‘My Skin Colour
Was a Problem’
Foreigners Recall Racist Incidents in China

By Raqib Hameed Naik

Beijing -- Christine Engone couldn’t ask for more when she received a scholarship to study Mandarin at a university in Beijing, but she had little idea about the cost she would have to pay for being dark-skinned.

Born in Gabon, Africa, and brought up in France, 22-year-old Engone had been fascinated with Chinese history, culture, and food since her childhood, and would frequently visit China Town in Paris.

When she flew to Beijing to start her one-year language course at a university in the city’s Haidian district, she was “so thrilled,” she recalled.

However, within weeks of her arrival in the Chinese capital, she became conscious of her skin colour. From people maintaining a distance to cab drivers declining to give her a ride, Engone began to witness the other side of China.

Christine Engone at a busy intersection in the city's  Haidian district.

Christine Engone at a busy intersection in the city's  Haidian district.

But worse was yet to come. 

On a cold weekend last January, tired of a hectic day at the school’s library, Engone decided to go for drinks at a pub in Chaoyang district, known for its glamorous nightlife. Wearing a sparkling black sheath dress, with shoulder-length dreadlocks and holding a purse in one hand and a knee-length blue jacket in the other, she began to walk into the club. The people manning the security got suspicious.

As she made her way into the compound through the entrance and headed towards the elevators, a well-built man in his early thirties, wearing a black two-piece suit with an earpiece tucked to his ear, approached and asked her to stop.

“You can’t go in,” he bluntly told her.

She asked for the reason. But he shrugged her off and told her to leave the premises.

"They were letting in all the white and brown folks, but I was the only one who was separated from others and not allowed to go inside,” said Engone, who now lives in Bordeaux city, France. 

“Actually, my skin colour was the problem.”

Racist Door Policy

Most of the pubs and night clubs in Beijing offer free entry and free drinks to foreigners. Still, nearly 14 black people interviewed for this article said that many such places have a racist door policy that discriminates based on skin colour.

Joshua Charles, 24, a graduate scholar studying in Beijing, had a similar experience at a club in Chaoyang’s Sanlitun area. He was stopped by the security near the entrance and asked to wait outside.

“The guy asked me to wait for 10 minutes, and it went on for like 40 minutes,” Charles recalled.

While he was waiting near the entrance, he saw a security personnel pulling out a black woman from a group of people, mostly white. He was enraged.

“They were racially profiling people. That’s where I realised that they were racist towards black people,” he said.

Joshua Charles looked at snow covered buildings from his apartment in northwest Beijing.

Joshua Charles looked at snow covered buildings from his apartment in northwest Beijing.

Recently, reports emerged in international media of black people – both Africans and people of African-origin, including African-Americans – being denied services by a McDonald’s outlet in Guangzhou's industrial city.

The black community also accused Chinese authorities of forcefully putting its members under quarantine over suspicion that they might spread the novel coronavirus.

Anti-black racism has been around in China for decades. In the 1979 clash between Chinese and African Students at Shanghai Textile Engineering Institute, racist slurs like “hei gui,” meaning “black devil,” were used against African students. In the 2017 incident at a Museum in Hubei province, pictures of black people were juxtaposed with those of wild animals.

The release of Marvel’s “Black Panther” was also shadowed with racist responses on Chinese social media.

Over the years,  China has become one of the most preferred destinations for students coming from Africa, who make up to 13 percent of the overall international students receiving higher education in the country. However, the growing anti-black sentiment is becoming a major concern for sections of the black population living in different parts of the country.

In 2018, better living conditions offered to international students at the Jinan University sparked a debate on the social media platform Weibo, with racist comments mostly directed against the black students from Africa. Many Chinese netizens used various racist slurs and referred to black students as “devils,” “low class” exchange students, and “carriers of HIV.”

“It’s nothing new. Even in classes, if you are black, you would hear these things once in a while,” said a student from Ghana at a graduate school in Beijing who wished not to be named.

Michael, who wishes to go by his first name, works as a promoter in a club in Beijing. His only job is to get as many foreigners as he can get into the club. 

Originally from Ghana, Michael is a first-hand witness to the racist door policies that rules some of Beijing's clubs, whose victims are usually dark-skinned people, especially the blacks.

The clubs don't have written policies that outrightly ban black people. However, when it comes to preferring the type of foreigners, the white-skinned people usually top the chart, he said.

"They will allow the black people when the club is empty or have lesser guests, but when the club is getting full, they find means like face control to keep black people out," he added.

The clubs, he said, have come up with dress and appearance codes, to which black people usually fall victim.

“They don’t want to see dreadlocks. Dreadlock for them represents a problem like being violent or a drug dealer.”

One evening last February, Coby Agyeman, 27, a coffee exporter from Ghana, went for drinks at the Heavens Supermarket Club in Chaoyang district of Beijing along with his Italian and Polish friends. Later, they moved to Playhouse, a club that usually plays hip-hop music and is among the favorite spots for foreigners coming to the capital. 

"We all were drunk but sober," Coby recalled. 

After getting in, he went straight to the restroom to relieve himself. As soon as he came out, two security personnel held his arm and asked him to leave the club. When he inquired about the reason, they told him that he was too drunk.

"I wasn't too drunk. I was normal and totally fine," he claimed.

The security guards forcefully took him out of the club and told him that he looked like a "drug dealer."

“That was ridiculous! When did people start looking like drug dealers?" he asked. 

"I think I am black; that's why they thought I was a drug dealer,” he added. 

Negative Racial Stereotypes

Savarges, on a cold winter morning in Beijing.

Savarges, on a cold winter morning in Beijing.

Adams Bodomo, a professor of African Studies at the University of Vienna and author of “African in China,” said anti-black sentiments in China is a result of the penetration of negative racial stereotypes.

“Western countries, especially the former colonial masters along with the U.S., are highly responsible for spreading around negative stereotypes about black people in the world," Bodomo said.

“My 15 years of living in China as an African tell me that many Chinese and Asians worship whites, kowtow to them, and even treat them like demi-gods. If they see their white idols treating blacks badly and painting them as bad people, I have no doubt that they will also do the same.”

A former promoter at a prominent lounge in Beijing, Savarges, from Venezuela,  has also witnessed racism. She requested to be identified only with her first name,

“My manager told me clearly that they want white people in the club and they don’t want any black people, because they have many negative racial-stereotypes about the black people,” said the 23-year-old woman, who quit her job last January. “At first, I thought he was joking ... but when I brought in black people, they cut down my salary.”

That’s why she resigned. “It was too much racism for me.”

Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province that houses thousands of traders and businessmen coming from various African countries, has lately been targeted for the growing black population in the country. 

In March 2017, a Tianjin-based politician, Pan Qinglin, alleged that people from Africa were sexual offenders, carriers of infectious diseases, and drug smugglers. He called on the government to tighten its immigration policies to stop the "rising African population” in the province.

Dr. Yinghong Cheng, a history professor at the Delaware State University who specialises in modern China, sees official and popular media responsible for prompting negative stereotypes against black people, especially from Africa.

“Official and popular media tend to portray Africa and Africans by repeating stereotypes transplanted from Western media’s biases against Africa and Africans,” Cheng said. “Blaming Africans for these problems in China is a strategy of scapegoating," he continued, explaining that the causes behind many problems lie within the Chinese society. Still, the government doesn't allow people to have an open discussion about them.

Skin, not Skill, Matters

Mercy Kimena waited for friends in front of the Beijing Foreign Studies University library.

Mercy Kimena waited for friends in front of the Beijing Foreign Studies University library.

For black people coming to China with dreams of becoming a part of its booming economy, finding a job is often an uphill task. Employers prefer white people over those with darker skin.

The English teaching industry is one of the most prosperous sectors in the country, attracting many foreigners to earn quick bucks.

Mercy Kimena from Zambia speaks English like any other native speaker. Still, for the English teaching companies in Beijing, her skin color is more important than her language skills.

Kimena, 21, came to Beijing in September 2018 to teach English and save her earnings to study further and travel across Asia. But within weeks of her arrival, she realised it was hard to get even an interview call.

“I had never imagined that my skin colour would play an important role in getting hired, that too, in the education sector, where knowledge matters more than the colour of your skin. But when I started looking for a job, I realised that it was indeed real,” Mercy said.

Demand for Whites

Fairy, a member of the National Union of Foreigners Employment Intermediary, which hires foreigners for various companies including schools and English teaching centres, asked to be identified with her first name.

She argues that the preference for white-skinned people in the English teaching industry has nothing to do with racism, but it’s based on the demand in the market.

"We get notified about the vacancies from schools, teachers, and principals who are mostly looking for white people or native speakers,” Fairy, 36, said. “It’s not that they are racist or hate them, but it's out of compulsion because children often get scared when they see a black person. It may be due to the fact that they have never seen a black person before," she reasoned.

Dr. Cheng, the history professor at the Delaware State University, blames racism in China on social Darwinism – “survival of the fittest,” or the theory that certain people become powerful because they are innately better.

“The perspective presents that whites have succeeded in modernisation and they represent modernity and progress with power and wealth. Most workplaces seeking foreign human resources… are those (that need) technological and cultural assistances,” Dr. Cheng said.

He anticipates a positive change in Chinese society's attitude towards black people, as the country continues to amalgamate itself with the rest of the world.

“The Chinese society is adjusting itself to a more globalised world in which different human groups can live and work together and benefit from each other," he added.

But for Engone, the incident in the Beijing pub was one of the most humiliating experiences of her life. She calls it an attack on her “self-esteem and dignity.”

She does anticipate going back to China someday in the future. "I still love that country, and I would like to go back," she says. “But not until they are more accommodative of black people.”

Anesu Madhangi from Zimbabwe had to struggle for months to find a job.  23-year-old Madhangi spent nearly six months, looking for a job in Beijing. She applied in more than five different companies but was denied a job every time due to her skin color. 

Madhangi's elder brother, Linton Kufazvineyi, had cautioned her about the hardships faced by black people when it comes to finding jobs in China; because he had to go through the same difficulties when he was looking for an internship back in 2013.

But she was adamant and optimistic that things might have changed with the country's resurgence as a global economic power and its significant presence in African countries.

"We have a lot of Chinese working in our country," she said. "Even our airport in Harare has signs only in English and Chinese."

She got a call for an interview after months of running her CV through many companies.

"This was the first time I was finally called for an interview," she said.

She was taken to a room where she was asked to demonstrate, how she would teach children, in front of three company employees. After the demo class, she was promised that she would hear back from them in two days, but they went silent as well.

When she enquired from one of the company's supervisors about her application status, she was told that the company couldn't afford to have more black people working for them than the white ones.

"They told that parents of the kids feel comfortable with white than the black teachers," she recalled. "I wasn't shocked. I was expecting it."

Kandeh Osaio Kamara, 36, from Sierra Leone first arrived in China with his friends who used to organize dance and signing performances at private parties. He later moved to Hubei province to work as a mic controller at a local club.

He recalled how local people called him a black ghost, kept a distance from him, and sometimes touched his skin to check whether it was real.

"Back then, People in Hubei had never seen a black person," he said. "The work environment was quite depressing. During one of my performances in a club, a Chinese guy stood up and threw a watermelon at my face, and that was very humiliating."

Nowadays, Kamara works as a mic controller in various Beijing clubs and witnesses racism towards black people. But he feels that attitude is gradually changing. 

"A lot of my friends work in this industry and racism is there, like Inside club in Guangdong doesn't allow black people," he said, adding, "but at the same time some of the Chinese people who have travelled and studied abroad and visited Africa are quite comfortable in getting along with us."

During the last few years, Kamara has observed that black fashion and hip-hop is taking roots in China. Sichuan province's capital city, Chengdu, has become a melting pot of newly home-grown rappers, who are making their presence quite visible across the country, especially the hip-hop group Higher Brothers.

"They are trying to imitate us, and it's a good thing," he said.

"In the long term, this could also make a major part of the population quite accommodative of us," he adds.