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 Although the ‘casually racist’ white male of those sitcoms was made to look like the idiot for being so outdated, it would be massively uncomfortable to have to watch that show now.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.