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“Shifting perceptions about Africans is a challenge”
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“Shifting perceptions about Africans is a challenge”

Leigh-Ann Worrell

A popular television dating show is helping many in China change their negative views of Africans, writes Leigh-Ann Worrell, 26, a Commonwealth Correspondent from St. Thomas in Barbados. She describes how personal interactions also help counter misguided stereotypes.

When it comes to understanding people and culture, myopic stereotypes are the order of the day in China.

While there were a few fantastical notions of Africa, an investigation into the online narratives surrounding Africans and African-Americans by Simon Shen (2009) found that the overriding perception was that Africans were economically and spiritually poor, lazy and inefficient. The men were described as sex-hungry and prone to spreading AIDS.

“I trust white foreigners because I think they are from America, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. When I see a black foreigner come to teach me English, I think what can they know about English? Black people are from Africa, so their English is not the true English…” (“Cheryl”, Beijinger, 29)

Challenging such archaic ideas about race and ethnicity can feel like an uphill battle with no victory in sight. However, personal interactions and experiences are useful in encouraging others to interrogate long-held beliefs.

This summer, Guinea-Bissau princess Debujiada Best heated up the popular Chinese television dating show Fei Cheng Wurao (If You Are the One). With impressive Mandarin ability, the masters student residing in Heilongjiang province in the Northeast of China ensured that viewers and potential suitors were well aware that she came from a line of distinguished heritage (her father is an economist and her mother a lawyer) and was not seeking love in China for personal economic gain. Instead, she sought a change from the traditions of her family’s tribe and reportedly found Chinese men to be considerate and gentle.

Dubbed by Chinese netizens as “Ayi Tubie” (princess of country people), the 24-year-old received some negative comments online such as “the African princess went on the dating show looking for the emperor’s son-in-law.” (Global Times, July 7, 2013) However, her beauty and solid language skills earned her more fans than foes.

“You are beautiful, just like the hei zhen zhu (Black Pearl, in reference to Best) on Fei Cheng Wurao. You can go on that TV show too! It will give you many opportunities.” (Waitress, Beijing, age unknown)

Best was able to do more for the image of Africa and black women in a few minutes than years of propaganda could ever hope to achieve.  While fixed stereotypes need time to change (or may never fully change), Best has helped to introduce a different narrative of what an African is, and can be. She illustrated an Africa that was filled with people of intelligence, charm and reputable character who are not looking for hand-outs.

“When we see Africa on TV, all we know is that China is helping [the people] and giving them money because they need it. We do not know any of the good things.” (“Nikki”, 20’s, Sichuan)

According to researchers like Barry Sautman and Frank Dikotter, the perception of Chinese government helping the “poor Africans” dates back to the 1960s when the first wave of African exchange and scholarship students came to the country. As children become parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, these ideas are taught and reinforced, while the government continues to replay images of half-clad black people in the forest on television.

“Before I met you, I thought all black people were from the same place: Africa. Even the [African-American] basketball players and the singers, I thought they were brought over directly from Africa to do those things…” (“Cheryl”)

Daily instances of stereotyping and misunderstanding can wear down even the strongest person of African descent. However, giving a good first impression is imperative if we are to make tiny ripples of difference.

So, we smile when we don’t want to, answer the same questions over and over again, deal with the stares and the negative comments in daily life and online with as much poise as possible and learn not to take it too personally while secretly yearning for change.

photo: africansinchina.net

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About me:

I am a writer for Barbados Today. I am passionate about women’s rights issues, theatre arts and cats. I like hanging out with my friends, live for the beach and (sorta) enjoy cooking. I plan eventually to work in the gender and development field in any part of the world.
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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?

To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/commonwealthcorrespondents/

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