I have a growing suspicion that the way many Chinese people understand the word “racism” (or “racist”) is quite different from the way I use it. This causes communication problems because I use the term “racism” like most North Americans do, but my Chinese acquaintances react in ways that don’t seem to make sense. Obviously there’s a disconnect. I want to know why my Chinese friends and acquaintances react the way they do to the term “racism”. How are they understanding this word?
When “racism” comes up in conversations with Chinese people, especially if it’s suggested that there is some racism in China, they seem strongly offended and shocked at the suggestion. Sometimes they flat out deny the possibility. This has happened a couple times now, and I’m hoping the Fool’s Mountain community can help me out. This isn’t (to me) the kind of thing someone would deny: every society has racism somewhere, somehow. Is the popular Chinese understanding of racism different from what’s commonly used in standard English discussions? If so, how is it different?
Here’s just one recent example, from someone who is usually a pretty good conversation partner (emphasis mine):
“Racism” is never in Chinese minds. It is hard for Chinese to understand racism or racial sensitivity in the West. We think Chinese is one race, non-Chinese are of other races, that’s all – no discrimination or racial superiority implied when we distinguish “Chinese” and “foreigners”. As a matter of fact, we are of different races! We don’t have racism issues, so we are not sensitive to racial differences or racial talks at all. (That talking about racial differences is sensitive can only prove that racial problems exist.)
Help me understand what’s going on here. I agree that in the West aspects of our attempts to be racially sensitive don’t make sense. But she seems to be saying “racism isn’t a Chinese problem.” But when my Tianjin friends are afraid to be near black people in public for no reason, or when my Taiwan boss explains that a lot of buxibans don’t want to hire black English teachers because it will hurt their business (parents don’t want to send their kids to a black English teacher), it’s textbook examples of racism — those feelings and behaviour are racist and racially prejudiced by definition. Any of us could quickly come up with a list of examples of common Chinese racial prejudice; it’s well known, and not just against blacks. So how can an intelligent, bilingual person actually believe what I’ve quoted above? Is she operating with a different definition of racism? I’m her response is somehow related to popular Chinese notions about racism, and that popular Chinese thinking about racism must be significantly different from popular ideas about racism in North America.
I’m not arguing about whether or not there’s racism in China (I assume there is some racism in every society) or which societies are the most racist. I want to know why my Chinese friends and acquaintances react the way they do to the idea of racism in China. Can someone describe for me popular Chinese understandings of “racism”?
– Joel (http://ChinaHopeLive.net)