If this is your first time outside of the US or the UK, take a stable seat.
Racism abounds across the globe.
Unlike in the majority of our home countries in the west, racism is not politically incorrect expressed in Chinese media or at well-respected Chinese institutions. Diversity is hard to come by in China, since citizen minorities are still, well, 中国人 (Chinese). China is not an immigrant country, so naturalization is impossible even if you marry a Chinese man/woman, (I’d be interested in cases where a man or woman has experienced differently – please comment below).
Discrimination in China is found set against generations, nationality, skin color, class, religion and education levels. Racism is just one facet of the ever-present problem of discrimination and stereotypes. Just for example, there are no legal repercussions for discriminating against a potential worker due to race, appearance, pregnancy or anything else.
Common Scenario One:
Young girl: “Look, Grandma/pa! A foreigner/ a foreign child!”
Me/My husband: “Oh, look! A Chinese child! Hello, little Chinese friend!”
Grandma/pa (laughing heartily at the joke): “Say hello!”
Common Scenario Two:
Me: Well, I need to let you know that when you come to work in China, you could experience some questions and maybe even some racist comments.
Black Candidate: Yes, I actually worked in South Korea before I applied for this position, and I sometimes would get some pretty nasty comments there.
Me: I’m sorry to hear that. In our school, it’s very likely you’ll hear some curious or simply ignorant comments from the preschool children, like, “Why is your skin so dark?” We try to be supportive in helping our employees cope with this type of situation and encourage education. Most parents are very well educated and so most are open and aware about people of other nationalities. We currently have two black teachers here, one from Cameroon and one from the US, and they are both very respected and trusted by parents here. Within our school, racist comments are not tolerated and always addressed when targeted toward an employee or student, but unfortunately you might hear expressions of general racism from students in other scenarios during class time. There is also a greater likelihood that you will experience comments from those outside of our school community, since many in this area of Beijing come from rural China, where exposure to a global perspective is limited. Grandparents, who might hold some very racist beliefs, especially about Taiwan or Japan, typically raise children while parents work. Obviously, children not knowing any better will carry those beliefs until challenged by teachers or parents.
Before I get into what you can do as an English teacher in China, I’m going to sidetrack into my personal journey of witnessing racism. If you’re not interested, scroll on down!
I believe that racism is either self-taught through fear and ignorance or taught from one generation to another. And I believe that any race can contain racists; no race is immune to this psychological and sociological disease.
A recent black candidate who our school is excited to hire commiserated with me on the state of racism in the States. He told me, “My grandmother told me never to date a white girl, and I just think that’s wrong.”
My personal story with race is, admittedly, a bit weird. I grew up in South Carolina, and my mom identifies as a Scottish-Irish-Native American mix. My biological father is the son of a French-Canadian and Native American model and a Polish immigrant. My dad (by marriage) is about as white as they come, like, joke-inducing pasty-white, white.
My racial confusion is apparent in my adolescence. In elementary school, my mom began visiting POW-WOWs, and I would dance in the big circle. During this time, I was already flipping back and forth between hanging out with white peers and acculturating into black American culture. I made the switch completely in the later half of sixth grade. One of my best friends was a girl down the street named LaQuesha. Her family accepted me as another daughter, and I adored their family. LaQuesha liked putting cornrows in my hair, and I didn’t mind the pain, much.
I had black boyfriends; Joshua Jackson in 8th grade is the one I remember most. I could rap my favorite songs; Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop” is the first I memorized and practiced. I could dance all of the popular dances during that time, (early 2000’s). I was even on an awesome Step Team that won 2nd place in our regional competitions. I fit in, except for the bullying and jealousy from several of my female peers. And, 9/11 wasn’t particularly easy either, which makes absolutely no sense why, except that middle school bullies will always find something if their storehouses of insults have been depleted.
Then, my family moved to Pickens. I had heard “nigga” being used affectionately in my old city in reference to me and to others, but Pickens was the first time I had heard the N word derogatorily used in person, not in a movie. I was also called an N lover for starting to date one of the school’s only black athletes, Joe. I was spineless. I succumbed to peer pressure and changed my culture and self-identity again.
Just like everyone isn’t racist in China, and every white/black person isn’t racist in America, not everyone was (is?) racist in Pickens.
The teachers stood with torches lit, fighting racism in subtle and overt ways. I remember my 10th grade science teacher, who was a red head and normally peaceful, got so piping angry that her face was almost as red as her hair during one classroom argument. Someone had said that the Bible teaches against bi-racial marriage. Well, that crossed the line for her as a Christian.
C’mon, guys. Read your Bibles more closely! Moses’ wife Zipporah was a Cushite (aka Ethiopian). Miriam, Moses’ sister, got leprosy because she spoke out against Zipporah, simply because she was a Cushite. Case closed. Your racism is not condoned.
Before I moved to China, I got to work with refugees in Fort Worth, Texas, who struggled with racism after moving to the States. I experienced a teachable moment when one of my Nepali neighbor’s daughters had an iPod snatched right out of her hands.
Nepali Refugee: “Black people are bad.”
Me: “No, black people are not bad. Are there Nepali people who drink and steal phones?” (Drinking can be quite taboo to Nepali upper echelons.)
Nepali Refugee: “Yes…”
Me: “Ok, well, there are Nepali people who do bad things, and Nepali people who do good things. There are black people who do bad things, and there are black people who do good things. My good friend, Tim, is a police officer. He protects people like you and me. Your neighbors from Iraq are black. They feed your daughter and take care of her when she visits them. They are nice.”
Nepali Refugee: ….
These conversations were slightly more difficult when we talked with Africans, because they tended to say, “All American blacks are bad.” Honestly, the community we lived in was just rough and avoided by upstanding Fort Worth residents. I saw big and small crimes committed by all of the skin colors represented there.
So, I wasn’t surprised to find out this country struggles with racism. I mean, where is the diversity? America has beaucoup diversity, and the country is still struggling with tons of racism. I’m not referring to JUST black-white, two-sided racism, but also racism against immigrants, Hispanics, refugees, etc., etc., etc. America shouldn’t be racist, but I guess it really hasn’t strayed far from its roots, (I also experienced racist comments about Native Americans when not far from POW-WOWs and reservations).
In reality, I should be a racist. I grew up in the right communities for that disease. In addition, I have heard racist comments and thinking from within my extended family.
“A bi-racial child could just never survive in our society, and that’s why bi-racial marriage is wrong. It hurts the kids.”
“You wouldntah married her if she had dated a black guy, now wouldya?”
“A black child wouldn’t be accepted by society if they were raised by a white family. No one should adopt outside of his own race.”
So that question “Why am I not also racist?” forms my attitude toward diversity in my own classroom. Considering the bullying was predominantly from one race, and my peers and some influential family members were very racist, I really should be racist. By the grace of God, by the instruction of my teachers, through the love of my neighbors, I am not.
How can I, as an ESL teacher, in a very homogenous country, begin to teach tolerance and acceptance of diversity? If racism is taught, it can be untaught, right? Kids learn the wrong way to do things all the time, and they grow and change. Language is built upon mistake after mistake; eventually those mistakes are corrected. Maybe it’s that simple?
Expose. Challenge. Model how to value diversity.
For all grades, within the classroom and on bulletin boards, showcase everything the class learns about other cultures.
Tell parents at home why it’s so important their children are learning about diversity.
Challenge cultural insensitivity among your coworkers. Kill all “This is China!” comments.
In preschool and kindergarten, read books about different cultures.
Create preschool appropriate projects about diversity.
Sing songs from other countries. Welcome to Our World, which I previewed for our own school, is perfect for a Kindergarten with ethically minded staff. Welcome to Our World really has great global vision that is hard to capture in a curriculum.
Tell stories about your adventures about the world. Tell stories about your favorite countries, and your favorite people.
Start paying attention for signs of bullying to stop it from continuing.
In elementary school, assign groups or individuals to out of country pen pals. Make it really diverse and interesting. Have students report about what they learn about their pen pals. If you’re worried about hitting curriculum objectives, this is the perfect activity! Make students write to their pen pals about the current curriculum topic.
Show how stereotypes are very wrong! Tell them about what you thought about Chinese people before you arrived. I’ll start, misconception one, “Everyone on earth knows how to stand in line and not cut in line.” Misconception two, “Monkeys, dogs and cats are common dinners in Chinese households. If you go to their house, your Chinese hosts will make you eat these dishes.” My conclusion, decline all invitations.
If you find your students have a certain disposition toward racism of a specific country (Japan), use a little bit of Venn Diagram practice to show how they actually have more in common with this country/people than they do with the countries they idolize, (UK/ New Zealand/ Canada/ USA/ Australia).
Every week, introduce a notable person from history. Try to keep the demographic ratio of people you introduce to match the gender and racial demographics of the world. That means about 40 awesome people in an academic year with plenty of diversity.
Insist your schools start anti-bullying campaigns, like “Be An Ally,” and carry these programs through high school.
In middle school, everything already listed is doable, but add in Holocaust history and literature. Make Venn Diagrams of the differences and similarities between Germans and their German-Jewish neighbors.
Study genocide articles and literature.
Study slave narratives and hymns.
Study Native American history, art and music.
Study Nelson Mandela.
Use Facing History lesson plans to your heart’s content.
Create a project where students have to research what is considered beautiful in all major regions of the world.
Study marriage ceremonies and family practices around the world.
Discover racist attitudes within the classroom as a class and challenge them together. Refer to my misconception two, above, as an example. What percentage of the time are these attitudes or misconceptions actually correct? What are alternate attitudes or thoughts that could explain when the racist attitude is not supported by evidence or experience?
Practice a school-wide Mix It Up Lunch. Include teachers. This could be effective at your school in helping challenge class and age divides.
In high school, study white people who have made bad choices for a change. Martha Stewart. Butch Cassidy. Emmett Dalton. Bill Clinton. Lindsay Lohan or Justin Beiber, anyone? On this list, everyone is white.
Study Chinese people who have made bad choices, explaining how they were poor citizens of the PRC.
Read Life of Pii.
Read Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Introduce them to Louis Armstrong.
Read Langston Hughes’ Harlem. Read lots of Hughes’ work.
Study the Middle East and all of the historical, racist narratives that have plagued the region.
When appropriate, and with realizing this is more politically sensitive than in western countries, study the diverse genders of the world.
Discover racist comments and thoughts expressed by in-country media. (Obviously only best if students are at translation/bilingual levels.)
Analyze popular, in-country TV shows or movies for racist comments and ideologies. (Obviously only best if students are at translation/bilingual levels.)
Study the demographic diversity of other countries. Make infographics in groups.
Discuss and study racist opinions about Chinese in situations where Chinese citizens immigrate to other countries.
Discuss how students might acclimate or acculturate if they were to move to a very different country.
First, English teachers can totally challenge racism in a homogenous country. If we as teachers do not join together to combat this sociological disease from spreading, racism will continue to infect global generation after global generation. We absolutely must connect with our students on cognitive, affective and psychomotor levels to be able to change what they have learned about other cultures and races. Our students need to be free from racism as they learn 21st century skills to be productive members of a very real and eminent global playing field, connected by more than just the Internet. Life will be very difficult for them if they deal with racism as adults, where the cost of racism could lead to loss of friends or jobs as a small pain. Loss of life or further dividing of global wealth and resources would be a huge pain for our students.