[Generally, we attempt to avoid personal narrative on this site as we are not a personal blog. However, in this case, I’m breaking my own rule on the grounds that the discussion of our racism post has involved me personally in a way that might be interesting and relevant to some people.]
Last Sunday, I logged into our website with no greater intent than writing a post of some kind so as to keep to our unofficial one post per day quota. Finding an image I interpreted as racist on several Chinese blogs, I decided to write about the picture and the larger issue behind it. I didn’t intend for it to be a huge issue, nor was it meant for a Chinese audience per se. Our readership here is mostly foreigners, and the idea of lecturing Chinese people about what’s wrong with China doesn’t particularly appeal to me anyway, all I was attempting to do was offer an American perspective on the image and some potential ideas about what it means for China and what problems could arise going forward. I wrote it, and then I went to bed.
I woke up the next morning to a bit of a firestorm. Page views were way up, thanks to links from Danwei, The Peking Duck, Chinayouren, Bendilaowai, Africans in China, and more. What was more surprising was that the original blogs I pulled the images from, Hecaitou and 不许联想, had also both responded to the post, and less than favorably. Hecaitou’s second response, this time in Chinese, was particularly brutal:
Custer isn’t the only example, among Americans there are many that share this feverish urge to proselytize. They know racism is bad, but don’t know that other people already know. So, he’s like the “Hulking Sister” Wang Xiaobo wrote about, who finally learns how to stitch a button and then goes around roaring “Stitch a button!” whenever she meets someone. This kind of person is indeed a good person, but they’re [also] very biased, and can be counted among the ‘good people’ everyone hates […] What good will updating 100 times do? There will still be no racism in China.
Comments were also pouring in on our site, but the vast majority of them were deeply insightful. One comment, raised again and again on our site and some of the Chinese blogs, was that the translation and understanding of the word “racism” itself might be to blame for the firestorm. To Americans, racism covers a spectrum: at the one end, there are insensitive jokes like the image we posted, on the other, there are Klan members and burning crosses. What didn’t occur to me was that to Chinese people, the English word “racism” is sometimes translated as 种族歧视, and many people equate that term with racial violence and hatred. Given the opportunity to do things over, I would probably replace the word “racism” in the post with “racial insensitivity” or something to that effect.
Anyway, yesterday it struck me that I ought to get in touch with Hecaitou and Wang Xiaofeng (of 不许联想) personally to straighten some things out and to attempt to forge relationships that might facilitate more communication between the English-language and Chinese-language blogging communities in the future. So I sent an email, which both of them have posted on their respective sites. Below, I’ll translate an email exchange between Hecaitou and I, as well as Wang Xiaofeng’s comments on my original letter as posted on his site.
To: Hecaitou and Wang Xiaofeng
From: C. Custer
Subject: I am C. Custer
Although two days ago you had definitely never seen my name before, seeing it today probably gives you a bad feeling. That’s understandable. I’m writing this email to clarify a few things for the two of you:
First, the purpose of writing that post was not to say that you are racists, or to criticize the two of you. Actually, I like both of your blogs, and I understand the reason you posted that image was because of the China part, and perhaps you didn’t pay much attention to the rest of the image.
Second, I am not criticizing all Chinese people and saying all Chinese are racists or anything like that. I understand American standards for “racism” are different from Chinese standards; that post was just saying that as there are more and more foreigners living in China, if their standards are different from yours, is it possible this could lead to problems in the future? I never said that China needed to discuss racism according to Western standards, all I was saying was that according to American standards, that picture is racist, and then discussing the reasons for that, etc.
Third, although it seems you do not respect me at all (especially Hecaitou), I still feel there is an upside to this situation. English-language China blogs and Chinese-language blogs rarely interact, possibly because of the linguistic and cultural differences. But personally I feel mutual understanding is extremely important, and without interaction there can be no mutual understanding. I don’t know if the two of you care or not, perhaps you feel Chinese people don’t need to understand other countries…
For now, that’s it. I hope that no matter what, we can have a civilized and productive discussion.
To: C. Custer
Subject: Re: I am C. Custer
1. I probably still know what “racism” means in English. Even though [we’re] in China, this is an extremely serious accusation. To most Chinese people, “racism” implies the Nazis massacring Jews, the KKK lynching black people, and the brutal suppression of blacks by the white South African government. No one is willing to be connected to this word in any way.
2. I think you’re too sensitive about so-called “racism”, which isn’t necessarily your fault. But in my opinion, the racial sensitivity of Americans has already become a kind of disease, and that this kind of taking great pains [not to be racist] actually protects some deep-rooted racism. When Americans can laugh about skin color, then America will not be a racist nation. Being aware of the existence of taboos only strengthens those things being made taboo. It’s like taking a stern approach to sex, actually it just makes such indulgence more degenerate and more common.
To speak specifically to the question of black people in China, I recall an English expression: “When in Rome, Do as the Romans [do].”
3. Your judgement of what’s “racist” comes from American standards, but the world is not just America. What makes me furious is that China has so many serious problems, and you mention such a fundamentally irrelevant one. Does China have racism? Of course it does, but not against foreigners. If your post had been criticizing the unfair treatment of Tibetans or Uyghurs, I would have nothing to say.
I personally don’t oppose communication, but that doesn’t mean I like being associated with racism, whether it’s intentional or not. Even more, I dislike Americans giving instructions on racism when it isn’t needed at all.
If you feel I haven’t been particularly respectful towards you, I’m very sorry.
Wang Xiaofeng’s comments on my letter (as posted on his site):
Actually, I hadn’t really looked at the content of Custer’s blog; although he said there is racism in China, I feel it’s common and in the previous post I said Chinese people do have a tendency towards racism. So it’s out of the question that I was disrespectful to Custer. I’ve always felt racism is everywhere, the twin of nationalist discrimination. Speaking from the heart, I don’t discriminate against any skin color, I discriminate against idiots.
Because Custer wrote to explain, I must let everyone know his meaning and thus I’ve posted his letter here, I hope there will be no further misunderstanding about this.
From: C. Custer
Subject: Re: re: I am C. Custer
You saying you don’t want to be associated with “racism” is understandable. To tell the truth, I now think using “racially insensitive” would be better, as I wasn’t trying to say that this little joke [the image] is the same as things like the KKK.
In regards to the rest of your email, actually I often write posts about the major problems in China, as well as many about the prejudice of the Western media against China, etc. We have many posts, that [the one about racism] was just one of them…
Oh, I also want to ask: Suppose you knew a black person, and that after seeing that picture he felt hurt by it, how would you respond? Telling him he doesn’t understand Chinese culture is probably useless, if he’s hurt by it then he’s hurt by it, so how do you view this situation? (I’m not trying to argue with you, I’m genuinely curious and truly want to better understand your view).
To: C. Custer
Subject: Re: re: re: I am C. Custer
Suppose there is such a black person, named White, for example.
White looks at the picture, is deeply upset, and is also my friend. I would tell him this:
About two centuries ago, the Christian Church educational system made children repent/confess every day. Even small children sometimes would confess, saying: “Lord, forgive me, for I have sinned.” He or she doesn’t even understand the meaning of “sinned”, but the Catholic priest or nun would, every day, instill in them the idea that sinning is evil.
In my opinion, this is a kind of pollution. This kind of education infects their pure original nature, making them associate sex with sinning and evil. When they get to the point where they really must strain to restrain these normal urges, that’s when the real sinning starts to happen.
In the same way, Chinese people are like those innocent children when it comes to the problem of racism. They don’t even really know what racism is, much less have experience putting it into practice. ‘This country is this kind of country, this people is this kind of people’; they really don’t have any bad intentions, nor is it directed against a race; in history they’ve not once enslaved people like you.
I only fear that you being upset like this will misguide them. When they’re carefully avoiding bumping into the problem of your race, then there is no doubt that in their hearts they’ve already separated you out as a different group, and knowledge of race consequently will take root in their hearts. If one day there comes a conflict, then these feelings which have been carefully constrained will explode outwards. There is no doubt that then you will be face with true racial prejudice.
So the wise way is to ignore these things, think that you are living in a completely different country, [Chinese people] are completely different from white people, it’s best to live according to the social customs and habits here. If this still cannot satisfy you, you can return the complement: ‘You yellow-haired monkeys.’ I would guess their response would be to laugh rather than to feel hurt. Then, at that time you will understand, they really don’t see you as an outsider.
I think Hecaitou does have a point in some ways, but I reject the idea that letting racial insensitivity out into the open completely disarms its power, and in many of the Chinese comments (including his) I see opinions that are based on a markedly flawed understanding of race relations in the United States. As I mentioned in the last post, that’s probably not their fault (I blame Hollywood), but seeing American P.C. culture as advocating “ignoring” race or attempting to be “colorblind” is a serious misunderstanding, and a dangerous foundation for any opinion.
I never advocated the kind of deep repression that Hecaitou and others refer to in discussing racial issues. In fact, I think that frank discussion and acknowledgement of differences is an extremely important part of interracial communication. Jokes can play a role too; stereotypes can be disarmed through the mockery comedians clever enough to turn them on their heads and expose the ignorance and fear they represent. Yet I maintain that there is a line, that not any joke is a productive joke, and that while ignorance might be a legitimate reason, it’s not going to be an acceptable excuse to anyone who ends up on the wrong end of a racist joke.
The fact is, the image we’re all discussing is racially insensitive. As one commenter on our site pointed out, its presence on a Chinese website offended one African enough to comment there, and plenty of Chinese people in the comments and elsewhere would agree the image isn’t particularly funny or productive.
Laughing about race can lighten the tension and even make connections between peoples, but only when it’s both groups that are laughing. If only one group is laughing while the other sits in uncomfortable silence, all that’s really being constructed is alienation and resentment. Living in China and according with the Chinese way on this may be simply unacceptable for many, and returning the favor doesn’t solve anything as Hecaitou suggests it might. Africans can call Chinese people monkeys, but it has none of the historical connotations that are carried in the image we’re all discussing. Of course Chinese people would laugh, the insult “yellow-haired monkeys” is comparatively meaningless and would sound ridiculous to them. It’s comparing apples and oranges, really.
I understand that the cultural baggage that comes along with the African/ape comparison isn’t something Chinese people created, and that historically, America, Europe, and white people generally are responsible for a legacy of discrimination and brutality against Africans. Many Chinese people may not recognize that image as racially insensitive, and that’s OK. They’re welcome to do as they please, just as Africans are welcome to be deeply offended by the image.
My intention was not, is not, and will never to be to tell anyone what to do. It doesn’t matter whether I’m Chinese, American, African, or whatever, trying to tell a country what to do is a fool’s errand. But I do live here (China), and many of the people who frequent this site do, too. Foreigners, and by extension foreign standards for judging things like racism, exist in China and aren’t about to go away. Chinese people can decide on their own whether or not to care, but they can’t wish away feelings of racial alienation by telling people that they “just don’t understand China.” In fact, such expressions only increase feelings of alienation.
To conclude: let’s take Hecaitou’s theoretical story about his black friend “White” one step further: White calls Hecaitou a yellow monkey for posting the image, Hecaitou laughs, and the two continue to be friends. No major damage is done, but White’s feelings are still hurt. If he saw a similar image somewhere else, his feelings would probably be hurt again, but he’s unlikely to bring it up because he doesn’t need to hear another lecture about how his being offended by something insensitive is actually just a reflection of how he doesn’t understand the place he lives. So, the next time he hears a racist joke or gets told he can’t have that English teaching job because the parents want white faces, he keeps those feelings bottled up instead of talking about them with his Chinese friends. And, as Hecaitou himself said, “If one day there comes a conflict, then these feelings which have been carefully constrained will explode outwards.”
I think everyone can at least agree that nobody wants that.
[Note: For the record, although I don’t agree with everything Hecaitou says, I don’t consider him or Wang Xiaofeng to be racist. I’m not accusing China as a nation of being racist, nor am I trying to impose my Western values on China, I’m just posting my opinion of the issue on my blog. If you read this post and feel it’s an attack on China, Chinese culture, or any of the aforementioned bloggers and commenters, then you’ve mistaken my meaning.]