On She Goes

WeChat in China & Casual Anti-Blackness

How a messaging app exposed racism in translation.

Chavonn Williams Shen
Chavonn Williams Shen
October 25, 2017
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Five years ago, when I first began dating my future husband, Jay, he asked me to send him a photo of myself to show his parents. Jay, who is Chinese and first came to the US as an international high school student, had just shared with his parents that he was dating me, a Black girl. Their first question was, “How dark is she?”

After they received the email with my photo, they sent a message back: “Oh, she’s fine! But tell her not to stay in the sun for too long.”

Chavonn in front of a shopping mall entrance in Chengdu, China.
photo courtesy of Chavonn Williams Shen

Though Jay’s parents have since fully welcomed me as one of their own, I was sadly unsurprised by this first introduction of sorts. I’ve encountered my share of anti-Black racism while living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and I was learning that anti-Blackness exists in Chinese culture as well.

A recent story about WeChat, the most popular messaging app in China, shows how a Black woman living in China received a translated message from a coworker using the app that read, “The n—-r is late.”

Ann James, the message’s recipient, checked with friends to see if the app accurately translated the message and discovered her coworker’s message really said, “The Black foreigner is late.” In China, terms like “white foreigner” and “Black foreigner” are neutral descriptors. Further tests showed WeChat mostly used the N-word when “Black foreigner” was used with adjectives related to negative stereotypes, like “late” or “lazy.” But the app correctly translated neutral phrases like, “Happy birthday to the Black foreigner.” These polar results are likely due to the app’s artificial intelligence gleaning racist phrases from users and spitting them back out when translating. This may be the reason behind this racist glitch, but it’s not a good enough excuse for an app that’s used by 768 million people in China.

WeChat screenshot with Jay after reading the article.
photo by Chavonn Williams Shen

I asked my husband about Chinese people’s relationship and knowledge of the N-word. More people these days have access to social media and the internet, which gives them access to a variety of media, leading to exposure to English anti-Black slurs. He stated that the Chinese people who know of the N-word often understand that it’s offensive; they just may not know how offensive it is.

Another recent article highlights anti-Blackness in China in a photo exhibit called This is Africa that compared exaggerated Black facial expressions with those of animals such as baboons and gorillas. Visitors advocated for its removal, saying the exhibit was racist. With the museum facing international pressure, they eventually complied despite many involved saying the depictions were meant to flatter, not offend. This exhibit and the WeChat offense are just two of the latest examples of Chinese cultural anti-Blackness. Imagine if you were a Black traveler visiting China, and you walked into an exhibit like this or were in a group chat where the N-word was used—how crushing would that be?

Jay and I at Sunasia Aquarium in Dalian, China.
photo courtesy of Chavonn Williams Shen

When Jay and I got engaged and visited his family in Dalian, China, I arrived eager for new experiences and with hopes to improve my Chinese. My Chinese then was superficial at best, composed mostly of “hello,” “thank you,” and food-related things. When I returned to the States, friends asked if my Chinese had improved. My response: “I learned enough to know when people are talking bad about me.”

Though this wasn’t blatant anti-Blackness, they still made it very apparent that I was a foreigner and that I didn’t belong. In spite of this, my trip was definitely worthwhile.

I also had amazing experiences there as well. All of my grandparents have passed, some before I was born, and I didn’t grow up near them. When I told this to Jay’s family, his nai nai, or paternal grandmother, said she would gladly adopt me. Our conversations were always translated, but she made a huge effort to interact with me. Jay’s friends and family always made sure to make me feel included, even with little things like taking the time to explain dishes to me when we went out to eat. It seems like a small gesture, but it meant a lot when I was in a new country.  But I also encountered plenty of cringe-worthy experiences when not with family. Jay and I went to a nearby aquarium, and I overheard staff asking each other whether I was “African Black” or “American Black,” among other stereotypes.  We rode the subway and kids would unabashedly point, telling their parents they found a Black American. Their stares grew more intense whenever we held hands in public, as if the very notion of a Chinese man with a Black woman in any context outside business was absurd. A woman once asked if Jay was my translator. He told her yes, but also said I was his wife. Her stares quickly went from curious to confused. Though this wasn’t blatant anti-Blackness, they still made it very apparent that I was a foreigner and that I didn’t belong. In spite of this, my trip was definitely worthwhile. I got to hug tiger cubs and get covered in giraffe drool at a local zoo in Dalian, we sang karaoke in private lounges, and I had my first taste of the sweet mangosteen fruit—something I can’t find in the Midwest. China is a beautiful country with thousands of years of rich history and breathtaking landmarks that I know I’ll visit often, but Black visitors should have realistic expectations.

It’s exhausting enough to deal with these things. I can’t imagine how shocking it would be to use WeChat in China and see the mistranslated n-word referring to me because I was late to meet up with friends. Anti-Blackness in China is a serious problem that shows up in seemingly innocuous ways but can have a deep impact on Black visitors.

China, do better.