Over the last few weeks, there have been numerous reports of the sufferings of Africans in China. It is not my place to recount them in detail, but I can relate the rudiments. As it goes, folks of African origin living in some Chinese cities have been turned out of their residences by landlords and denied entry to malls and other social amenities by security officials.
As a result, they have been reduced to what can only be described as a subhuman existence away from home. Pictures and videos of them being shamefully turned away from malls, roaming listless, sleeping on the streets, exposed to the elements, criminals and hostile security officers, have torn at the hearts of all decent people who have seen them.
Ostensibly, the reason for their mistreatment is that the government of China wants to limit the possibility of a second wave of Covid-19 infections in the country, and so the movement and public behaviour of foreigners, just like that of Chinese nationals, needs to be more closely regulated than usual (never mind that the outbreak started in China).
The government claims it does not support the manner in which the African foreigners are being treated. However, the situation belies the official line. There is no denying that the main reason for the abuse is the skin colour of the victims. Lighter-skinned, less African-looking foreigners haven’t seen nearly half as much maltreatment as they have.
Needless to say, almost every African who has learnt of this has taken offence. To many, the reports are evidence that China does not want the best for Africa and its people. We now see, as it were, the way China and its people really look at us. Up to now, they have taken great pains to cover their disdainful contempt, but now it has been bared for all to see.
It is also an indictment of our governments. Unable or unwilling to register protests for fear of upsetting their parasitic relationship with their new imperial overlord, our leaders instead grovel at the feet of China. Even more pathetic is their reluctance to repatriate these unfortunate compatriots from their Babylon while, instead, singing China’s praises and even defending it.
My own reaction has been confused. I was among the first to tweet an angry protest to the Chinese Embassy in Kenya. However, I have bristled at calls for tit-for-tat retribution against Chinese people living in Kenya and other parts of Africa, even if such conduct could enjoy the cover of law. I have also been disconcerted by the kinds of discourse that, while decrying racism, swing over to an unhelpful over-glorification of blackness.
My confusion makes it difficult for me to formulate a rational opinion about these events. I can’t, for the life of me, figure out how my outrage should interact with the true nature of the circumstances. I don’t know what to make of the fact that they have been seen as an instantiation of the reprehensible reality of racism.
On the one hand, I don’t deny that racism is an appropriate lens through which to view the situation. As a black man, it seems self-evident that I should be concerned when people are victimised just for having skins like mine. On the other hand though, it is not self-evident that I should look at it from the perspective of a black man, rather than just that of a man.
I don’t like to think of myself as a victim. Of course, I would fit the description in many ways, if I focused on the cards I was dealt both at birth and at other points in my life. I do not exactly come from a rich background. Neither is my country anywhere near the best in the world according to most of the measures people put store by.
However, I’m convinced these factors ultimately don’t matter. We don’t get to choose the circumstances of our introduction to the human race. What we can choose, within certain bounds, is what we do about them. Besides, I have been exceedingly lucky. Things haven’t turned out as badly for me as my fate’s hand alone would have predicted.
But then again, it would be foolish to claim my black skin is completely irrelevant. While writing this article, I recalled having lunch with two acquaintances some years back. At the end, I put all the plates on my tray so I could take them away. I did it because I was the youngest, by far. Clearing the table seemed to me to be the respectful thing to do.
However, I became aware that the task made me oddly uneasy. It wasn’t the discomfort of modesty, the natural self-consciousness you get when thanked. As I walked away, I realised what it was. Both of my companions were white, and there I was, carrying their plates. From at least one level of analysis, what I was doing fit a historically dreadful motif.
The realisation embarrassed me instantly. There was nothing racist in my two companions gratefully accepting my offer to take away their plates. But even if there had been, even if they had smugly congratulated themselves for subjugating me on account of my skin colour – which is highly unlikely, all considered – nothing could be said against what I did.
Later, as I thought about this incident, I realised that part of the reason for my shame was that, thanks to certain personal circumstances, I have lots of non-African friends, perhaps more than most Kenyans. Our relationships have never been mediated by the colours of our skins. We treat each other as individuals, rather than as representatives of our races.
To me, therefore, racism is an abstract reality with which I have never had a proximal personal encounter. What I know comes from stories related by other people, as well as from what I have read in books. The Atlantic Slave Trade and colonial-era racial discrimination, alongside the other historical events that accompany them in ignominy, offend me deeply.
But I can’t lay claim to the same status as those who suffered under them. My black skin matters, but not so much as to make me view myself primarily as a black person. I’m deeply convinced that I’m not a victim. Not because racism has somehow magically disappeared, but because I have more control over what happens to me than racists do.
What right then, do I have, to accuse the Chinese of racism? What would that say of what I think of all the ordinary Chinese people, who are just trying to get by within an environment where some people fear or hate black people? Would I not unjustly impute malevolence on an insanely large number of people, whom I have never even met, as if they were one?
Would I include the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uyghurs, Chinese citizens, who are confined in concentration camps by their own government? What about the people of Hong Kong, whose fight for autonomy has earned them the wrath of the Chinese government? And if I were to separate the good Chinese from the bad Chinese, how would I do it?
Look, as I have already said, I don’t deny that the gnarled hand of racism can be descried in the plight of these poor brothers and sisters in China. What I have a problem with is giving it the centre-stage in the conversation. Nevertheless, I don’t claim to be right. In fact, I wouldn’t fault you if you dismissed my personal attitudes towards the phenomenon of racism as rather naïve.
Ultimately though, I think the part of me that protests against the mistreatment of my fellow Africans is more human than it is African. It’s the same part that recoils in horror when I read about the Jewish Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide. It’s the normal reaction of a human being against the oppression of other human beings.
That the people getting the short end of the stick this time share my skin colour and homeland certainly heightens the emotional content of my protest. But the core of the reaction would be the same if it was Chinese people getting similar treatment right here in Kenya. And I would be a racist if I suppressed it.
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