When I was 17 I was a Christian coming to the end of her relationship with God. My head was full of doubts about the existence of an invisible being. Unfortunately, months prior to this rethinking of all my values and beliefs, I had signed up to volunteer as a group leader at a Christian summer camp in Hastings and my acceptance email came through at the worst time. I decided to honour my commitment and I went to the whitest place in Britain I’d ever been to besides Kent and Durham. I was feeling lonely; I had no friends among the staff, most of whom were already friends. I actually wasn’t the only black person, which shocked me, but I was the only woman and the two French black brothers who were there didn’t speak much to me. My role was to look after a group of underprivileged children who got to experience a week at this camp for free. We also had to sing hymns and say prayers and about two days into this experience I fully abandoned my belief in God, making for a torturous remaining five days. On top of all of this, I experienced racism from children for the first time in my post-childhood life (I’ll never forget being called the N word by a white boy in my school when I was 9 or 10, and being told by my ‘best’ friend in Year 6 that the boy I liked wouldn’t like me back because I’m black).
All the 6-9 year old kids at this camp are getting changed into their clothes after going swimming and I walk in there to get my group. A girl sees me and visibly jumps back in fear at the sight of my non-white skin. She hesitates before asking ‘why is your skin that colour?’ I respond by asking her why her skin is that colour and she says it just is. I walked away and thought about escaping from this camp. A couple of days later, a girl in my group asks to see my tongue because she wants to know what colour a black person’s tongue is. I was angry and felt isolated and deemed it utterly pointless to speak to anyone else there about it (I considered the black boys but we just weren’t tight like that) because they’d probably tell me that it’s not the children’s fault and not to take it to heart. I fake smiled and prayed and sang my way through the rest of the week and when I got through the front door of my own home I cried with joy. I had never felt so homesick in my life.
Skip forward to 21 and I feel like an adult. I feel kind of secure in my identity yet am again confronting racism from children and wanting to punch a wall or cry about it. I’ve concluded that children can be as racist as adults – just as prejudiced and discriminatory and downright horrible. I’ve also realised that to say that Chinese people aren’t racist, they’re just ignorant, is dumb. They are. Not necessarily every single last one but I’d imagine at least 900,000,000 of them are. Sure, most of them don’t have Google but they have Bing and Baidu and are perfectly welcome to research the inhabitants of Africa as well as the worldwide black diaspora. They’ve seen Black Panther, they know that Beyoncé exists. It’s not like they’ve never seen a video recording of a black person. For them to deem all black people as ugly is racist. For them to think black people can’t speak English is racist. I’m not excusing them anymore.
Imagine calling my students merely ignorant when they’ve had me as a teacher for nearly six months. I’ve shown students pictures of black people to demonstrate language points like ‘he has two eyes, he has a mouth etc.’ and every damn time a black face appears on the screen, a few students will openly make noises like they’re being sick and other sounds of disgust. This makes me feel sick. Imagine how ugly they think I am, how inferior they think I am, even though I am in a position of authority over them. It makes me so angry and there is little I can do about it. I have tested my theory that Chinese children are conditioned to hate and belittle black skin with three different classes, and in every single class at least 3 or 4 children would make noises of disgust and say ‘she’s/he’s ugly’. Some even physically looked away. I gave one girl a picture of a black doll to use in an activity an she threw it on the floor and stamped on it and said she didn’t like it. My blood was boiling. A white colleague said she showed her students a picture of Will Smith and one kid told her that he likes her skin, not Will Smith’s. ‘Black is beautiful’ makes no sense here. How am I, a beautiful black woman, supposed to feel? I am wholly, justifiably sick of this shit. And I’m not the only one.
There are only a handful of black women working for York English and I have found so much joy and comfort in forming friendships with a couple of them. The others I am yet to meet and immediately attach myself to. But I’ve been hearing terrible stories about the clear-cut, undeniable racism we are facing from some children and their goddawful parents. Understanding that the parents are racist makes you see that their children are racist too. The two black women I am friends with speak, write and understand Chinese extremely well and are therefore exposed to a greater level of bullshit than I am, only picking up certain words I forced myself to learn. While I can just ‘ting bu dong’ my way through stupid annoying questions about my hair or skin or ugliness or whatever, these two women can’t and they get to hear everything that’s being said either to them or about them. One friend listened to a parent say in front of her something along the lines of ‘a teacher with white skin is preferred’. That’s racism. All the parents clustered outside my newest class, straining their necks to see me, a black person!!!!!!!!!!! Wtf!!!!!!!!!, teaching their precious babies can just fuck off. I look at them and they’re not even looking at their kids, they’re taking videos of and looking directly at me, trying to gauge how well I speak English through the window. A co-worker told me that she was baffled by the sight of them clamouring and heard them saying things like ‘that’s the English teacher’, ‘can you believe she’s teaching them English’. I told her that it’s because I’m black. My boss asked what I mean, and I told him that these parents can’t believe I actually speak English, let alone believe that I’m qualified to teach it. He agreed that Chinese people are super racist. And they are, generally. And these racist adults make racist children.
Ever since I started going to school with my afro (something that made my heart beat fast with anxiety) I’ve had to grit my teeth while some of my students burst out into wild laughter at the sight of me, point and repeatedly shout at me “hair is oh-no!” and make stupid gestures in the shape of my hair. One girl likes my afro. She hasn’t looked at my face since I started doing my hair like this; she’s constantly gazing just above and to the left and right of it with an expression that looks like adoration. A few students don’t care at all and I love them for that. But I wonder if the ones who openly mock me would do the same to a white teacher. My guess is no. They don’t respect my skin colour. No one looks at me enviously, wishing they had darker skin themselves. I’ve heard the term ‘lao wai privilege’ being thrown around (lao wai is a term for ‘foreigner’), obviously by white men, and I just roll my eyes into the back of head and imagine what it would be like to be a white man in the west, let alone in China where everyone sucks your metaphorical dick.
If you’re reading this thinking ‘God, she sounds bitter’, you’re damn right! I have become embittered by racism, like millions of other black or otherwise oppressed people in the world. It’s draining. How am I supposed to love my job as an English teacher when the only way I can reprimand racist students is by saying ‘be polite’? I don’t know if it’s worth asking my TAs (teaching assistants) to tell the children in Chinese why it’s rude and downright racist to mock their black teacher for her appearance because I don’t really think they’d understand either. A friend was told that she upsets one particular child to the point of tears and that it’s entirely her fault. She snapped and said ‘if they don’t like black people they can leave’. Honestly, I love that she snapped like that but it doesn’t feel good to reach that point. Working in a majority white company doesn’t make you feel comfortable expressing how you feel unfairly treated because of your race. York certainly doesn’t warn black applicants about the racism they might face here. To many of the white people here, we’re all lao wais enjoying the same privileges and struggles. Guess what! This is false. The black woman at another school who was recently called a ‘gorilla’ by one of her students and misnamed as another black woman who she looks nothing like probably would attest to the fact that black and white lao wais are treated differently here. Watching other white teachers’ students see me in the corridor and laugh or whisper to their friends or make faces of disgust or fear at me attests to the fact that black and white people are not treated the same in these workplaces. I am sick of racist children and won’t excuse them as merely ‘ignorant’ any more.
I knew I would go through some hard times when I moved here six months ago. But I think I underestimated how much racism and cruelty would whittle away at my mental health. I really miss the infrequency of racism I face in Britain. It happens but I am genuinely shocked every time something horrible happens to me in my own country. Chinese people give no fucks about politeness or courtesy and to an extent, I respect that, but I categorically despise spoiled, rude children who essentially bully me in my workplace and make me want to leave my job to start a countrywide black awareness campaign. The parents who doubt my intelligence and teaching ability simply because of the way I look can take their gross children elsewhere. I’m really tired of being nice and understanding towards ignorant racist people. When I get back to England I’m going to seek out jobs in black-owned or black-majority companies. All of this struggle is why ethnic minorities tend to segregate themselves from the majority. Life is hard enough as it is without the burden of racism.
Okay, I’m done. For now.