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Hollywood and the Perception of Race in China

A colleague of mine was once asked by a student of ours about America.

“So, is everyone in America blond haired and blue-eyed?”

Cue the facepalm.

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image source: imgur.com

You and anyone you know knows the answer is a resounding “NO”, that the United States is one of the most racially diverse countries on Earth, that the percentage of non-Hispanic White Americans is only 63% and is decreasing year by year, and that blond haired blue-eyed white people are now only a small fraction of the population. I can imagine a Chinese person being dropped off in the middle of California, thinking he’d landed in Mexico, and questioning all that he has learned about the great, white land of America.

This may seem ridiculous to you but it’s a reality in China. Oftentimes, when you don’t meet a specific stereotype of what they deem to be “American” or “European” (read: white, and often blond) they question if you’re even a “real” (insert nationality here). I’ve even heard stories where they’ve gone so far as to tell you what you are, after you’ve firmly and explicitly told them (“I’m American”. “No, you look Russian. You are Russian.”).

So where does this ignorance stem from?

First, it’s not entirely ignorance. China, like most Old World countries, including Europe, have a very ethnicity-based definition of nationality. That is to say, a Japanese person cannot ever be Chinese, and a Chinese person cannot ever be Swedish, or something along those lines. Nationality rigidly conforms to your race, and anyone coming from a New World country to an Old World country knows this belief is widespread. We almost take it for granted that in Canada, for example, you can be of any race and call yourself Canadian and 95% of the time you won’t be laughed at or chased out of the country with a pitchfork, whereas in the majority of the world, this is certainly not the case, and in some instances can make your life a living hell.

Secondly, a big part of it is, simply, ignorance. For most of the 20th century, China has been closed off to the rest of the world, and only in the 1980s did China begin opening its doors. This gives us about one and a half generations of Chinese people who are just starting to broaden their knowledge of the outside world. But many still can’t afford to study or even travel abroad, leaving them to look for sources of information within their own borders. The Chinese have a saying: “井底之蛙”, jǐng dǐ zhī wā, meaning “a frog in a well”, and refers to people who have very limited experience and thus a very limited outlook on life. It’s a sad reality that most Chinese people are “frogs in a well”, not knowing what daily life is really like for the majority of us Westerners. As China continues its rise, this attitude will certainly diminish, albeit very, very slowly. For now, unfortunately, a good majority of Chinese people are getting information about the West from one of the absolute worst sources of information: Hollywood.

Now, Hollywood never claimed to be representative of America or the West. They’re a business first and foremost and their main goal is to make money. But Hollywood has yet to play catch up with the racial reality of our everyday lives. America, as I stated earlier, is only about 63% White, yet nearly 90% of the lead roles in theatrically released films in 2011 went to White actors. The other 10% mostly went to black actors, in films that cater to black audiences. Considering these statistics, no wonder there are a bunch of Chinese people out there thinking that America is a white person haven. Heck, people in America would probably think the same thing as well.

Now if you consider the films that actually make it to Chinese theatres, and take only the most successful ones, this issue is all the more glaring. The most successful foreign films in China are Hollywood blockbusters. Films that grossed over $100,000,000 USD in China in 2015 include Avengers: Age of Ultron, Furious 7, Jurassic World, Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation, The Hobbit, and Terminator: Genisys, and in 2014 included Transformers: Age of Extinction, Interstellar, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Notice something about all these films (other than the fact that China inexplicably still loves the horrible Transformers franchise)? All except one (Furious 7) have a mostly white cast, with a white leading role (the Fast and Furious movies are arguably Hollywood’s only truly diverse franchise). The Avengers team are all white. Tyler Perry and Spike Lee are virtually unheard of in China. Chinese people are like all of us: they want to be entertained, and that amounts to watching stuff go BOOM for two hours. And mainstream Hollywood has the means to make the kind of movies that appeal to the general moviegoer. To refer to Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, a film teacher at Columbia College Chicago: “I worry, because once you realize that American movies are how people around the world see America, it hits you: Oh, they think we’re all white and rich.” The Hollywood machine remains king, dragging with it its own racial biases that then impose themselves on China’s population. This is indeed a scary thought.

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Avengers: Age of Whiteness, featuring Samuel L. Jackson as “the black guy” (image source: superherohype.com)

This process unfortunately leads to a mostly warped view of the West and of Westerners. Unless they live in a cosmopolitan city like Beijing or Shanghai, it is still rare for a Chinese person to interact with a Westerner, even in bigger cities like Shenzhen (my city), Chengdu, or Wuhan. Though times are changing, entrenched racial biases still play a part in how they interact with a Westerner, and can, sadly, reflect on you in your daily life and job, especially as a teacher. If you happen to be one of the aforementioned blond haired, blue-eyed unicorns, and you’re not strict and mean, your students will probably like you more, simply based on the fact that you look like the images they see on TV or in movies. That feeling of “Oh my god, my teacher looks like a movie star!” is prevalent among young students. So you can probably imagine how much more difficult it is to be a black teacher in China, and how much harder they have to work to be liked by their students and respected by their peers. Even I, as a dark haired, brown-eyed Westerner from Canada, feel like I need to keep proving my “Canadianness” to my younger students, who have a harder time believing that someone from Canada doesn’t have light hair, pale skin and light eyes. From my experience though, older students (high school and above) in bigger cities don’t generally have such extreme biases, and they don’t have as many qualms if their teacher happens to be black or even Asian-American (or Canadian in my case). They may even think that sorta thing is kinda cool.

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Can you guess which awesome teacher I am??

We can’t place the blame squarely on Chinese people for not understanding that movies are just movies. Yes, the stuff that happens in movies, especially in blockbusters, usually don’t happen in real life. But movies can change the way we perceive our world. For anyone, seeing depictions of different races on film, whether depicted gloriously, badly, or not at all, will inevitably warp your worldview. Where do you think Chinese people got all their racial biases from? Why are white people (mostly) revered in China while black people draw the short straw? Why can’t Chinese people understand that Asians can also be Americans? Looking at China’s perception of Western society provides us with an ugly mirror that we must face. Chinese racial biases are like ours but heightened and more blunt, given that they are not aware of all the subtle nuances and historical context behind race and racism as it applies to Western societies. This happens to be our doing. And by no means is this an exclusively China-based issue. You can bet that developing countries around the world have very similar, unsubtle views about who we in the West are as a people and as a society.

Given we can now see that this is how we present ourselves to the world, we can start changing our media to better reflect our daily lives. No, I don’t mean make blockbusters more mundane. I mean keep the frenetic, jaw-dropping action sequences that sell, but add the diversity to show that not all Westerners are “white and rich.” Some are white and poor. Some are black. Some are Hispanic. Some are Asian. Some are Middle Eastern. Some are Native. Due to the pervasive media machine, sometimes even we forget that ourselves. Yes, it is sad that Hollywood movies have become such a major source of information for people who are curious about the West. But they can also be a powerful tool for change, and when wielded by the shrewd user, can truly change the way our world is perceived.

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