The Newsletter 81 Autumn 2018

Bridging the gap: blackness and Sino-African relations

Keisha A. Brown

<p>A 2016 television commercial for a Chinese laundry detergent featured an African man who, after being placed in a washing machine, emerged with white skin.</p>

In 2017, the Hubei Provincial Museum exhibit entitled ‘This Is Africa’ displayed a series of diptychs, each one containing a photo of an African person juxtaposed with the face of an animal, such as a monkey, giraffe, or lion.

A skit in the nationally broadcasted 2018 CCTV Chinese New Year celebration program centered around the theme of Sino-African relations. Although it was meant to promote and praise ongoing economic and political developments, the execution of the theme was especially problematic in terms of its depiction of Africans. An African woman was performed by a Chinese actress in blackface with exaggerated physical features. This portrayal of African women was accented by African men costumed as animals, including monkeys and zebras.

In each of the above examples, African identities were replaced by whiteness, Chinese caricatures, or animals resulting in the misrepresentation of Africans, the erasure of racial identity, and the denial of humanity. Furthermore, these images were presented in Chinese spaces where they would be consumed by a vast audience of Chinese citizens, resulting in the widespread dissemination of problematic portrayals of Africans imbedded with racist connotations and stereotypes. Surprisingly, these incidents are occurring against the backdrop of increased Sino-African relations and the continual growth of African Studies in China. In the last decade, the Ministry of Education (MOE) and other related bureaus of the Chinese government supported the creation of numerous academic spaces in China devoted to African Studies. Just at the moment when there has been a steady increase in new scholarship by Chinese Africanists demonstrating the vitality and potential of African Studies, trade between China and various African nations has also increased, thus leading to more contact between these peoples. Considering these developments, how have such stereotypes and misunderstandings persisted? What role can an understanding of Black identity play in shifting these discourses?

To fully address the complexities and nuances of Sino-African relations, centering identity, specifically around the concept of Blackness, would enrich African Studies research by Chinese scholars. Blackness is not just a racial categorization based on skin color, but also encompasses history, culture, society, and politics as it relates to the struggles of peoples of the African diaspora. The performance of race as identity is a constant negotiation of disavowal, affiliation, and exclusion. Treating race as performative allows one to differentiate between audience and performer to discuss the racial frameworks in China shaping perceptions and representations of Blackness, as well as how said frameworks and beliefs are upheld or challenged. Chinese Africanists’ critical engagement with the performativity of Blackness could reshape discourses in two crucial ways. First, critical engagement with the ways in which Blackness has been depicted and commodified by non-Blacks, especially in colonial or oppressive spaces, would lead to a recognition of how racializing the ‘other’ has historically shaped representations or conceptualizations of Blackness. Second, examining the ways Africans choose to express their own Black identities can both counteract and widen the narrow historically constructed representations by inserting the multiplicities of African identity into scholarly conversations. In concurrence with other existing and newly emerging scholarship, work that engages Blackness as an analytical frame would draw attention to the national and transnational aspects of Sino-African relations and has the potential to connect political and economic trends to social and cultural contexts to reflect the unique ways these components intertwine and continue to take shape.

Keisha A. Brown, Assistant Professor of History, Tennessee State University, kbrow110@tnstate.ed