Growing number of African-American China experts work to gain recognition, puncture stereotypes

Mark Magnier
·10-min read

US congressional staffer Mark Akpaninyie, an African-American, had clumps of his hair hoarded as souvenirs. Think tank analyst Bryce Barros was told his skin was too dark to be an American. Technology expert Shirley Hargis was asked if she was Beyoncé.

Black people living in China faced their share of jarring interactions, whether motivated by prejudice, racism or ignorance.

Hargis, deputy manager of the China Technology Transfer & Emerging Technologies at civic group CRDF Global, said that while living in Suzhou, Harbin and Taiwan, people would typecast her based on stereotypes of black women’s bodies.

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“Some rubbed my palms – oh does this come off? Much of it was just curiosity. But grabbing? I was like: Stop, that’s rude,” she said. “They looked at me stunned like ‘Oh, it’s moving.’ I think they were more shocked that I could speak the language.”

Yet many who returned to the US hoping to launch careers as China experts in spite of the slights said they faced another more subtle prejudice: the idea that being black and an expert on China was somehow incongruous given white’s historical dominance in the field.

“The way you remember history is a powerful tool of how you incentivise people to see something as theirs,” said Akpaninyie, an Asia policy analyst with the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs who taught English in Yunnan.

“In DC, I’m trying to start in an entry-level job that enabled me to work in China. And I had to explain, even despite having spent three years living in China, and others hadn’t spent more than a week or two, that I am qualified.”

Last year, Akpaninyie co-founded the non-profit Black China Caucus (BCC) to encourage African-American scholars, economists, policy experts and diplomats to embrace China-related fields.

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The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly 10 minutes, a sharp rise in hate crimes against Asian-Americans in recent months and the murder of six women of Asian descent in Atlanta in March have focused a spotlight on American racism and minority relations.

It has also highlighted tensions – and cooperation – between Asian and black communities amid calls to fight systemic racism collectively rather than succumbing to pressures that have pitted the two groups against each other.

Beijing has been quick to highlight US social divisions as its ties with Washington have deteriorated. Chinese Wolf Warrior diplomats have labelled American racial discrimination a “social ill”; the People’s Daily has run cartoons of the Statue of Liberty shattering under police blows.

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And China has accused Washington of having double standards for supporting Hong Kong protesters while cracking down on US demonstrators. “Let’s wait and see which country will encounter more chaos,” the Global Times wrote shortly after Floyd’s death.

Civil rights campaigners and members of President Joe Biden’s administration, hoping to reverse racial and social divisiveness under former president Donald Trump, have countered that US diversity and willingness to address racial tensions is a source of strength as the US grapples with its shortcomings.

“We are an experiment, consistently reiterating ourselves so as to make ‘a more perfect union’,” Amanda Nguyen, founder of Rise, an Asian-American activist group, said recently on an Axios panel, quoting the US Constitution.

Theresa Ting of Main Street Patrol keeps a watchful eye as she and other volunteers walk along the streets of Flushing, Queens, on April 4. Asian-American groups in several US cities are patrolling, escorting, and chaperoning in Asian communities. Photo: AP
Theresa Ting of Main Street Patrol keeps a watchful eye as she and other volunteers walk along the streets of Flushing, Queens, on April 4. Asian-American groups in several US cities are patrolling, escorting, and chaperoning in Asian communities. Photo: AP

In the wake of recent violence, African-American and Asian groups have taken steps to join forces. These include: volunteers escorting fearful elders on errands in New York and Oakland, California; Asian and black professionals raising over US$150,000 to support the Asian-American community in California; and food and clothing distribution in Manhattan’s Chinatown by activists.

The two groups, sometimes struggling economically in the same impoverished neighbourhoods, have a checkered history.

In the 1990s, a Korean store owner’s shooting of a 15-year-old African-American in South Central Los Angeles fuelled the destruction of dozens of Korean-American businesses a few months after police were cleared in the beating of black motorist Rodney King.

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But they have worked together on civil rights causes. Political activist Yuri Kochiyama was closely involved with black empowerment groups, cradling Malcolm X’s head after his 1965 assassination; the term Asian-American was coined by Asian graduate students channeling the Black Power movement; and African-Americans in Los Angeles helped Japanese-Americans while they were detained in camps during World War II, assisting them in getting resettled once they returned.

With both communities increasingly under siege – this month saw another black man shot by Minnesota police 10 miles from where Floyd died – some activists blame a view espoused by the white majority since the 1950s that Asian-Americans are hard-working and do not complain.

While seemingly a compliment, this view served to divide minorities, they say, even as Asians were still seen as “below” whites.

“This idea of the ‘model minority’ was really weaponized after the 1950s, 1960s,” said Renee Tajima-Peña, producer of the documentaries Asian Americans and Who Killed Vincent Chin?

“The idea of Asian-Americans being quiet, not protesting like African-Americans were protesting, was used as a wedge against the black movement,” added Tajima-Peña, whose mother and grandmother were detained in Japanese-American detention camps during World War II.

Tajima-Pena cites a proclamation by the California legislature in the 1870s that considered four black people equal to two Asians or one white. “Those fault lines have been there until today,” she said.

No country has a monopoly on scapegoating or racism. Some note the parallel between the widespread blaming of Asian-Americans for Covid-19’s spread – fuelled by Trump’s use of “Chinese virus” and “kung flu” - and the discrimination, evictions and forced quarantines Africans faced from local officials and residents in southern China last year.

Local officials in Guangdong reportedly advised businesses not to serve Africans, with images going viral of a McDonald’s sign forbidding black people from entering. BCC members, after living in China, cited widespread provincial stereotypes – all northeasterners are tough, southerners are refined – and racial prejudice by majority Han Chinese toward Chinese minorities.

Renee Tajima-Peña is the producer of the documentaries “Asian Americans” and “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” Photo: Getty Images/AFP
Renee Tajima-Peña is the producer of the documentaries “Asian Americans” and “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” Photo: Getty Images/AFP

Akpaninyie, who said he tried to get his students in Yunnan to question their preconceptions about foreigners and Chinese minorities, said a goal of the Black China Caucus was to bridge divides.

Many BCC members say they had never considered a China-related career and only pursued it after being encouraged by white or Chinese mentors, given the relative scarcity of black role models.

Keisha Brown, assistant history professor at Tennessee State University, an Asian studies specialist, said she had a great Chinese language teacher in her public high school who encouraged her to take a school trip to Beijing at 16. “That moment really changed it,” said Brown, a BCC co-founder.

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Barros, a China analyst with the German Marshall Fund, did a homestay in Japan as a teenager and studied Japanese history. That inspired him to study Chinese in college, spend time on the mainland and attend a military academy in Taiwan.

And Hargis had several white mentors who encouraged her to study Mandarin – her art interest helped her learn characters, she said – including a former ambassador who advised her to develop expertise in both Taiwan and China.

“He told me: We need black China hands who have experience on both sides of street. You want to develop skill in both China and Taiwan,” she said. “It was the best advice I got.”

Many say that when in China, they are initially pegged as Africans. On explaining that many Americans are black, they were then typecast as rap singers or basketball players. “Unfortunately, I’m not good at basketball. I didn’t want to play because I play soccer,” said Akpaninyie.

Many said they learned to navigate between what was hurtful and racist and what was more innocent curiosity, as tiresome as the endless pawing, photos and baby-holding requests could be.

Several BCC members supported the idea of appointing a black US ambassador to China to help erode stereotypes – only 3.3 per cent of senior US diplomats are black – with retired US Army Lieutenant General Charles Hooper, a fluent Mandarin speaker, cited as one possibility.

Hargis used her “oddity” status to her advantage by studying her Mandarin on the street, leading to endless chats and free lessons from curious locals. Others reported being asked repeatedly about their hair, whether it was permed, how it got so curly. “They were fascinated,” said Brown. “It was genuine curiosity.”

But other communication was less positive. China hands cite caricatures on WeChat of overweight, lazy black people and segments on the CCTV New Year’s gala of primitive sexualised figures dancing in African clothes.

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BCC members recall being taken aback by a 2016 Chinese detergent advertisement –portraying a housewife forcing a black man into a washing machine only to have him emerge white – and a widely sold toothpaste called “Darkie,” subsequently changed to “Darlie”, with an exaggerated graphic of a black musician.

“Going to a supermarket and this was, like, literally a minstrel theme on display as a logo. What? Am I seeing this correctly?” said Akpaninyie. “I was seeing some of the sinister elements of anti-black racism and cultural attitudes.”

Members of the BCC, who number around 150, say that after years of attending China-related events at which they were the only black person, it has been a huge vote of confidence, source of inspiration and locus for networking to be part of a group of black China experts.

They have also tried to encourage young black people to join the field, created a young professionals mentoring programme and pushed the boundaries by questioning assumptions and bringing up uncomfortable issues.

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Brown recalls being in a seminar about Asian and American mixed-race couples, which focused almost exclusively on white men and Asian women.

When she questioned this, the presenter responded that they didn’t think the audience was interested in different kinds of couples, which led to an awkward silence but she persevered.

“We need to critically engage and have those conversations,” she said. “I look different from everyone else. I have to own it.”

Brown, like many, has been horrified by the images of assaults on Asian-Americans. “You have to have sympathy, you’re just trying to go grocery shopping and someone spits on me,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that black Americans do know what that feels like, your outside looks mean they can scapegoat you.”

“But I hope in this moment of sharing, with others doing work before, that there is activism between Asians and Africans,” Brown added.

“We need to normalise the idea that America is diverse, not all old white men. There’s nothing wrong with old white men, but there is more out there.”

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