Women wearing protective face masks are seen in a bus, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Shanghai, June 9, 2020. 

Identity

Racism against African Americans in China escalates amid coronavirus

In mid-April, reports of “imported cases” of COVID-19 from abroad stoked fears and prejudices in the country.

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Women wearing protective face masks are seen in a bus, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Shanghai, June 9, 2020. 

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Aly Song/Reuters 

Four years ago, JC, a teacher and poet from Mississippi, moved to China with her husband and two children on a grand adventure. Now, she teaches literature to high schoolers in Guangzhou.    

“It was going to be an opportunity for us to, I mean, essentially experience the American dream that's easier to find in other places than it is in America,” JC said.

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But she says life has changed amid the coronavirus pandemic. In mid-April, reports of “imported cases” of COVID-19 from abroad triggered a wave of anti-foreigner sentiment across China, especially toward black people. 

JC, an African American, was among those targeted in Guangzhou as fears of the coronavirus being brought in by foreigners escalated.

“It was scary here for a while. People made it very clear that they were fearful of us and didn’t want us around. People were being harassed and people were being turned away at restaurants, or people would go to restaurants and everyone would get up and leave. You know, just very dehumanizing things.”

JC, African American woman in China

“It was scary here for a while,” said JC, who asked that her full name not be used for privacy reasons. “People made it very clear that they were fearful of us and didn’t want us around. People were being harassed and people were being turned away at restaurants, or people would go to restaurants and everyone would get up and leave. You know, just very dehumanizing things,” she said.

JC and her family stayed indoors to keep safe.

Related: America’s BLM protests find solidarity in South Korea

Another African American woman living in Guangzhou says she’s had similar experiences in the wake of the virus.

Six years ago, BR, from Philadelphia, who also asked not to disclose her full name, moved to the city for a short-term teaching job and wound up staying. She built up her own educational consulting business and brought over her 9-year-old nephew whom she takes care of.

After a year, she stayed on.

“I was just thinking that there was nothing in America for me.”

BR, African American woman in China

“I was just thinking that there was nothing in America for me,” she said.

China offered them something else.

But China has its own brand of racism — one that’s mixed with waves of anti-foreigner nationalism. JC and BR say that they sometimes get stared at on the streets, or people move away from them on the subway. There is hiring discrimination that favors white foreigners over Asian or black people.

As the coronavirus outbreak became a global pandemic, fear of the virus being brought back into China from abroad made things much worse for foreigners, especially black foreigners. There were reports that a Nigerian patient in Guangzhou had attacked someone and that created a panic.

Related: Millennials in China reexamine their spending habits as economy recovers

Black people were targeted, no matter their nationality. They were refused taxi rides, banned from supermarkets, forced to quarantine in their homes, hospital isolation rooms, or even sleep on the streets after being kicked out of their apartments.

Around this time, BR saw a viral video shot at a McDonald’s where she’d sometimes eat. An employee was holding up a sign that said, in English, “black people are not allowed.” BR sent the video to a Chinese client with whom she was friendly.

The woman’s reply saddened BR.

“What she said was, ‘Why are you always upset about these things?’ At that point, I just felt like I didn't have an ally.”

One day, BR and other foreign teachers were blocked from leaving the campus where they were working and living.

“The guard just held his hand up, like, ‘Stop. No, you can't pass.’ Even with all of my [documents], the university said I needed to leave — I just couldn’t do it.”

After a Chinese colleague intervened, all of the others stopped were able to leave except BR, the only black person among them. She was stuck on campus for weeks until the guards finally let her out. The reactions she got at that point surprised her.

Related: Concerns of structural racism ‘deeply existential,’ UN special rapporteur says

“I went out and people were nice to me, and I was like wow, this is amazing. So, now, when I go out, like, if I go out to walk the dog, the workers and everyone [are] smiling and coming over to talk to me. Where before, they were running away from me.”

The change started happening in response to outrage from African governments concerning “ongoing forceful testing and quarantine and maltreatment of African Nationals in China in general and in Guangdong Province in particular.”

News reports were broadcast around the world, and African governments confronted the Chinese government about the situation. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied any racial discrimination, but the Guangzhou Office of Foreign Affairs issued a statement saying that businesses should treat all people equally, and they set up a hotline for foreigners. For example, if someone called the hotline to complain that they’d been turned away at a store, authorities would show up to resolve the problem.

According to JC, that statement and follow-through on the policy changed things.

“That only needed to happen for about a week before people started to chill. You know, you start serving some consequences for this, and this stuff stops.”

JC, African American woman in China

“That only needed to happen for about a week before people started to chill. You know, you start serving some consequences for this, and this stuff stops.”

Of course, discrimination hasn’t really stopped in Guangzhou, a city of 13 million people. But what BR found most disturbing was that people could change so abruptly in how they treated her, shunning her one day and welcoming her the next.

“I feel like I’m in the twilight zone. I don’t know who I’m going to face or what mood they’re going to be in that day based on what’s going on,” she said.

More recently, anti-racism protests have rocked the globe in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Chinese state media is giving extensive coverage to violent protests roiling cities across the United States, while the unrest has also featured widely in Chinese social media.

BR and JC are watching closely. So are the Chinese people around them. After what BR went through, she doesn’t feel comfortable talking about what’s going on in the US.

JC and her students, on the other hand, are talking openly about the protests.

“I’ve definitely been grieving, on the verge of tears. Not able to sleep. It’s been hard. But my goodness, I have drawn so much energy from my students. The outpouring of love that I got from those students was tremendous,” she said.

She feels some guilt that she’s not in the US where she’d be protesting. But she’s found a sense of purpose in China.

“I have to remind myself there is pain all over the world. There’s misunderstanding all over the world. There’s racism all over the world; wherever you are, you can do work toward that because it’s everywhere.”

JC, African American woman in China

“I have to remind myself there is pain all over the world. There’s misunderstanding all over the world. There’s racism all over the world; wherever you are, you can do work toward that because it’s everywhere,” she said.

All in all, “I do feel safer outside of the US than I do at home. I feel safer in China — because no matter what anybody thinks, back at the end of the day, they can't shoot me for it. And I can't say that for living in the US,” JC said.

For BR, the past few months have changed everything. Now, she’s trying to figure out where she and her nephew can go next.

“We feel like we don’t have a home. Here is not that comfortable right now or maybe it hasn’t been for a while. And then also we can’t really call America home anymore, either. So, it’s just like, where do you go?”

Reuters contributed to this report. 

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