OPINION> Alexis Hooi
The disunited colors of prejudice
By Alexis Hooi (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-07-31 07:54

The disunited colors of prejudiceOn the face of it, it is hard to imagine that a top African-American scholar in the US would fall victim to racial prejudice when the leader of the free world is also black.

Yet that is exactly what Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. claims he suffered on July 16, when a white policeman arrested him at home near the university after receiving reports of a suspected burglary. Sergeant James Crowley reportedly chose to handcuff Gates to accepting that the professor was the rightful resident on the premises.

The incident continues to be fiercely debated in the US, with President Barack Obama inviting the two to the White House to help resolve the issue after he escalated it by saying the police had "acted stupidly".

Unfortunately, what happened to Gates is not totally unimaginable in another country today.

In China, there have been recent reports of rumblings from the African community in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, of being unwelcome and "harassed" by authorities targeting illegal immigrants in the city - more so than how other foreigners there such as Westerners are treated. All because of the long-held perception among many residents that Africans there are lowly paid and, therefore, often associated with criminal activities, local media reported.

A group of Africans numbering more than 100 subsequently protested at a local police post in the city, after one of their kind leapt to his death from a building to evade the police who were checking African passports. Police maintained that no one had died in the incident.

Even now, some Guangzhou residents might admit using the generic and derogatory term "hei gui" or "black devil" to refer to Africans in the community.

Conversely, a commentary in the Beijing-based Elite Reference publication posted online on Feb 6 illustrated a modern twist on the Chinese idiom, "yi bai zhe bai chou" (White skin can hide a hundred flaws) - used originally to praise the porcelain-white skin of a traditional beauty.

The article spoke of how a Scottish teacher in an English-language institution in the city discovered his school's policy of "hiring only whites" as faculty.

"Based on my experience at school, I do not believe for a moment that there is no racial discrimination in China," the teacher said.

"Many people just avoid mentioning the issue."

As someone of Chinese descent who has studied and worked in countries including Japan and the US, I too have been stereotyped on various occasions and in varying degrees solely because of the way I look.

Who can confidently say he or she has never felt being similarly treated at first impression, especially in a foreign land?

Even in my current working environment that emphasizes the use of English as my first language, I have to constantly grapple with my race and identity in my dealings with colleagues who come from all corners of the English- and Chinese-speaking world.

I suspect many other foreigners here will have to confront similar issues, as Chinese cities are becoming more cosmopolitan and could need more international expertise along with the country's development.

That will also mean ensuring that merit, not mere appearance, matters most.

E-mail: alexishooi@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 07/31/2009 page8)