Being a black woman in China
Her skin complexion is noticed first before she opens her mouth. She is judged by her complexion first. She is experiencing colourism. She has experienced colourism. What is colourism? A form of discrimination or prejudice based on solely skin colour. She isn’t racially discriminated against because that would be based on ancestry descent. Though the two may overlap. Her skin complexion draws attention to the local Chinese people who’ve, in many cases, never seen a woman “so black” though her skin complexion may only be the colour of a milk chocolate bar.
Those who are lighter skinned or closer to the white skinned complexion are socially valued higher than their fellow brown or black skinned complexion. But who says that’s right? Why must you differentiate between skin complexions? In the past, especially in English history, men and women have valued a pale or the white skin complexion as being a sign of nobility and wealth. Those who were tanned or appeared darker worked outdoors and therefore poor. Those ideas were adopted by Asians – most likely through being colonised or imperialised by Europeans – were they believe in the “whiter skin is beautiful” ideology. For centuries even to this day, the Chinese have viewed this true. Blacks’ presence in China shakes up this “white skin is beautiful” idea as we’ve entered into a society with our brown skin displaying “darker” complexions are still beautiful.
Though colourism exists amongst the Chinese, black women (and men) will have definitely experience it too. The reactions from natives here tend to vary but there are times when people act as if they’ve seen ghost. The reactions can sometimes be as if woah don’t get near her or people will keep their distance while walking toward me. Sure, they’ve never seen someone who doesn’t look like them in person, but the reactions I find are extreme. Adverts, magazines & TV promoting beauty products inspire women to be whiter are practically everywhere reinforcing what skin colour is socially acceptable. So of course stumbling across my complexion would be surprising as I do not find into what society labels as “beautiful.” That’s fine by me then. Keeping up with what society says is beautiful is hard and in my opinion pointless. It’s hard because it’s changing so frequently. It’s pointless because I would always be dictated to and I would never develop my own sense of beauty.
China and the UK are at complete opposite ends with what’s socially acceptable. Though not every advert in the UK shows dark skinned people, variation in skin complexions shown in our adverts are slowly becoming evident. Most women seem to accept their complexion and go for soft tones or near natural looking finishes after they’ve done their make-up. In the UK, we tend to focus on a healthier richer appearance where dark skin is approved of and if I dare say the complexion many lighter complexions don’t mind being from time to time – say tanning from holidays or the tanning beds.
To a Chinese woman, her complexion doors open to every industry. Her complexion shows wealth, her complexion that shows her ‘white skin is indeed beautiful.’ And it shows no sign of fading. Parasols are up daily when it’s warm, overcast or sunny. There is a fear of getting darker because it would reflect that she’d been working outdoors. The idea is preposterous to me. The sun gives us Vitamin which is necessary for our health. That isn’t seen as anyone’s concern…at least not for folks further up north. Being in Thailand, I heard lots of Chinese people speaking Putonghua (Mandarin) so they were definitely mainlanders but they weren’t fussed about getting in the sun. They were pretty happy to chill on the beach with sun protection and tan. That rocked my world momentarily because so many women around where I am literally hide away from the sun as if it’s evil. So perhaps it’s a regional thing. Some parts of China women feel its ok to get darker and don’t see black women as strange or weird looking creatures.
Initially writing this post, I wanted to rant about how people stared at me and how annoying it is to walk down the road and have people take endless pictures of me just to update their WeChat app. But that’s the consequence of living in a part of the world not exposed to people who look different. But maybe being black in China isn’t just a negative experience.
In July 2014 I accepted a job teaching English. Many people, where I am, had seen a few black men but black women hadn’t stayed long enough for people to grow accustomed to. Upon arriving here it never occurred to me that I’d be viewed as incompetent to teach English. I speak English. I’m from the UK. I’m young with experience. I’ve graduated with an English Literature degree and completed a CELTA course. I thought I had enough credentials to qualify to teach my own native tongue. Yet, I was questioned constantly about where I was from and if I was even able to speak good enough English. I learnt quickly, Chinese people see all black people only being from Africa. The age old ideas of Africa being a country, everyone is poor still remains here. And obviously, no one wants their children learning “bad” English from an African teacher.
Whenever I say I’m from the UK, I’d get the same response – ‘but you’re black, you can’t be from the UK’ or simply ‘you’re not white.’ So instantly, I had a battle: because of my complexion, I do not fit the category of being British. Blacks are incompetent of teaching a language that’s not theirs. Well it’s the only language I know well. If I’d said I was from the States, no one would have battered an eyelid – there are blacks in America and everyone knows it. But from the UK – no only white people live there. Little do they know. No matter how many times I would remind people where I’m from I’d usually leave them confused. They couldn’t or wouldn’t accept it because what I’ve said simply goes against everything their TV shows or the news has shown them about the UK. Yes, I could say that the Chinese have limited resources to the realms outside China but the banned on social media only came in in the last 3 or 4 years – it’s not like they’ve always been completely cut off.
Perhaps China’s homogenous society limits their imagination of a society where there are lots of cultures living side by side. Perhaps cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen, university cities around China where there are many foreigners, natives are used to seeing various skin complexions and accept them as people and not strange looking things. Perhaps with foreigners from all creeds of life will influence Chinese women (and possibly men) that their complexion isn’t strange if they’re slightly dark than the socially accepted woman on the advert.
Perhaps being black in China is an educational enlightenment to many Chinese people that their stereotypes of us are simply myths. Perhaps, my skin complexion being noticed before I open my mouth isn’t a bad notion but a statement: All skins are beautiful.
Picture from Fine Art America