How Racism Abroad Exposes Domestic Racism

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. 

https://blog.apaonline.org/

Notes

1) https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Ugly-Truth-of-Being-a/243234

2) https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/12/24/dear-white-america/

3) https://www.chronicle.com/article/We-Asked-About-Your-Experience/243328?cid=wsinglestory_41_6

Categories: Essay, Essays

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12 Comments »

  1. Hi Nathan,

    Glad to have you writing here at EA! You made the suggestion that people should “visit other cultures” in order to better understand domestic issues regarding bigotry (your focus was on racism, but I suspect this could apply to other categories of people as well). If you’re right, then this could also be an argument in favor of alleviating poverty more generally.

    It’s unclear to me how most people — whites included — could have the luxury of visiting other cultures without the time or money to do so, given the state of poverty in the U.S today. And the common street — less so academia –are where some of the worst racial injustices occur. To advocate just for *academic* travel funding strikes me as potentially a form of injustice itself — a sort of privileging of academics to go on trips abroad while those impoverished minority groups suffering the brunt of racial injustice are left to the wayside.

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  2. I think this a a lucid and important article on the topic.

    I do think that Dan T’s remark is well taken; however, the reality of America is such that it is so culturally fragmented that similar experiences are actually available without overseas travel.

    I lived ‘in the hood’ of a slum on the north side of Rochester, NY for some years. The culture shock was profound. Forget the gang stuff (although there was that); but imagine a white intellectual developing into an agnostic, with serious suspicion of organized religion, surrounded by a black community that depended on its churches for any sense of decency or hope.Or, in the context of this article, imagine a white man who could call the police and have them arrive in five minutes or so, compared to a black neighbor who would have to wait a half hour… three hours,,,the next day, for the police to respond.

    The racism in America is so ingrained, we hardly ever notice it, until some young black person gets beaten or killed.

    I think Black Nationalism was the wrong turn to take after the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s, because it only introduced dialectical politics and further divisiveness into the political issues. And I think the current strict ‘identity politics’ on the left similarly divisive for similar reasons.

    But that African Americans are routinely stopped on the street for simply going about their daily business, simply because of the color of their skin – that this even results occasionally in beatings and deaths – that’s not deniable. And it remains a stain on this culture. Especially now that we have an openly racist President.

    The Black Live Movement should – and could – develop into a more nuanced, more savvy revival of the original inclusionary aims of the Civil Rights Movement, and move away from the identity dialectics currently in vogue. But even if it doesn’t, it’s basic demands for justice are well grounded in actual experience, and this will have to be addressed moving forward.

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  3. Have you ever talked to a bigot aborad? The last thing that being in another country does is make them reflect of the injustices in theirs. Usually it just confirms their prejudices about horrible, squalid, third world countries.

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  4. I find the assumption here that it’s ok to view another culture through the lens of your own cultural biases highly myopic. American notions of race are not a human universal. In fact I have always found the topic of ingroup vs outgroup loyalties in other cultures to be far more complex than American racial politics. Trying to impose an American race narrative on foreign xenophobic attitudes seems to me just another form of bigotry.

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  5. I would like to hear more about what constitutes “whiteness.” For example, do I, a Jewish guy, have it? How about my parents, who are Holocaust survivors? I couldn’t say, as you do of yourself in the article, that I or my wife or daughter have never been the objects of bigotry or hate speech, as we’ve had a good amount of anti-Semitism thrown at us. A student said of my daughter, “I just want to shoot that Jew-bitch” and we had to get the authorities involved. Does my daughter have “whiteness”? If so, why isn’t it helping her avoid such situations?

    Of course, my questions are somewhat rhetorical. The point just is that I don’t think this is a productive way of going about things. As I said in a recent post, “To the extent that one can speak reasonably of ‘privilege’, it can only be at the level of the individual.” (https://theelectricagora.com/2018/07/03/some-things-we-all-should-agree-on/) Someone may be “white” but disadvantaged in all manner of other ways, along different vectors. At Vidcon last year, during a panel on online harassment, Anita Sarkeesian attacked a fellow-YouTube content creator, “Boogie,” for speaking on the subject, because he was a white male and thus, assumedly, “has privilege.” The trouble is, Boogie is morbidly obese, while Anita Sarkeesian is a young, attractive woman, and I would be willing to bet quite a lot of money that in almost every respect, she is more privileged than him and treated much better than he is.

    Racist behavior towards people is always wrong and should be condemned and combated. But I don’t see much benefit to the sort of accusatory calling out that here and there creeps into the tone of the essay. Passages like “If you don’t see your whiteness, it is because you are surrounded by it” don’t strike me as doing any good, as all they do is invite everyone to engage in the sort of privilege/oppression Olympics that has given us the toxic politics we have now.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Dan K.,

      As a fellow Jew, let me hazard an answer. Generally, people on the street or in a supermarket don’t see us as “Jewish” but as “white”. There may be a very small percentage of the population who are fanatical anti-semites who
      look for Jewish noses or Jewish hair, but in normal daily life most people don’t pay enough attention to one another to even see that. Now when a Jew states their last name, in your case and in mine, people identify them as a Jew, especially because we both “look Jewish”. In contrast, a Black person is readily identifiable at first glance, say, to a cop patrolling the streets at night or to a busy shop clerk. In addition, in most societies a lot more white people are anti-Black racists than are anti-semites, these days at least

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      • S. Wallerstein: I agree with you, but it doesn’t really affect the point I was making, which is that one cannot, in advance of knowing peoples’ particular circumstances, make blanket assumptions/judgments of privilege/oppression. Hence the point re: Boogie/Anita Sarkeesian.

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        • We’ve have similar conversations previously. If you’re interested in fine distinctions, avoid politics, which deals with gross generalizations and simplifications for a mass audience. Politics is a soap opera, not a philosophy seminar.

          Obviously, some white people are less privileged than some black people. Obama’s daughters are more privileged than 99% of white children.

          People don’t engage in politics because they want to think more clearly, but because they want the satisfaction of belonging to a group or movement which allows them to feel part of something “Big” and to feel ethically superior to others. They also want to change society: however, I often suspect that that is not the primary motive.

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          • I don’t accept the idea that one cannot make clear and careful distinctions in politics. There is an entire tradition of political science and political philosophy. There are outstanding journals and magazines, in which a quite sophisticated discourse is common and expected. Not everything has to be pitched to the lowest common denominator.

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  6. I daresay that my cultural experience has been broader than the vast majority of people, not that I deserve much credit for that: raised by ‘black nannies’, educated at the University of Cape Town, hobnobbing in the diplomatic circles of London and Washington, finally settling in fly-over Trump country. I have been subconsciously processing the questions of difference, inequality and exploitation all my life. Listening to all the rhetoric now, my privilege somehow disqualifies me as a person that can helpfully contribute to the discussion. I respectfully disagree.

    It is pretty obvious that the prejudices found in Chinese society are virulent and evil – might they be a few decades or more behind us in the evolution of their society? Our history of Jim Crow was probably worse, but I know almost nothing about their history, so I am not sure. It took us more than a century to realize that we were on the wrong path.

    The most dismaying aspect of our efforts to deal with the issue is that we still use the words and concepts from our truly racist past, a time when the cultural consensus recognized a hierarchy of different races, with Europeans at the top. There-is-just-one-race, so to call someone ‘racist’ makes no sense. Everyone should know that. When we ascribe ideation and behavior to ‘racism’ or the melanin content of their skin we keep on validating this and other related false concepts a million times each day. Why not call it unjustified ethnic bias, a tendency that affects all groups and communities all over the world: Asia, Africa, Europe, everywhere.

    What we have now are billions of well meaning ‘ignorant’ people trying to solve the problem, but often actually making it worse. Hopefully, the ‘truth’ might be slowly emerging: an extremely diverse species is slowly learning that the old heuristic of appearance somehow connoting like attitudes, interests and abilities is without basis. Insight into the true nature of an individual based on their ‘physiognomy’ is silly nonsense indeed.

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  7. To add to Dan’s comments on whiteness. In the UK we have had a significant amount of negative propaganda on migrants. Unlike in the US however, the migrants are legal EU workers from Eastern Europe. So predominanty white Slavs. They have experienced prejudices similar to the ones in described. How does this square with narrative that whiteness = privilige?

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