By Nathan Eckstrand
George Yancy’s April 29th article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Ugly Truth About Being a Black Professor in America,” (1) quoted numerous threats Yancy received in response to his earlier New York Times op-ed, “Dear White America” (2). The Chronicle’s May 3rd follow-up confirmed that many see racism in higher education, by quoting examples sent in by readers. (3)
The latter piece quoted white readers who lauded Yancy’s article as “essential reading,” admitted to unintentional racist behavior, and challenged their universities to acknowledge that racism is endemic. They suggested solutions like accountability, leaving racist institutions, and challenging the biases of white students.
These are all good steps. But they are inadequate, because they deal with racism as a concept. Many, including Yancy, Linda Alcoff, Judith Butler, and Sara Ahmed, emphasize that racism is embodied. To paraphrase Yancy, it comes through in “habits of perception” that leave “physiological wounds.”
How, in the predominantly white space of the Academy, can we feel whiteness? I find this question daunting, for my encounters with racism lack the same spectacular quality that pervade narratives like Yancy’s. People remember my name. I don’t receive death threats. No comparative racial slurs like the n-word apply to me. My white experience is mundane and hidden, even from me.
Musing upon this problem in the wake of Yancy’s article, I came upon a possible solution. Whiteness easily hides in a sea of similarity. In a different environment, it stands out. As someone with significant experience teaching and traveling abroad, I have felt my whiteness many times. Travel makes me a spectacle, both in the sense of being visually striking and a public show. My whiteness appears in a way it never does in the West. I become fixed in a different way than Yancy, but fixed nonetheless.
My experiences teaching in China over the last year revealed this many times. To be white here is to be instantly noticeable. During a recent hike in the Yuntai mountains, I was stopped for pictures on a heavily crowded trail no less than five times. No one asking for pictures knew me, my name, or my work. Often the person requesting the photo knew no English. They simply held up their cell phone cameras to indicate their desire, and I obliged. Even as I worried about inconveniencing the people behind us, I felt constrained by my inability to communicate this concern. It would have taken more time to politely refuse the picture than to acquiesce. My white colleagues and I have been stopped for photos at tourist attractions, in malls, on the street, at restaurants, and on public transportation. It is common to see people taking photos of us from a distance. Indeed, information about this practice was a part of my orientation upon arrival.
I am flattered they want me in their photos, but I am also aware it is not me with whom they desire to be seen; it is their paradigm of whiteness. To be white is to be famous, automatically invested with status and wealth. People want a memory of being near, not me, but what I represent.
Whiteness not only gives me an aura of fame, it provides access that the average person does not get. A friend of a colleague recently built a bar and asked him to invite the foreign teachers to over for free food and drinks. Only foreign faculty (who are predominantly white) and a few friends of the owner were allowed in, and throughout the night, the new owner took pictures that would soon be put into advertisements. White teachers are regularly given such treatment. The most extreme example of special treatment was when white colleague was offered a job at another university — without applying or being interviewed — because, according to the offer, “you look like somebody we’d like to work with.”
Whiteness is value that is leveraged into success in business and society. To be white is to be inherently rich. It gives me instant guanxi (a Chinese word for having status and relationships which give you influence). While I am doubtless better off than the average Chinese citizen, I am amused by the contrast with my treatment back home. An untenured, recently graduated philosophy PhD is hardly a model for wealth in the USA.
The importance of whiteness is a double-edged sword when I go shopping. The pathway to wealth that I offer vendors encourages harmful behavior. Merchants pitch much higher prices to me and use deceit to convince me that the price is accurate. In one memorable instance, a seller claimed a small, mass produced tapestry was made by hand despite the fact that the brand name was clearly showing. I have learned to avoid marketplaces, unless I am in the mood for constant attention. Browsing the goods alone is rarely possible.
Meeting the average Chinese person is a challenge. Even setting aside the language barrier, it is difficult to leave my whiteness behind. My own habits prevent this, for I have a harder time telling my Chinese students apart than they do each other. The reverse is also true, as students say it is common for them to have trouble telling the foreign teachers apart. While I try to treat all my students with respect, I worry about the effect that comes from my being unable to remember their names.
The result is a common one in racial dynamics. I spend more time with foreign teachers, because I can be present with them in a way denied to me when I am among the Chinese. Students are reluctant to engage with me, in part because the position of teacher is venerated and in part because we don’t connect as easily given our different backgrounds. Tasks that are easy for them, like using a squat toilet and navigating roads in a society lacking the idea of a “right of way,” have caused me frustration and embarrassment. The cultural semiotics of China —especially the Chinese Academy — leaves me at times feeling exhausted and anxious. Although my excitement at this opportunity is regularly renewed, I need a place of sanctuary.
It is unfortunately notable that black faculty do not receive the same treatment. In post-Maoist China, an anti-black discourse developed in conjunction with one of Chinese nationalism, both fueled by instances of racism during the late 1970’s and 1980’s. In Shanghai, Africans were stoned by Chinese students after a fight the night before, and in Nanjing the fact that African students were caught bringing Chinese girls to their rooms incited a riot involving thousands of people and ultimately, the evacuation of all Africans from the city. News outlets reported the use of racial slurs in chants.
The anti-black discourse is connected to an epistemology that produces Chinese ideas about nationality. As a result, Chinese culture does not recognize significant parts of the black experience. It surprises many Chinese that a black person could be a US citizen, because in the Chinese imagination, they are supposed to be from Africa. My black friends must continually explain how a place where they have spent the vast majority of their lives, and where their friends and family are located, could actually be their home. Whether they recognize what they are doing or not, the Chinese are repeating the racist notion that to be black is to not be American and to not belong in the same exclusive club to which I was invited. Foreign teachers are segregated every time we enter Chinese society.
Black people are a novelty, but the average Chinese person responds to them with fear and mistrust. There is no rush to be seen with them but rather an attempt to observe and regulate. Sly glances toward, veiled pointing at, and a constant distance from blackness replace the desire to embrace whiteness. During a stop at a highway check point, a black friend was not just asked for his passport (a routine request) but for the dates of his travel, his hotel name, and his room number (highly unusual). Taxis refuse to pick up black people. Seats next to them on buses remain empty. Worry and unease follow them around.
The idea that blacks are rude, violent, and dangerous intrudes upon everyday encounters. A black colleague whose skin color allows him pass for an Asian was told by a shop owner “These Africans are so rude,” after another black person asked about the price of an item. Another colleague was treated with hostility and anger when simply asking for directions. As he put it later, “when someone has a preconceived opinion about you, your good looks or warm personality don’t always help right away…There are times when you go into a conversation knowing and feeling the fear or negative opinion and just have to keep a smile on your face to keep things from being awkward.”
These ideas are not just the product of Chinese culture, for the white world symbiotically benefits from their perpetuation. The Chinese love affair with the predominantly white culture of the US helps companies like Coca-Cola and Apple sell their products. While the most common race featured on Chinese ads is Asian, the second is undoubtedly white. I have yet to see a black person in an ad. A black friend was told by a Chinese teacher that though there is a stigma attached to dating foreigners, it is considered much better to marry a white person than any other race. This fits my experience. Numerous white teachers here have met and married Chinese citizens. None of my black colleagues have.
One outcome is that it is unusual to see whites and blacks together. A black friend in a biracial marriage says he gets more attention and more pictures taken, when he is with his white wife. Another says his white friend told him “I like walking with you. People stop staring and me and stare at you.” Seeing whites and blacks together is not just the meeting of different worlds, it is an anomaly. It doesn’t make sense within the Chinese understanding of how things work. The Chinese are interested in what brings blacks and whites together, but their togetherness is not welcomed. The attention we receive fixes whites and blacks as groups that should be separate.
A common response is to say there is no race problem in China. Some say that China is discriminated against by Africa and that it is fair to give back what you get. Others say that these practices are just a matter of personal preference rather than racism. A third argument is that China loves black athletes like LeBron James and Chadwick Boseman, so they couldn’t be racist. Finally, some say that there are no races in China, so racism is impossible.
Hearing these claims makes me both amused and exasperated, for they are roughly the same arguments made against Yancy’s claims in “Dear White America.” Opponents of Black Lives Matter say everyone is discriminated against equally (i.e., All Lives Matter). Many conservative groups say it is not racist to prefer white and American values. Commentators on TV argue that racism can’t exist if Obama was president. And many whites say they don’t see race, only people.
This is the real point. Though I have been criticizing China, and though they do have a race problem, making that argument is not the reason I wrote this piece. I am primarily interested in speaking to Yancy’s attackers and anyone else propagating the misleading or false arguments mentioned above (especially those in higher education). If you don’t see your whiteness, it is because you are surrounded by it. Try denying it in a society that won’t let you forget it. See if you can renounce it while being provided gifts and opportunities that the average people here will not see in their entire lives. Watch as your black friends are treated as threats, and their very presence is regularly challenged. Ask yourself if your denials make sense in light of the Chinese use of the same denials to reject empirically verifiable facts.
Higher Education still has a race problem. Yancy’s narrative, along with many others, demonstrates this. We can do good work providing conceptual tools to help our students and ourselves see this. But if we want them to really feel it, what we need is a greater investment in living and traveling abroad. The more time I spend in other cultures, the more clearly I see the racial problems in the USA. To help whites in higher education understand how race is an embodied problem with physiological harms, we would do well to encourage them to live in non-Western countries. It wouldn’t yield an equivalent experience as being black in a white culture, but it could finally put to rest the idea that race problems are not a major issue.
Nathan Eckstrand is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Fort Hays State University. He got his PhD from Duquesne University in 2014, and with a dissertation on the philosophy of revolution. He specializes in social and political philosophy, race theory, gender theory, and continental philosophy. He is an Associate Editor at the APA Blog.