In the 1996 China edition of the Lonely Planet's Guidebook, a text box aside comment from a street interview provided some interesting conversation fodder, "... there is no racism in China because there are no black people," a Chinese woman was reported to have said. This became a little running joke in my small study abroad circle, since I was the only black student in my program of fifty students. It was 1997, and I was in Beijing studying Chinese. "There is no way you could be experiencing any racism in China," one classmate sardonically told me, "because you are the only black person here." We all laughed.
While China is officially home to 55 ethnic minority groups, the Middle Kingdom is far more ethnically homogeneous than the United States. Han Chinese make up 91.59 percent of the population, and the majority of the remaining 8.41 percent are visually indistinguishable from their Han counterparts. In part due to this difference, race and nationality are often conflated in China. A white foreigner is likely to be called laowai, or "old foreigner," while a black foreigner is more likely to be described as heiren, or "black person."
White Americans face no barriers to claiming their nationality, but blacks are often assumed to hail from Africa, a place thought to be more backwards and poorer than China, and one more than likely receiving Chinese government economic aid in the form of loans and infrastructure projects. This leads to either resentment or denigration on the part of some Chinese. The Chinese media tends to focus on the generosity of the Chinese government toward Africa -- a sore point among Chinese who feel their government is not doing enough for the Chinese themselves -- and not on the valuable natural resources gained or access to lucrative growth markets for cheap Chinese goods.
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Traditional standards of beauty in China have also shaped perceptions of black foreigners in the country. In China, "whiteness" is seen as a highly desirable trait for women. Stores that sell beauty products without fail have a wide variety of whitening creams. The Chinese and Western models that fill the screen and print ads all fit one standard type of beauty -- very white skin, tall, thin with jet-black hair. There is even a Chinese saying: "A girl can be ugly, as long as she has white skin."