Guess Who's Coming to Dinner:

Student Racism in China and America

by Louie Crew

Has appeared in Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on New Concepts in Higher Education 8.1 (1989) n.p. and in Multicultural Teaching [U.K.] 11.2 (Spring 1993): 41-43.

© 1989, 2004 by Louie Crew

"Throw him [the black boyfriend] out of the window," one woman reported. A male wrote:

When I took my black girlfriend home, my father shouted "Go Away!" My mother separated me from the black girl and murmured in my ears, "How can you take a black girl home? It's terrible. My young brother and sister said nothing but silence.
The Deep South? 1963? No, China in the 1980's. Two of my Chinese students are answering my question, "How would your family react if you introduced a black person as your new boy/girlfriend?"
I know my parents would totally disown me. My mother would scream and yell at me for a while and then she would cry. She would never want me in her house again, and she would never come to my house either. She would probably kick us out immediately.... She has said on numerous occasions that if I ever married someone of a different race I should never come home.
This time an American in central Wisconsin answers my similar question, "How would your family react if you introduced a person of another race as your spouse?"

Many others echo each other halfway round the world. American woman: "They would probably throw me out of the house and never allow me to come back." A Chinese woman: "Then Father said, 'If you marry him, don't step into my house again.'"

A few days after I asked my Chinese students in Beijing to answer the first question, some hotel porters at the Friendship Hotel across the city beat a Burundian student brutally enough to hospitalize him. They did not like his color (see Time, October 17, 1983).

A short time after I quizzed my students in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, a crowd of local young people beat four Nigerian students. The whites did not want black people in their tavern even for five minutes. They kicked one black victim until they broke his collarbone and his leg (see Associated Press releases for the week of July 10-17, 1982).

Although my Chinese and American students did not perpetrate the crimes, the violence which they document in their families mirrors the assailants'. Clearly the assignment touches a nerve. These papers demonstrate that the beatings reflect attitudes which pervade the families of even the most educated in China and America.

Measuring the Hostility

Far more Americans (90.9%) reported racial hostility than did the Chinese (55%), but then Americans reacted to spouses, not just to girlfriends or boyfriends.

Of those who did report hostility, more women (35%) than men (21%) predicted that the families would never reconcile themselves to the relationship with the black person. Put the other way round, males in China and America alike anticipate less family hostility towards their relationships with blacks than do their sisters. Chinese men seem especially "free" on this point: of the nearly half of the Chinese who anticipated no hostility at all, 73 percent were men, only 27 percent women.

One Chinese woman vividly dramatized her family's rejection:

Only my younger sister was in. She led me into the room and murmured to me that they didn't want to have any connection with black people.... I was very red. I never dreamt that they would be so cold to my dear boyfriend.

Just at that time, my younger sister said to me, "It's your fault, not the family's, that Brown is a black person." "What? My fault? How can you say so?" I shouted. "Yes, it's your fault... Our parents noticed that Brown is a black man from the window. They were very filled with hate and refused to meet him. So am I!"

Many families fought less openly, with fierce formality. One American woman wrote:
My father would probably shake his [my husband's] hand and walk away. Maybe he'd say a few words to him. Then he would pull me aside and ask, "What the hell is wrong with you?"

My mother would be polite toward him. She wouldn't be very friendly to me, but she'd try her hardest. After he left she would be crying her eyes out. She knows that she couldn't do anything about it, but she would make me feel very guilty.

An American male predicted similar "restraint":
The general response from my family would be quiet anxiety. Everyone would appear nervous, but wouldn't offer any congratulations. This reaction would be out of sincerity to the "guest." My mother would probably be the first, the only spokesman. She diplomatically would inquire into our future plans, suggesting, "Don't let the door hit you in the ass!"

There would be a limited amount of social contact with my wife present, but the general atmosphere would not be friendly.

Another American clarified the family "hospitality": "None of my family would object in front of my new groom. They'd take me aside."

Formality pervaded the Chinese reports:

  • All of the members of my family came out to meet us... "This is my boyfriend Jack," I said to them.
  • "And Jack, this is my mother, father and younger sister."
  • Jack said politely, "How do you do?"
  • My younger sister answered in the same way, "How do you do? And welcome to our home."
  • My parents looked so surprised that I would bring a black boy to their home, especially that I called him my boyfriend. Unthinkable! They immediately turned back.
  • Jack said, "I'm sorry....
  • The initial politeness cannot save the day. The reversal seems inevitable.

    Another wrote: "My father's face was grave but very calm. I know clearly that is the way he is when he is surprised. It was my sister who broke the silence: Let's hurry to bring the tea."

    Frequently in the Chinese papers, a child unmasked adult politeness by abrubtly, candidly departing to pout. Usually the politeness failed anyway: it could not hide the family's perception of the black person as a menace. More Chinese (20%) than Americans (5%) emphasized family stares:

    One Chinese paper puzzles me yet:
    ...I introduced him to my mother: "Mum, this is Wei Ming." "I'm glad to meet you. Please come in and sit down. Xiao Hong [my little sister], make ready for tea." Then my father walked out of his room. "Good morning, Uncle Wu," said my boyfriend. "Good morning, boy, welcome here," said my father, while searching him from head to foot. Just then my little sister carried a tray with a cup of tea on top of it into the room. She went red at the first sight of my boyfriend, and then said politely and lightly, "Please help yourself." "Thank you," my boyfriend took the cup and smiled gently at her.
    Normally I would assume that the outsider's color does not trouble the family here; but since in so many papers the calm defines only the surface, perhaps this family too smiles to cope with perceived disaster?

    Empathy

    Admittedly, half of all who report hostility predict that at least one member of the family will finally accept them. But rarely does empathy extend to the black person. A few Chinese did give the black person a name, and ten percent of the Chinese noticed that their family's hostility embarrassed the black person. One concluded that her black boyfriend did not understand what was going on in the family, but another concluded that hers understood all too well: he seized the opportunity to depart unnoticed while the Chinese family fumed at their daughter.

    More Americans than Chinese report the family as empathetic towards its wayward child. One woman wrote: "My mother would probably accept the decision if she felt that we knew what we were doing." Another American mother provided a litany of the troubles, ostensibly to assure that the child has decided thoughtfully:

    I know you are in love, but the world isn't all happiness. There are so many problems already that marrying into another race would cause hassles. Where would you live, in a black or a white community? Not everyone will accept your marriage. You will have those people against you for the rest of your life....
    Another American mother forestalled her similar warning when she remembered that "her daughter has a level head and would not marry someone if he wasn't respectable." One American young man felt that his family would finally accept his relationship less because of their affirmation of racial justice than because of their respect for his independence: "Ever since I was small, I have been given a free hand to choose what I want and like, so it is generally accepted that I can marry any person that I like regardless of the person's race."

    Typically the black person remains the outsider. All portray the black person as the cause of the family's difficulty, not the family as the cause of problems for the black person.

    Racial Stereotypes

    One out of every ten resorted to explicit racial stereotypes. One Chinese woman reported that her grandmother "burst out in anger first: 'How silly you are to bring that clumsy-looking Negro here.'" Her mother said, "Darling, there are so many handsome white boys, why must you make friends with a black." Note that the Chinese mother does not think of herself as a person of color. One brother assumes that the black guest will not understand his Chinese, "Oh, he is so black, look!" An American brother says, "She's gone and married a jigaboo! I would've never thought..." An American mother assumes that the black man is "probably a hoodlum."

    One American woman resented it when her family stereotyped her imaginary black husband as an "animal":

    If you look at some of the black studs walking around this world and compare them to some of the lighter-colored ones, there's really no difference. Men are men and will continue to remain that way. They all have feelings somewhere--and some even have desirable bodies.
    Of course she still thinks the black man an "animal," one with the questionable "consolation" that the she now lusts for him.

    Ninety percent of all who reported hostility did not bother to explain why blackness would upset their families. They assumed that all readers would share their view of blackness as prima facie cause for alarm.

    The question put to the Americans, unlike that to the Chinese, did not require them to imagine a black person, only a person of another race. Still only two Americans even considered another possibility, and both said that their families would react more hostilely towards blacks than towards Orientals. One added, "If the spouse was to be Oriental, I really do not think they would be too upset. My cousin married an Oriental and they thought it was great. Maybe I'm wrong, but I really hope that I never have to find out."

    The assignment encouraged students to report their family's reactions, but did not require them to take responsibility for any negative feelings they reported. Still, a few Americans dealt with their family's prejudice self-consciously. One said, "The initial reaction of my family would be surprise and shock.... My family would be very uncomfortable to be in. It would be like a bad smell. I know that they would realize their prejudices and get over them. Nobody in my family is a redneck hillbilly, and I say that seriously."

    One American stressed that he spoke out of real experience: "A problem has arisen in our family like this one already. We were all disappointed at first, but we are now learning how to accept my sister's husband as we continue to know him a little better."

    A Conclusion

    Too many people think racism a thing of the past, at least for educated people. These students document that racism still infests the households of the most educated. Clearly we need a new educational agenda.

    When Americans beat the Nigerians in Wisconsin, the police showed so little concern that they closed their investigation within a week. Only when the national media arrived did higher officials in town and on campus react. Finally, authorities convicted two assailants; but many colleagues complained privately, "The bar fight could have occurred anywhere. The publicity unfairly gives the campus a bad name."

    When the Chinese beat the Burundian student in Beijing, officials did not react to the first complaints. Only when a group of African students picketed the hotel with the support of Burundian officials did the police jail an assailant. Later, officials at the Hotel invited a group of Africans to lecture to hotel staff about racial harmony (see China Daily, November 29, 1983). Officials on my Beijing campus imported a Yugoslavian film of Uncle Tom's Cabin so that the students could confirm the wickedness of the da bi zi (Chinese for "the big noses," a popular epithet for all westerners).

    Surely education does not need to be this feeble?


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