The Brood: I’ve been back in China for two months now, living in Wuhan and removed from the insulation of the larger ex-pat communities of Shanghai and Beijing. What have I learned so far that I can apply back to Trump’s America?
One of the things I’ve struggled with since landing in China for the first time almost 4 years ago is what does it mean to be white here? Attending NYU in New York City, while being an active member of the Roosevelt Institute I have been inculcated in the language and values of progressive social justice in the American context. I have had my privilege (rightfully, and often) checked.
But in China, there is no one checking my privilege. It’s freely and happily given to me. I am given free drinks at the bar. Perfect strangers bend over backward to buy me things and try to become my friend. I have seen people who look like me who, in matters of dating, workplace behavior, and general day-to-temperament, act as though there is no social restraint on them.
Americans are a self-centric group of people. We tend to interpret the world, unimaginatively, through our own eyes, which includes ideas on race. In China, it seems like ideas about race and skin color steam out of two things which Americans, and particularly white Americans, could stand to learn from:
Ignorance of the Majority:
If you are of the majority ethnicity, then 90+% of the people around you, for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles look like you and talk like you. It can leave people with strange ideas about outsiders. In fact, this majoritarian status applies to White America as well, of whom only 25% have friendships with non-whites. Little wonder, since racial segregation remains perniciously persistent in the United States.
Especially now that I am in Wuhan, and the majority of the people I know and interact with are Chinese, I am on the other side of that issue. This kind of experience can give white folks like me the chance to understand certain aspects of the perspective of people of color back in the United States. For example, when Chinese people stare at me or compliment me excessively due to my white skin, I can begin to sympathize with the exoticization and fetishization that people of color face back home. It does not always feel good to have multiple strangers stare at you, or like you for something outside of your character.
The Ongoing Legacy of Empire & White Supremacy
One of the reasons being white (still) confers privilege in China is because of a long history of quasi-colonialism in China. As eloquently put by this article, also cited above, the expat culture of westerners in China has roots in the way western countries imposed their laws in China in the 19th century. Europeans did this out of economic interest, out of a desire to spread western civilization which they felt was superior, but also to separate themselves in enclaves from the Chinese rabble.
That is to say, history’s shadow looms long. That Chinese people elevate whiteness or paleness in their advertisements, or that white people today still get preferential, if somewhat tokenized, treatment? It’s all related to a history where imperialism, partially motivated by a sense of white supremacy, held sway over China for over 100 years. Similarly, white Americans would do well to pay more attention to their own history, and appreciate that slavery, which lasted 4 times as long, might continue to affect their day-to-day.
Feeling removed from the day-to-day reality of the Trump presidency and seeing some of the same issues reflected here has been thought provoking. The legacies of empire our ancestors left us are global issues, manifesting in different ways across the world. White people, myself included, might be better participants in the current national discourse if we better understood what its like to, metaphorically speaking, feel like the stranger in the room.