Prejudice and discrimination are the last thing the world needs in 2020

Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, 2020 has been supplying a heavy dose of uncertainty. This has led to us changing our way of living and working together. On the other hand, our healthcare and welfare systems have been tested and our economies have been shaken to the core. As a result, so many lives have been lost, and so many people have lost their jobs or income. It is safe to say that everyone wishes for the virus to disappear so that things can go back to ‘normal’. Amidst all these challenges, prejudice and discrimination, mainly against racial minorities, have managed to find their way in. 

A good example is what happened in China a few months ago. The authorities in the southern city of Guangzhou, Guangdong province, initiated a campaign to forcibly test Africans for the coronavirus whilst ordering them to self-isolate or to quarantine in identified hotels. Several African citizens reported about being evicted by their landlords, forcing them to sleep on the street. Africans were also banned from entering hotels, shops and restaurants. In a video that went viral on social media, a McDonald’s employee in Guangzhou held up a poster that read, “We have been informed that from now on black people are not allowed to enter the restaurant. For the sake of your health consciously notify the local police for medical isolation, please understand the inconvenience caused.” In its response, the Chinese Government dismissed claims of racism, stressing that “China and Africa are friends, partners and brothers” and that it has zero tolerance for racism and discrimination. This quite interesting response from the Chinese Government begs the question: What explains the racist and xenophobic treatment of Africans in their friend’s territory?

Some scholarly articles, such as Barry Sautman[1], help us to understand racial biases and stereotypes in China and elsewhere in the world. Drawing from results of survey research on Chinese-African student clashes conducted in several Chinese cities in 1992, Sautman suggests that explicit and implicit racial stereotypes have a role in moulding anti-black racism in China. The most common definition of stereotype is: A preconceived idea or belief about a certain group. Explicit racial stereotypes operate directly, they are consciously activated and endorsed. In contrast, implicit racial stereotypes are indirect, they are unconsciously triggered and manifested. If we go back to the McDonald’s poster, we can somehow see the traits of implicit bias. The words “We have been informed” demonstrate a certain degree of ignorance and a conclusion, which was largely influenced by unconscious associations (and power). One may also argue that the poster shows explicit bias against black people. That the poster was consciously formed and McDonald’s staff (and management) were aware of their prejudices and attitudes towards black people. 

Turning to the other side of the coin, which has the Africans, the analysis on identity and violence by Amartya Sen [2]provides the premise for us to build our understanding of the issue. He asserts that sometimes our personal identities can be extremely limited in the viewpoint of others, no matter how we see ourselves. He says even when we are clear on how we want to see ourselves, we may still have a hard time in convincing others to see us in just that way. Generally, people see themselves, and have reason to see themselves in many different ways. Perhaps what Africans wanted was for their friends to simply view them as human beings and cease all prejudice and discrimination against them. They had an image in mind on how they want others to see them as, but this image differed from their friends’ image over them. 

Where does that leave us? My two cents, based on Nelson Mandela’s words: No one is born hating another person because of the colour of their skin, background or religion.[3] Human beings learn to love and hate – just like how we learn to talk, walk, and do other things. So, prejudice and discrimination attitudes or behaviours are nurtured by several factors, including context (family, society or nation) and power (government(s), institutions). The importance of integrating programmes on cultural awareness in curricula across the world cannot be overemphasised. In fact, some scholars, including Michael Winkelman[4], argue that awareness of cultural differences and their impact on behaviour is the beginning of intercultural effectiveness. Thus, when we integrate cultural awareness programmes in our education systems and even beyond, we create or strengthen the understanding of cultural differences amongst ourselves. The understanding that every culture in the world is a unique system, operating by its own rules and principles, thus we cannot force our own rules and principles into another system. Such programmes help us to unlearn preconceived ideas and misconceptions about other cultures, and increase the chance of us making more insightful comments and decisions in intercultural context(s). 


[1] Sautman, B. (1994). Anti-Black Racism in Post-Mao China. The China Quarterly, (138), 413-437. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/654951

[2] Sen, A. (2006). Chapter 1. The violence of illusion. In: Identity & Violence. The illusion of Destiny, 1-14. 

[3] Mandela, N. (1995). Long walk to freedom: The autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Boston: Back Bay Books.

[4] Winkelman, M. (2005). Cultural awareness, sensitivity & competence. Peosta, Iowa: Eddie Bowers Publishing Co., Inc.

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