The future’s bright, the future’s multi-racial

China has called up its first black athlete in the form of 19-year-old Ding Hui, who is in fact mixed-race. The ace volleyball player (pictured, below right) has a Chinese mother and a South African father, and speaks only Putonghua (Mandarin Chinese) and Hangzhouhua (the dialect of his home city, Hangzhou).

It will be good to see Ding Hui (丁慧) in action on TV, when he is actually brought out to the public later this month, and could then be seen in the next regional or national game (he plays for the Zhejiang volleyball squad). He’s preparing for the 2012 Olympics, in which he’ll represent China.

Before all that, however, it’ll also be interesting to see how Chinese people react to quite a ground-breaking step. China is far from mono-cultural, in the sense that it is home to over 50 ethnic Chinese minorities; but it is still all very unused to the concept of mixed-race marriages, and immigration, and is enormously sensitive to foreigners in positions of power in China.

Chinese national volleyball player Ding Hui
Chinese national volleyball player Ding Hui

From the UK’s Telegraph newspaper (the full article) we learn that, “Ding Hui…is affectionately nicknamed Xiao Hei, or Little Black, by his team mates”. ‘Little Black’… really? Are you serious? *Facepalm*

That doesn’t bode too well for his reception into wider Chinese society, where any divergence from majority Han Chinese looks or actions are rigorously inspected, and can even generate outright racist comments on lively Chinese BBS/discussion groups. There’s also little cultural awareness of other groups: for example, most Chinese know little or nothing about Islam, despite China having nearly 21 million Muslims (most of whom belong to three distinct ethnic groups: Hui people, 9.8 million; Uyghurs, 8.4 million; and Kazakhs, 1.25 million).

In the “Little Black” nickname there are elements of the ‘casual racism’ that was endemic in British society (and, I suspect across Europe and North America) until it largely ended in the 1960’s or 70’s, as evidenced in the unfunny sitcoms in the UK in the 1970’s that centered around a black family moving in next door to a white family. Although the ‘casually racist’ white male of those sitcoms was made to look like the idiot for being so outdated, it would be massively uncomfortable to have to watch that show now.

And so, I hope that Ding Hui will have a warm and understanding welcome on the national stage, and open many closed minds in the subjects of mixed-races and a new form of multi-culturalism and pluralism in 21st century China.

There’s already been golfing sensation Tiger Woods in the US, and F1 racer Lewis Hamilton in the UK, but they have come late enough into a blossomed multi-racial and more accepting society to not ruffle any feathers. Ding Hui will ruffle feathers, provoke a debate, and probably upset a lot of nationalists although he’d probably prefer not to. If the debate does get quite heated, he can at least take solace in the great pull that a fresh face has for advertisers in sports, and dream a dream of the Tiger Woods and Lewis Hamilton style advertising deals that could be coming his way.

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12 Comments
  1. Haven’t watched volleyball for a while now but from what I remember the Men’s team hasn’t got the best of records compared to the women’s team. Hope this 小黑 can help them go further in competitions.

    BTW, why has he got a girl’s name? What was his parents thinking? lol

  2. The actor who played Alf Garnett said that the thing which depressed him most at the time was that some people at the time liked to watch it because they approved of the racist language used on the show. His intention was to point out the ridiculousness of these attitudes – remembering that the show came out at about the same time as Enoch Powell made his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech warning of violence if immigration were to continue, and these were the days when football fans still thought it was alright to through bananas on the pitch to taunt black players.

    All the same, I think that the fact that Ding is playing for the national team, that he is half Chinese, and the sheer force of tokenism will ensure that he is not overtly discriminated against. If more mixed race people are allowed into the national squad though, this might change things somewhat.

  3. @Nick – 小胖 is apparently all fine, as fat people are the last group that can still be ridiculed!

    @FOARP – I remember reading that same thing about the ALf Garnett actor. That sitcom is an exception in being quite militantly left-wing, although it ridiculed even the unions. I was thinking of some other sitcom whose name escapes me; and everyone else has probably forgotten too.

  4. I saw the news on TV. I don’t even know it’s something significant in China’s sports if I had not read your post. Don’t worry. Most Chinese people will support 丁慧 just like they support any other Chinese athelet. A ground-breaking step? Yeah, maybe, but most Chinese just like me are not aware of this. We don’t even give much attention to this specific news. Go 小黑! Go China!

  5. 小黑 his nickname in China would be a term of endearment. We use 小,老, as names of friendship. So, the author of this piece, probably a 老外, is bringing his own racism to the article. Unlike America, 小黑 is not like saying the N-word.

  6. @Kitty: The problem isn’t with the “小” part. It is, of course, with the “黑” part.

    Steven isn’t bringing his own racism to the article, but you’re right in that he is bringing his culture’s racial sensitivity to the article.

    I’ve seen this “China’s not racist towards Blacks, because China never had African slaves” argument several times (here and elsewhere) but what I find is often overlooked by the Chinese making the argument is that judging someone based on the colour of their skin is acceptable in Chinese society. It largely isn’t in Western society and so creates friction.

    The larger question is whether or not that judgement plays a role in discrimination or the formation of stereotypes. Among Chinese it certainly does (hence the prevalence of whitening creams in supermarkets and umbrellas on sunny days).

    You’re right that 小黑 isn’t the same as calling him “nigger” (why do people think saying “N-word” is more polite? We all know what it means), but identifying him as different from his teammates based on the colour of his skin could be considered to have racial-undertones, which is what I think Steven is pointing out.

  7. in this world there is advantage and disadvantage,white,black,and yellow skin,me i don’t care about color or where u come from,i just love everyone,chinese,afrincan american,or what.just love we need in this world.because what one can do,i dont think another can do the same thing,it will be different,thus why we have diff.color,and countries.if u go to the world expo,u will understand my mean,diff.things in diff. room.so let’s stop this.thanks

  8. in this world there is advantage and disadvantage,white,black,and yellow skin,me i don’t care about color or where u come from,i just love everyone,chinese,afrincan american,or what.just love we need in this world.

  9. because what one can do,i dont think another can do the same thing,it will be different,thus why we have diff.color,and countries.if u go to the world expo,u will understand my mean,diff.things in diff. room.so let’s stop this.thanks

  10. who like bascketball? hehehehe look at the way blacks play bb,is totally diff,from whites or yellow people,and look at the way chiness people play kumfo,is really great,so let all study well and know more things and what is going on in this world.

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