Before setting off to my study abroad program in Beijing, I was informed by many people of color who had traveled in China that my skin color might raise some eyebrows. Not only are black people a rare sight even in the capital city of Beijing, but in the minds of most Chinese citizens, the thought of a person whose skin has been given the moniker of “black” automatically implies that the skin itself will fit the title. Subsequently, skin that is darker than theirs but not quite as black as, say, asphalt, leads to more than a few suspicious glances. More often than not, the people of China are interested in hearing a foreigner’s story – “Where are you staying?” “Can you help me with my English studies?” “What do you like about Chinese culture?” But by far, the treatment I was most often met with was a pause, a once-over, a bit of a squint to make sure that I wasn’t an illusion and then the inevitable inquiry of “What country are you from?”
Now, don’t get me wrong: I never took any offense to this line of questioning and game of unabashed staring, even when the countrymen would take out their cameras and ask to snap a photo of me as proof that people like me existed in nature. For one, I had been given fair warning of such behavior in advance, and it would have been silly of me to make a fuss as if the occurrence surprised me. Furthermore, something became very apparent to me with each one of these tiny interrogations: They were legitimately curious as to how I came to be. I didn’t seem to be from India, yet didn’t quite look dark enough to be from Africa, so which was it? Facing this type of situation with any sort of ill feeling would have been tantamount to blatantly overlooking the potential for a genuine exchange of cultural knowledge. The people of China wanted answers, and by golly, I was fit to give them some.
When my reply to their initial query was “America” – and I would go on to explain that my mother is from Barbados and my father is Native American – I was usually met with more confusion and a whole new facet of the survey: “Native what? Are you sure you’re not from Africa? And just what is this Barbados you keep going on about?” To this I would smile, continue to answer and recite an inner monologue that went something like “Oh, is that cultural exchange knocking at my door? Well by all means, come in! Sit down! We’ve got a lot to chat about.”
As China becomes an increasingly important player in our globalized world, notions of the implications of race and skin color will naturally begin to seep into the mainstream. However, because skin color as a significant marker of anything is still a new concept, it would be unreasonable to demand Chinese citizens fully understand and take on all of the still-conflicted views on race that are rooted in years of U.S. history. It was not at all offensive for people in China to ask me why my skin is the color it is, because unlike in America, they were genuinely curious.
Throughout my time at the College, I have had the good fortune to encounter very few situations that left me feeling as though my racial background had been put into question, or worse, blatantly disrespected. For me, a large part of why my experiences with ethnicity in the Purple Valley have been relatively untroubled is because I try to step back and distinguish whether a person is coming from a genuine place of interest and is therefore to be met with a frank and forthright conversation, or whether their questions hold a deeper, ill-intentioned level of suspicion. Luckily, interactions characterized by components of the latter have been few and far between during my years at Williams. However, regardless of which category one’s racial experience on campus falls into, I find that it is important that in each situation, students feel no qualms about creating a discourse about where race fits into their daily lives. If someone is approaching racial dynamics with curiosity, we should talk about it. If someone feels offended because said curiosity has crossed a certain line, we should absolutely talk about it. Our college is a safe environment where all thoughts have the opportunity to be accepted; however, it is impossible for thoughts to be accepted when they have not even been expressed.
My time in China was an incredible opportunity to see the world from new perspectives and bask in the invaluable growth that is so closely wedded to open-minded quests for intellect. I hope to go back someday, and to continue the discussion of race, skin color and ethnicity. After all, when it comes down to it, we’ve all got something new to learn.
Lily Reeder ’13 is a Chinese major from Silver Spring, Md. She spent the spring semester studying abroad in Beijing, China.