Racism – with Chinese characteristics: How Blackface darkened the tone of China’s Spring Festival celebrations.

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A collaborative piece by Hannah Getachew and Runako Celina Bernard-Stevenson

The events of the now infamous 2018 Chinese Spring Festival/New Year gala is being hotly debated online amongst Africans in China and elsewhere in the world, Chinese people, and now even the Western press has chimed in. Some 800 million people are likely to have tuned in to the show to witness, amongst other things a Chinese actress parade around stage in blackface, complete with prosthetic butt and chest. As many will by now be aware, the tale being told in the skit in question goes something like this:

An African girl is under apparent pressure from her mother (played by Chinese actress Lou Naiming in blackface) to marry at the age of 18. She doesn’t want to get married but instead wants to move to China to study because, as she passionately reminds us, China is amazing. So she gets her Chinese friend to pretend to be her fiancé in an attempt to trick her mother into believing that she is indeed following her wishes. The mother is thrilled to hear that her daughter plans to marry a Chinese man and tells the audience how grateful she is for how much China has done and is doing for Africa. Yet before long, the secret is revealed when her fake fiance’s real bride to be (a Chinese woman) appears on stage in a wedding dress, ready to say ‘I do’!

When her daughter explains why she lied about getting married and insists on moving to China her mother seemingly forgets her desire to see her daughter married off. Instead, she passionately stares into the audience and states ‘I love Chinese people. I love China’.

There seems to be some confusion about whether or not the accompanying monkey character was played by an African man or not.

The play ends as it began – playing Africa’s finest export Shakira while ‘the Africans’ dance on stage.

Diverse Africans, Diverse Opinions

The play made reference to ‘feizhou’ several times, once again treating the African continent as if it were a singular entity. In fact, there are 55 countries across the African continent and its land mass is three times that of China. This skit misrepresents sub-Saharan countries and the global black diaspora, yet doesn’t make any reference to North African countries. Simply put, Africa is too large, complex and diverse for any singular narrative.

This principle applies to the content of this article as well. Black Lives China does not presume to encompass the full diversity of the black experience in response to this skit, and readers should be wary of any article which claims to do so.

Amongst the black community, there are members who find this skit harmless, entertaining or largely irrelevant. For them, elements of the play ring true. Zebras, lions, and monkeys are native to sub-Saharan African, they will say. Some were amused by the music and dance, tapping their feet to the rhythm of the drums on stage.

Others call the play a distraction. Any racially insensitive portrayal of black Africans can only exist due to the economic power-dynamics between Africa and China, they say. Following this line of argument, one can point out the monetary imbalance in the level of financial investments China makes in African countries, versus the other way around. Once African countries organize and negotiate investments with China based on clear regional and continental priorities, racism in China will gradually fade away. These are just a sampling of the many views in the black community on the skit.

Racist or not? Our take

The question on most commentators’ lips seems to be whether or not the skit, and in particular the depiction of the mother was racist or racially insensitive.

For many, the physical stereotypes paraded during the skit re-create historic racism and follow upon earlier crimes such as the dehumanization of the enslaved South African woman Saartjie ‘Sara’ Baartman, who was caged in European circuses for the exhibition of her naturally curvaceous body.

The blackface brings to mind minstrel shows of the 19th century and the purposeful mockery of black people, plus the exaggeration of their characteristics for the entertainment of others. It dealt in the dehumanization of people of African descent – free Africans and the enslaved – on stage to demonstrate the believed inferiority of the African on every possible level. This depiction, when juxtaposed against the European was intended to show their innate superiority. This type of portrayal can even be seen as recently as 30 years ago in American shows such as the 1978 Black and White Minstrel Show.

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Monkey See, Monkey Do – Did China simply copy American racism?

 In detailing this history, one should also remember that racism clearly is not a Chinese invention. While it would be a huge simplification to state that China simply learned racism from the west, there are definitely some manifestations of racism (or racially insensitive behaviours) that clearly speak to a history in which China has no or little part in. Sometimes American firms have been guilty of bringing their racism to China’s shores, as is the case with the popular toothpaste 黑人牙膏or ‘Darlie’, previously known as Darkie. The brand is a household name in China and while its owners, American company Colgate-Palmolive have tried to distance their brand from the controversial ‘Black people’s toothpaste’, the minstrel show logo with its origins in blackface are unmistakably American imports. This is just one example of the ways in which the west can be culpable for racist attitudes in China.

But does all this culminate to suggest that China shouldn’t be held accountable for their dalliances with racism?

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Some have stated that China and Chinese people have little knowledge of the historical context of blackface and even less understanding of racism. Therefore, it is argued that the Chinese New Year gala skit isn’t racist as there was no racist intention behind it. While this article will deal with the matter of what may have been the message behind, and intention of the skit later, it is important to note that racism does not rely on one’s intentions but instead on the impact of the action on the target person or in this case group. That is what takes precedence and must be considered first in each instance. Additionally, ignorance should never justify racism or mitigate the ultimate impact of said actions. As such, ignorance cannot be a defence to the recreation of racial stereotypes.

The claim that China has a complete lack of awareness around racism is extremely prevalent…Yet several things make this difficult to comprehend. Despite China not having a long history of ‘yellowface’ they still are hugely sensitive to depictions of Chinese people that they deem inappropriate and offensive. In fact, there seem to have been severe reactions in China and its diaspora against racism towards Chinese people.

How does China react when it receives similar treatment?

While China may not have any historical reason to understand the offensive nature of blackface, the idea of mimicking the physical or facial features of Chinese people has caused great upset.

Was it not just a few months ago that netizens were up in arms at Gigi Hadid (and rightly so) for squinting her eyes in an apparent effort to mimic Chinese eyes? She was even rumoured to have been removed from walking in 2017s Victoria Secret Show in Shanghai amidst calls from netizens to have her banned.

Meanwhile, Amazon and eBay came under fire late last month for selling costumes with kids pictured doing ‘slant eye’ poses. The image was rumoured to have gone viral in Chinese groups with some stating that such images were ‘totally unacceptable’.

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And let’s not forget, in early January a French kindergarten came under fire for a poem in a school book, entitled Zhang, my little Chinese. The poem includes lines such as “Zhang squats down to eat rice”, “his eyes are so small, awfully small”, and “his head is swaying like a ping pong ball bouncing around”. This was swooped upon by Chinese netizens on Weibo who made statements such as “We have zero tolerance for things related to national dignity,” and “If they continue to teach and spread such hatred and discrimination, the children will not grow up with healthy minds”.
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Perhaps then, we could more accurately say that it’s less a matter of not understanding racism and more of not recognizing it or not caring about it (or in the case of some, actively enjoying it) when it’s not directed at oneself.

None of the three examples listed above came from official bodies, nor were they seen by over 800 million people. Yet they were still deemed offensive enough to warrant calls for removals, cancellations, and apologies.

Who is to blame?

China Central Television (CCTV) is one of the “central three” (中央三台) state media outlets in China. The other two are China National Radio and China Radio International; making CCTV the only state television broadcaster in China.

China Central Television answers to the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television which in turn is supervised by the State Council. Furthermore, a Vice Minister of the State Council serves as chairman of CCTV. For context, the State Council is the highest executive organ of State power in China, as well as the highest organ of State administration. Given the high-profile cultural significance of the Gala to Chinese people it can be safely assumed that all of these government branches sanctioned each detail of the five-hour performance.

So far, we know that the Gala was supervised by the State Council. But there are other Chinese organizations that were central to the production of the event. For example, Chinese media company StarTimes Group contributed to the selection of content for the Gala. StarTimes is a leading TV-provider in the African continent, with 10 million subscribers across 30 countries. Herein lies another hole in the argument that the Chinese authorities were unaware of the racial elements of the play. Surely StarTimes senior level management has acquired a degree of awareness of racial dynamics in the course of its economic dealings in the continent most affected by race. Why didn’t they come forward and take issue with the skit? Why would they pay for the production of a play they knew to be racist?

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Black/African Complicity

Life for African students is at times rough in China, yet in a quest to ‘make it’, those willing to put themselves in compromising positions should consider the communities that they represent. The fact is, most of the cast members in this skit are African. The dancers are African. The train attendants are Kenyan. Some of the main characters are African. Of all those involved in the play surely they were the most aware of its problematic elements. As a community, we must ask, what happened? Did any of them raise their concerns with the producers? Did they contact their Embassies? Or, most disappointingly, were they simply too ambivalent about the skit to take action? In the wake of racist incidents, we must also turn inwards and examine our own complicity. The passivity of the African cast members is no more palatable than that of the Chinese producers.

To what end?

Temporarily leaving racist and insensitive portrayals aside, what is left to speculate on is the intended narrative being created or at least aided by this skit.

Officially it was a testament to China-Africa friendship, the references to BRI and the new Kenya rail between Mombasa and Nairobi were used to evidence this. Yet there were some not so subtle hints of the underlying nature of the said relationship- or perhaps the way in which China would desire its people to view this relationship. For those familiar with the 2017 Wolf Warrior 2 film, the overarching narrative may seem rather familiar. Ultimately China becomes the saviour of the African, and the African becomes reliant on and almost indebted to China.

Interestingly, while the win-win narrative pushed in Chinese media is often criticized by the West because African actors are seen to not win as much as Chinese ones in the exchange, the <同喜同乐> skit flips this narrative on its head and does away with such concerns completely. In this play, China is the altruistic donor, supporting African infrastructure, education, and health. The skit makes no mention of the economic gains China stands to receive in return. At best it is a one-sided portrayal of international relations, and at worst it calls in a new year with an ego boost for Chinese audiences delivered at the expense of Africans.

Where do we go now?

If there’s one thing we ask the black and African community to take away from this is that we have to be stronger with the counter-narrative we produce. Not just a counter-narrative but to tell our own stories – clearly an accurate portrayal of us is a reach too far for some external to our community. This work is already underway thanks to groups such as OPOPO, 黑人在中国, Black in China, and the Conscious Africans Network.

An apology from CCTV would be ideal, though it is a retro-active gesture and the damage has already been done. For all his faults, Bill Cosby hired an African-American Professor of Psychiatry from Harvard to consult on almost every episode of The Cosby Show to ensure that there wasn’t a single negative stereotype of black people. CCTV should consider similar action. What we need now is a clear signal that this sort of event will never occur again.

In our frustration, we mustn’t allow ourselves to be used as pawns to further agendas against Africa-China relations. As we move into a new era of geopolitics we must be vigilant in the defense of our beloved continent. There are powerful groups that stand to gain from fanning the flames of any growing pains in the Africa-China relationship. Since the Gala aired numerous Western media outlets have jumped at the chance to fit this story into a tight narrative that they have pre-prepared. Africa needs to insulate itself from the meddling hands of those groups and focus on charting a mutually beneficial relationship with China.

Ultimately it is up to us to campaign for our priorities and in order to do so, we must be clear on what those priorities are and how we intend to achieve them. In the wake of this incident, let’s ask ourselves: what concrete actions do we want to see from Chinese media outlets to ensure that racially charged material isn’t disseminated?

Black Livity China submits the call for CCTV and other Chinese media outlets to create multiple senior level consultancy roles for African media specialists. These experts would be tasked with the responsibility of mainstreaming racial awareness into all content touching upon the African continent. Moving forward China must incorporate racial awareness and sensitivity to the production of content by all its media outlets. It worked for eight seasons of The Cosby Show, and it could work here too.

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14 thoughts on “Racism – with Chinese characteristics: How Blackface darkened the tone of China’s Spring Festival celebrations.

  1. “Ultimately it is up to us to campaign for our priorities (interests) and in order to do so, we must be clear on what those priorities are and how we intend to achieve them.”
    Thanks for writing this.
    Our interests are our priorities, and we must pursue them consistently like we do our dying breath.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The skit was well thought out, rehearsed and finally carried out without thinking of the damage it will cause to the African community here in Beijing and Africans worldwide. One would have thought that after their 100 years of humiliation, Chinese would have learnt a few things about morals and respect but obviously that’s not the case. Personally, I think they feel good knowing that they are at least better than some people (erroneous mindset). The Chinese I know are very sensitive with affronts and react vocally when they are the victims but bask in the thought of making others feel demeaned. I just hope more Africans will voice their opinions on this matter and hopefully, it will not repeat itself. Africa and China have come a long way in terms of political and economic ties and I just hope they are not about to ruin it because their much celebrated win-win paradigm might just end in a lose-lose

    Liked by 2 people

  3. True, the Chinese can’t blame America (or any other) for exporting racism to us, since we have a long history of racial plus racist discourse without an explicit racial awareness. Skin-color related racism can date back to the Tang (Wyatt, The Blacks of Premodern China), but the racial/racist discussion became devastating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Dikotter, Discourse of Race in Modern China). I’m very sorry to hear my Chinese (and Taiwanese) friends talk about African, Indian, and the Middle Eastern peoples with unreserved contempt. That’s simply wrong.

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  4. Thanks for the commentary. I especially appreciate your pointing out that this is CCTV, Chinese state media. One issue that needs to be discussed further is that one purpose of the Spring Festival broadcast is about instructing Chinese audiences in the nationalist talking points of that state. Here we are specifically talking about China’s projects in Africa, where there are railroad, construction and road projects that are sinking African nations into debt, not to mention a military base in Djibouti. Through CCTV, the state is teaching Chinese what attitudes they should have toward Africa, Africans and China’s projects there. Starting that discussion from a racist, colonialist perspective on China’s projects in Africa should be incredibly disturbing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A wonderful report! You wrote what I felt and what I didn’t figure out. How about making an Chinese editions via Wechat? Chinese people who misunderstand you are usually aged ones that unable to read English. Please get your logical voice heard by them!

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  6. Thoughtful and powerful argument. As a Chinese, I am also aware and have to say that many Chinese people always have that excessive national pride over many other countries including many African countries, many South Eastern Asia countries and, western countries, which is awful. This is a huge problem in China. Therefore, many Chinese people always think of it as a nation problem but not a race problem. But like you guys said, not awaring the problem is also a sign of racism. Although this is not just a racism problem about African people, China as a country has to apologize and improve on this. One reason why the stupid show is on the stage is the because the supervising organization only see and focus on how the show would advertise for the “friendly Chinese government” but not the overall appropriateness. This also reflect problems in many other shows such as female right. In general, even I as a chinese, have to admit the show is stupid. Gala serves as a tradition in China, and represents the time when family gather together to celebrate the New Year. But in recently years, instead of showing and criticizing the problems in lives, it becomes a bunch is problems itself. Super ironic.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Cogent argument.
    I am not sure whether consultants will solve the problem. The gala itself is premised on Han hegemony. The 56 minorities are represented by background or walk on parts. They are represented in other words by NOT being Han – the majority, default, singular, powerful, metropolitan, in control of proceedings, the opposite pole to difuse ‘minorities’.
    It’s a stiff schematic that does not admit of nuance. It’s optimistic to believe a special sensitivity will be accorded foreigners when the representational range of the country’s own nationals is so impoverished.
    If I am the state authority my starting point is, ‘be glad you made it to the national stage. We’ve told our people that africans are good people and that they should be nice to you. Be happy with that’

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  8. I fully read and enjoyed and agreed with your article`s substance and recommendations.

    I think that you would agree that while some moral questions reed to be asked regarding whether any of the African participants in the skit had actually voiced any objections about the script and production content of the skit, these African “actors” — and multiple sources have confirmed, based on post-Gala interviews with the African actors, that the monkey was played by a black man — deserve the least amount of blame.

    They are likely students or young professionals who either survive on a near-subsistence scholarship stipend or minimalist reararch grants or early career wages.

    So I don’t think that one can accuse them of being fully complicit in the skit travesty given their understandable need and desire to augment their incomes by, what I assume, was a generously decent appearance fee and to also not incur the institutional wrath from their employers or schools for turning down the “honor“ to appear on the Gala, regardless of the outlandish and inappropriate nature of the skit‘s contents.

    You had cleverly alluded to the US comedian Bill Cosby and his efforts to promote sensitivity, so to highlight the plight of the African actors in the skit, I’ll mention another US black cinema and TV icon who is oft-forgotten — Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to win an Academy Award (for her supporting role in Gone With the Wind).

    When asked why she continued to accept many mundane “maid” and “mammy” roles in TV and in film throughout her career, she honestly replied, “‘I’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid than working as one”.

    I think her point resonates with the situation of the black actors, and given the tremendous power differentials with their Chinese counterparts and show producers, I don’t think one can legitimately hold the actors, individually or collectively, accountable for the mess that aired during the Gala.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Besides being shamelessly self-congratulatory and overly politicized – as has been recently common with the Gala, this skit would likely not have been so innocent to many Chinese, who had claimed that they were not offended by it, had the lead character been an African male and the female lead been a Chinese female!

    Imagine the sensitivities and proverbial alarm bells that such a reversal of the lead roles would have engendered among many Chinese viewers.

    In this vein, recall the student signs at BeiDa many years ago, which were a prelude to another incident that I won’t go into further, which read “NO TOUCH CHINESE WOMAN“ and that were directed at African male scholarship students in campus. They sprouted up at nearby campuses too during that tumultuous time. The above hypothetical situation is “food for thought“ about what was a truly awkwardly planned and choreographed Gala segment.

    Many Chinese intimitated online to me via group chats — and in a largely unknowing fashion via their commentary — that they are not sensitive to being insulted by or even accidentally insulting Africans because they are common “third world” brothers.

    In turn, I remakred that such an attitude endorses racism and insensitivity on faulty moral constructs and does not actually, in practice, display legitimate “brotherhood” or “solidarity” with Africans or anyone viewed in this demeaning and dismissive fashion.

    I also added that finding it acceptable to intentionally or unintentionally insult or demean certain classes of “third world” people or to be okay with having them do the same to you, while NOT being okay with having Western or Caucasian or other developed Asian nations` societies display the same fragrant racism and insensitivity towards China or to Chinese persons highlights two seminal (albeit rather controversial) implications:

    1) China and the Chinese are only largely concerned about perceived slights emanating from those nations and societies that they perceive to be ahead of them, which inherently gives these nations` cultures and societies too much power in the evolving Chinese mindset of the world and of China’s role in it and of Chinese identity therein.

    There is actually a more clear-cut way of saying the above — that I‘ve stated directly in African chat rooms — but I am doing a slight diplomatic word dance here to avoid affronting the sensitivities of those locals who may not be fully familiar with the situation or be uber patriotic and supportive of all officially-released content, such as the Gala segment in question; and

    2) Even more perniciously than the above item — by having some Chinese deflect and marginalize the harm done to Africans via mis-characterizations and caricatures, such as those evidenced at the Gala, while also downplaying the impacts of similar “African brotherly jokes“ that African “compatriots“ could conceivably inappropriately develop in return towards Chinese people, China is wholly marginalizing and excluding the sensitivities and aspirations of Africans to be viewed equally and humanly. Chinese state propaganda thus essentially, albeit most likely unintentionally, dehumanized the Africans and their diaspora via the Gala performance.

    For the last point above, in sum — many Chinese have essentially argued that “we only care about perceived slights and insults given to and received from white people and other developed Asian races — because THEY MATTER“, while blacks and Africans and other less-developed nation’s people’s DON’T MATTER and are thus both “fair game“ for displaying caricatured insensitivity towards while also irrelevant in terms of even acknowledging any possible insult from such “poorer“ folks (because these poorer races are so generally low, un-esteemed, and irrelevant in the Chinese world view).

    Ahhh…What I’ve written above is a lot to digest but the content involes my key findings from several days of heated debate and discussion on this matter.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. It is always so cringeworthy to see colorful African dancers and choirs whenever anything about Africa is mentioned, especially in China.

    These displays make Africans appear as a bunch of happy dancing clowns or something to the uninformed.

    And the repeated use of “tribe” and “tribal” connotations is also dehumanizing and misleading, as it makes it appear that tribal and internecine issues and conflicts are at the root of all African problems.

    Imagine if people always referred to the Chinese as being divided by clans and historical clan rivalries and focused largely on inter-clan conflict among the Chinese with regard to contemporary analysis of China!

    Just like with Africa – where tribalism is so conveniently and wrongly often easily attributed as the source of the continent‘s myriad problems, it would be equally unfactual and misleading to talk about the Chinese as being clanish and myopically focused on only their socio-ethnic grouping.

    The racist and insensitive skit last night was simply unconscionable, especially for a country that portrays itself as being a friend to Africa and Africans.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. And…

    To parade the Kenyan railways staff on stage and to then follow it up with the depiction of the comic and backwards and happy go lucky African scene that followed, was nothing more than an Orientalist means for China to self-congratulate itself on taking up the burden of “helping“ Africa, albeit it a demeaning and unequal way.

    Ahhh…This incident has set back Chinese public diplomacy …. It’s set it far, far back while also leading to further questioning of China‘s official motives in Africa and also, correspondingly, many Chinese people‘s personal inclinations towards Africans

    Liked by 1 person

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