media every day. In many shops, small busineses and restaurants, we are not welcome.
Myself a firm holder of white privilege, it’s an arresting and humbling novelty.
I’m not surprised, however, by incidences of virus-fear fueled racism. I live in a large city in Zhejiang province, a highly developed part of mainland China, but blatant racial stereotyping is still a social norm. People of colour are often denied the chance to apply to English-teaching jobs that they are more than qualified for, while white people are overpaid for the same work. Adverts for models ask for “caucasions only.”
For weeks, the city has been under an extended, uncomfortable lockdown that everyone wants to end, and with new cases now being only ‘imported’ – ie, from people who have traveled into China carrying the virus – it’s not hard to see the connecting line many people draw between laowai (foreigners, literally “old outsider”) and further spread of the almost-quelled but still scary disease.
Precisely because there are no local cases, everyone entering China from abroad is now subject to quarantine, often ferried from the airport directly to their home or government quarantine hotels by hazmat suit-clad workers. They are kept there until they are cleared as a non-carrier, and quarantine measures are strictly enforced.
Any foreigner walking around outside therefore has practically the exact same likelihood of being infected as a Chinese national who has stayed put for the last few weeks. Less even, since they’ve probably been in far fewer public places.
So it hurts when my friends are refused service at a nail salon. “Sorry,” the service person says over WeChat, China’s ubiquitous messaging app. “Because of the virus, there are no appointments for foreigners right now.”
I try to stay out of race debates in China. Even in English, let alone in my far from native Mandarin, I rarely feel articulate or informed enough to combat racist remarks or views without causing an ugly argument. The mindsets of older generations are also unlikely to be budged an inch by a white, British 20-something; and even younger generations, though infintely more open-minded, still live in a culture so monoethnic that outside of Beijing and Shanghai, anyone non-Chinese is frequently stared at in the street.
Against this background, it feels futile and somewhat messianistic to think it my job to turn the social tide.
What can I do? Demand that my employer hire a black person? (They won’t.) Challenge a paying client who I hear make a racist remark, and risk them badmouthing my company on social media? It’s a truly unpleasant feeling, to find yourself powerless to change painfully unfair paradigms.
One person can change the world, you might say: look at Rosa Parks, or Martin Luther King. But the situation simply isn’t the same. In the 1950s, the black population of the USA was around 10% of it’s total. In 2017, there were about a million foreigners in China; that’s 0.0007% of their 1.4 billion population. It’s a whole different level of groupthink.
I tell myself that diversity and understanding will come with time. Honestly, I almost take it as penance – and microscopic penance at that – for the countless race-fuelled injustices caucasion people have inflicted upon the world. After all, those of East Asian ethnicity in the West have been sharing similar stories for months now.
It’s a very small part of the world’s story during coronavirus, but a revealing part nonetheless. Not to mention a rather refreshing reversal of white privilege.