Beyond the pale: China’s cheerful racists

Ideas about racial hierarchies are not outdated ­anathema here but unquestioned belief

Setting off to spend a year teaching English in Zhejiang province in south-eastern China, I expected plenty of surprises. But what struck me most was something they tend not to tell you about in the guidebooks: the racism.

It started when I went around the classroom, asking pupils which city they were from. When I got to a slightly darker-skinned boy, his classmates thought it was hilarious to shout ‘Africa!’ It’s a theme. A girl with a similar complexion was taunted with monkey sounds; her peers refused to sit next to her, saying she smelt bad. I apparently erred when, teaching the word for wife, I showed my students a picture of Michelle Obama. The image of the then First Lady was greeted with exaggerated sounds of repulsion: ‘So ugly!’ they said. ‘So black!’

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