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‘Making our money do the talking’ and other responses to racism in China

Picture this. 

You’ve been on lockdown with the rest of the country for weeks, possibly months honouring the terms of the COVID-19 related safety measures. Finally, restrictions ease up and you venture out as restaurants, bars and shopping malls kick back into action. So you head on over to your favourite ‘Mexican’ restaurant ready to enjoy a ‘taste of freedom’ and after a long wait, are met with a healthy serving of racism in the form of ‘我领导告诉我不让黑人进来’ or ‘My boss told me not to allow black people’.

Sounds like a bad nightmare, right? 

Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened to a Beijing-based couple on the evening of the 19th of March at a well-known eatery in the capital, as reported by the couple themselves.  The pair have lived in Beijing for almost 5 years and have spent many an evening throughout this time at the restaurant in question spending their hard-earned money. None of that mattered when, on the 19th, the employee chose to tell them that their skin colour was enough grounds to bar them from entering.

By now, most of us will have seen the videos, and loosely know what happened but, lest we make the same biased errors as displayed in a previous article on a well-known platform supposedly covering the incident, we’ve provided a summarised breakdown of the events from the mouths of the victims themselves. 

A BREAKDOWN 

– The couple attempt to call ahead to make a reservation at the ‘Mexican’ restaurant, however due to circumstance reservations are not being accepted. They state there is a 15-person limit. 

– The couple head to the restaurant early (5pm) to avoid waiting and are told on entering that only 15 people can be at the restaurant at one time. As only 6 people are seated, they query it and are told that this number includes staff. The couple go to wait at a nearby bar & grill. They ask for a ‘queue slip’ to make use of the 10% discount on the back. The queue slip states that the couple are number 10. Number 5 had just been seated. Now 8 people sit inside, 2 at each table. The couple return periodically to check on progress. 

– They are finally seated a little before 7pm. Including the victims, there are 12 people (not including staff) visible to the couple.  As they sat eating 6 more people enter the restaurant, a couple sit in one booth and a group of 4 sit in another. 

–  The couple finish and they go to pay. They ask the employee why 4 people are sat together despite being told when they called that a group of 4 weren’t allowed. He confirms that it isn’t allowed. The couple draw his attention to a group of 4, and the employee ignores them and proceeds to handle their cash instead. They ask again ‘is a group of 4 in fact allowed?’, he confirms that it isn’t again. They point to the elephant in the room, the group of 4, again. 

(a picture of the group of 4)

– The employee then turns his back on the victims and, speaking to the bartender, says ”我领导告诉我不让黑人进来’. 

– Astonished, the female victim rushes to start recording. She asks him to repeat himself on camera. Realising he’s now being recorded the employee promptly refuses.

– The female victim, still in shock, begins to tell those around her (other customers) what happened. They have already paid and are visibly near the exit, ready to leave.   

(a screenshot from the video shows the victims’ proximity to the exit as they prepared to leave the restaurant)

– Suddenly another member of staff gets aggressive, grabbing the male victim and trying to pull him out the door, not once but twice. They shout at each other, the victims say ‘don’t touch us’, they haven’t touched the workers.

-After both sides have stopped shouting, the couple, still in shock, leave the restaurant. 

_______

On the victims’ request, this article does also make reference to the statement made in response to this situation by restaurant management. However, it does not follow the poor example of a well-known platform in completely discounting the experiences of the victims/paying customers in favour of appeasing this big brand of chain restaurants. 

Now, we are all human and we all make mistakes but it is saddening that the article highlights the restaurant’s response and not the victims’ story. The victims had to instead reach out to the writer to tell them what had happened after concerned friends and onlookers brought the piece to their attention. 

‘It would do us well to keep cool and avoid sharing videos or images via social media without the necessary context, lest we cause others harm through misinformation and rumours’, the article warns. Awkwardly, it misses that by reporting on the incident without first speaking to the victims,  they have fallen foul of their own advice…and indeed caused others harm. In this case a Black woman and her husband. What is more ‘necessary context’ than a breakdown of the incident as reported by the paying customers and victims in question? 

For those of us who have lived here for some time, this might not come as a surprise. 

The restaurant owners responded to the victims as follows: 

We all will have our own thoughts on the above response and the previously-mentioned article. 

But one thing most of us will agree on is that constantly dealing with both racism, and the subsequent attempts to play it down or sweep it under the rug, is extremely tiring for the actual victims of racism. 

Instead of educating those who should know better given the times we are living in, and in line with the victims’ own assertions of it now being about ‘what we do next’, this article attempts to do two things: 

Firstly, to correct some of the misinformation and excuses surrounding the racist incident and secondly, to propose practical solutions for dealing with situations such as these when we’re in a land other than our own.  Again, this is not so much about the author or the platform that published the previous article, but rather exposing why the article’s premise can be a dangerous and unhelpful one at times like these.

‘But we didn’t see it said on camera

In situations such as these, and in the run-up to being met with unprovoked racism, it normally takes the racism actually jumping out for an individual to spring into action and remember to record the incident as evidence. The victim herself explains ‘No one could have predicted his words or actions as we were not looking for a fight. The recording started right after he said it as it dawned on me that this may be a situation.’

If going off the video alone, what we can see is that the employee in question was reluctant enough to repeat what he’d said again on camera, so much so that his colleagues felt it necessary to instead resort to manhandling to remove the already-leaving customers. 

Finally worth noting, the video has even encouraged others to share similar stories of racism at the exact same establishment. 

‘But we don’t know what happened before the video started

What could possibly have happened before the video started to justify the racism that caused this issue in the first place? 

In their response, the restaurant owner apologises for the incident and addresses the concerns relating to the number of diners allowed to be around the table, making an explanation for the confusion about the number of people allowed to be seated or on the property at any given time. Interestingly, they do not try to offer any such similar explanation for the racism. Instead, they are clearly accepting of how wrong it is. If the employee hadn’t, in fact, made such a statement, or the owners felt strongly that this was unlikely to have been the case, would this not also be explained away or stated by management? 

Remember, the employee placed the responsibility for the racist restriction with management or his ‘lingdaoren/领导人’, but management, in their response, are quick to state that discriminating against customers is completely unacceptable and has never been their policy. Everybody seems to be distancing themselves from the statement in question, but absolutely no attempt is made on the management’s behalf to deny that it was said at all.  Could this be because the employee in question has made similar remarks to others in the past, as suggested by other foreigners on learning of this incident (see screenshot above)? Who knows.

‘But they were the aggressors

This is a particularly insidious hot take that in many cases is rooted in a truth even uglier than the incident itself. 

(the employee makes the gesture of a fist to the fleeing couple before pushing the male victim)

Arguments like this, when not rooted in evidence, often stem from unconscious bias.  Writer and author of ‘Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking’, Malcolm Gladwell, explains unconscious bias in the following way:

“[O]ur attitudes towards things like race or gender operate on two levels. First of all, we have our conscious attitudes. This is what we choose to believe. These are our stated values, which we use to direct our behavior deliberately . . . But the IAT [Implicit Association Test] measures something else. It measures our second level of attitude, our racial attitude on an unconscious level – the immediate, automatic associations that tumble out before we’ve even had time to think. We don’t deliberately choose our unconscious attitudes. And . . . we may not even be aware of them. The giant computer that is our unconscious silently crunches all the data it can from the experiences we’ve had, the people we’ve met, the lessons we’ve learned, the books we’ve read, the movies we’ve seen, and so on, and it forms an opinion.”

Why anyone would automatically assume that, contrary to what the videos show, the male victim is in some way the aggressor is beyond us.  

But spreading these videos/images and this story is causing harm’

(as stated in another article) 

Our question is…harm to who exactly?

The full statement in said article reads:

…this is a hard time for everyone in the city whether they’re customers, staff, or business owners. In such a time, the virus could do much more long-term harm to human relations than it will ever likely cause to our health. With that in mind, it would do us well to keep cool and avoid sharing videos or images via social media without the necessary context, lest we cause others harm through misinformation and rumors.’

Is everyone in the city going through a hard time reason enough for racism to rear its ugly head? 

And…let’s get this right – the ‘harm’ caused to the victims should be silenced so as not to ’cause others harm through misinformation and rumors’?! Sounds toxic.  

It has often been said that racism, or rather confronting it, feels taxing – burdensome – to those who aren’t victims of it and don’t recognise it. In other words, to the victims, what is essentially being said is : ‘ your experience makes me uncomfortable (or in their words causes ‘harm’) so you must suffer in silence’, and to those who might be minded to sympathise with the victims, a simple ‘stop it’. 

What a way to centre oneself. 

What about the ‘harm’ caused by the ordeal on the couple? Should this not be about them?

Granted, nobody likes misinformation and anything that goes viral can be subject to such. But surely the best way to clear rumours up would be to hear from those involved directly? Especially the victims who were brave enough to share their story.

Using one’s power (to include using one’s social standing, platform, privilege or reputation) to cancel out/shut down the experience or suffering of others (or to encourage those who might otherwise be sympathetic to said suffering to join you in ignoring it) is unacceptable at best, and serving as an ‘accessory’ to those who are racist at worst. Finally, we all make mistakes, so let this be less about the article in question and more about ensuring we don’t replicate this problematic mistake. 

‘But all foreigners have been discriminated against’

We all have seen or read of foreigners of all races and nationalities bemoan discrimination (and rightly so). We all agree that this shouldn’t be happening to anyone.  But how do we react to these incidents? Better yet, how should we? 

When this photo of a foreigner did the rounds on WeChat, suggesting a rise in anti-foreigner sentiments, few foreigners (at least on WeChat) seemed to question what was happening in the image. Nor did they creatively seek ways to somehow directly or indirectly blame him for the racism he states that he experienced. 

Let’s look at it another way: 

His caption might explain the situation, but how do we really know what happened?! Maybe he’d asked them not to sit next to him, maybe he’d been aggressive towards them and that’s why they didn’t want to sit next to him. Maybe he’s an actor. Maybe he was the aggressor. Maybe…We’re just kidding, but the point remains. 

So let’s afford everyone the same graces unless the truth is proven to be otherwise.  

Moving on

Now that that’s covered, how do we proceed?

Our money is our voice’

‘I can only provide my experience and allow people to make their own decisions’

– The female victim

Most of us are here to work or study. We’re passing through, and while here we’d much rather keep our heads down and enjoy the overwhelmingly positive aspects of living here. 

This doesn’t mean we should suffer in silence constantly when faced with racism of any kinds or stereotyping of our community, cultures or countries. 

A famous Chinese idiom states ‘ru xiang sui su/入乡随俗’, often explained as ‘when in Rome do as the Romans’. For the purpose of this article, we’re using it to mean ‘follow the example of those around you’.  

Applying this attitude to dealing with racism, we have seen the commitment of several Chinese netizens to countering racism at the hands of big brands and stars for some time. Most recently during the COVID-19 panic across the world, we’ve seen similar too.

For those of us living here then, a simple and effective alternative to make our voices heard is to speak with our pockets, and spread the word. 

There are countless Chinese establishments that do deserve our money and have not put people from our community through humiliating, racist experiences. There are also increasing numbers of businesses owned by members of our community. 

The same principle goes for the news we choose to digest. Simply spread the word and let us take our coin elsewhere. 

And finally…

Tell your friends to pull up’

Many of us have friends, partners, co-workers and possibly family members of all races, ethnicities and nationalities. Including local friends who can be a great help at times like these. It should be common practice for them to concern themselves with matters relating to our wellbeing – and that goes beyond the odd ‘chi fan le ma 吃饭了吗?(have you eaten yet)?’ or ‘don’t forget to wear your mask/stay warm/wear layers’.

This is a difficult time for everyone. That doesn’t, however, mean picking and choosing which stories we share because some make us uncomfortable. Or make us question where we stand. We are all intelligent and grown enough to know that we can both support the country that hosts us through what has been a difficult time for all, and show that we will stand for nothing less than equal treatment and justice for ourselves during individual incidents of discrimination. It’s really not rocket science. 

It should be noted that a little silver-lining comes in the fact that the victims have seen an overwhelming amount of support from all over since news of this incident broke. We all hope that this continues and that the unfortunate incident that led to these steps being necessary isn’t ever repeated.  

Should anything change and should the restaurant owners make amends for the actions of their staff members that are deemed satisfactory, a follow-up article will be published on this platform. 

Until such time, we said what we said. 

What do you think?

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