The Globality of Antiblackness

Since the turn of the millennium, the proliferation of Africa–China encounters—Chinese investment in and migration to Africa and African migration to the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—has spurred new global racial discourses. In the 2010s, numerous high-profile incidents of anti-African, antiblack racism in the PRC made international headlines. For instance, in the infamous 2016 Qiaobi laundry detergent commercial, an African man enters the apartment of a fair-skinned Chinese woman. After rebuffing his sexual advances, she pushes him into a washing machine, and out pops a light-skinned Chinese man—a suitable object of desire. For the 2018 Spring Festival Gala, Chinese actors donned blackface on Chinese state television. The skit was intended to celebrate China–Africa cooperation but was a spectacle of African stereotypes. The same year, Chinese audiences negatively reacted to the Afro-futuristic blockbuster film Black Panther, with many viewers complaining that the movie was ‘too black’ (Huang 2018). As black (黑, hei) is a colour and a racial category, the comment ambiguously refers to both the all-Black cast and the dark colour palette of the film.

In China, African nationals face visa restrictions, police harassment, housing discrimination, and cultural and linguistic barriers (Adebayo 2023; Cissé 2021; Lan 2017; Marsh 2014)—all situations well documented by the African diasporic organisation Black Livity China. Everything came to a head in 2020. As Covid-19 spread in Wuhan, African nationals in Guangzhou were systematically removed from their homes and forced into quarantine—a singling out that African leaders and nongovernmental organisations denounced as xenophobic and racist (HRW 2020). On Twitter, users called for a boycott of Chinese businesses and similar treatment of Chinese nationals in African countries. Others linked the mistreatment of African migrants in China with the recent white vigilante murder of Ahmaud Arbery in the United States, connecting the events in Guangzhou to antiblack violence worldwide. By 2020, Chinese antiblackness had a name and was trending on Twitter: #RacisminChina, #ChinaMustExplain, #ChinaMustFall (a riff on #RhodesMustFall), and #BlackLivesMatterChina (Ouassini et al. 2021).

In the field of Africa–China studies, critical scholarship on race rightfully cautions against grafting Euro-American concepts of race onto Chinese ones and equating racism across historical contexts (Castillo 2020; Huynh and Park 2018; Yoon 2023). Yet, much work stops short of naming antiblack racism and antiblackness. Instead, scholars tend to comparatively examine how Chinese and Africans are racialised, which makes equivalent antiblack and anti-Asian racisms under white supremacy and flattens relations of power between non-white groups. With these concerns in mind, I aim to zero in on the specificity of antiblackness without collapsing historical and discursive differences. Antiblackness is more than individual ignorance, attitudes, and cultural norms or a variation of racism. It names a specific violence and global system with distinct logics in which everyone, including China, is embedded. Black (黑 hei) may be specific to Chinese racial epistemes but it is nevertheless implicated in reproducing antiblackness in global discursive contexts (Sheridan 2022).

In this essay, I stage a conversation between Africa–China studies and theories of antiblackness aligned with Afro-pessimism—a prominent theory in the Northern/Anglophone academy from where I write. In so doing, I hope to bring one of the most transformative approaches to Black studies to bear on one of the storied global developments of the twenty-first century. Afro-pessimism takes slavery and its afterlife as the constitutive condition of Western modernity, positing the Black as Slave outside the Human. Black existence is one of abjection, fungibility, and property, an ontological state of nonbeing irreconcilable with humanity. Antiblackness saturates our world, one made by five centuries of Euro-American empire and racial capitalism. Chinese antiblackness offers a counterexample for considering Afro-pessimism’s transhistorical, universal terms. In Chinese racial thought, Africans have long been characterised as the ‘slave race’, even as China has a relatively limited history of slavery compared with the West. China, too, has long been the West’s paradigmatic Other (Eng et al. 2011). What happens when the paradigmatic universalism of Afro-pessimism is brought to bear on the historical specificity of Sino-African dynamics? What does antiblackness mean in this historical context, and when does Chineseness depart (categorically, exceptionally) from Western modernity? How does antiblackness manifest when Blackness and race are in translation? Do the core ideas of Afro-pessimism hold? What new inquiries and understandings of antiblackness as a global phenomenon might surface? I work through these disparate intellectual traditions and conceptual vocabularies as one part of the broader project of thinking through the theories, methodologies, and political stakes of Black studies in China. In what follows, I give an overview of Afro-pessimist ideas and Chinese discourses of Blackness, then consider how antiblackness manifests across Global China today.

Afro-Pessimism and Its Critics

Credited with the ontological turn in Black studies, Afro-pessimism posits Black as Slave in the protracted afterlife of slavery. Slavery names a relational dynamic and structure of violence, not a historical era or event. The slave relation, as Frank B. Wilderson III (2020, 2021) contends, is the essential antagonism between Black and non-Black, Human and Slave. As Jared Sexton (2010: 36) writes, ‘slaves are paradigmatically black … blackness serves as the basis of enslavement’. Afro-pessimism shifts the axis from Black/white to Black/non-Black, subsuming white supremacy under antiblackness. Accordingly, although Chinese people have been oppressed by imperialism and white supremacy, they ally with white and other non-Black people to perpetuate antiblackness. Antiblackness stands apart from racism, imperialism, and colonialism because of the singular, non-analogous experience of slavery. On the exceptionality of antiblackness, Charles Mills (2021: 35) states:

The position of Blacks is unique among all the groups racialized as nonwhite by the modern West. For no other nonwhite group has race been so enduringly constitutive of their identity, so foundational for racial capitalism, and so lastingly central to white racial consciousness and global racial consciousness in general.

Afro-pessimism has vitally renewed attention to antiblackness and generated critical dissensus over its theoretical assumptions and political implications. As Iyko Day (2015) has problematised, Afro-pessimism’s insistence on the exceptionality of slavery tends to foreclose historical, relational, and dialectical analysis of slavery, settler colonialism, and capitalism. Singularity entrenches intellectual and political siloes and impedes coalitions forged from overlapping but varied historical oppressions. In a searing critique of Afro-pessimism’s canonical works, Annie Olaloku-Teriba (2018: 105) takes up the assumption that Black is a stable, coherent category with global generalisability. Afro-pessimism abstracts and mystifies Blackness with the unintended effect of essentialising it as a phenotype. ‘Black’, ‘Africa’, and ‘Slave’ lose their historical specificity in ontological terms: ‘[T]o be racialised as black and to be a slave are treated as one and the same’ (Olaloku-Teriba 2018: 100). This is not a polemical interpretation of Afro-pessimism but a critical restatement of its core principles.

The contingency of Blackness is key to conceptualising Chinese antiblackness. In an early essay entitled ‘Facts of Blackness’, Denise Ferreira da Silva (1998) problematises the transposition of US-centric racial formation theory to global ‘elsewheres’. She presciently points out the problem of assuming ‘the universal (ontological) character of the categories employed in their analysis’ (Ferreira da Silva 1998: 204). Instead, the ‘intrinsically multiple quality of black subjectivity demands attention to the specific historical and discursive developments informing a society’s strategies of racial subordination’ (Ferreira da Silva 1998: 230–31). Afro-pessimism fails to contend with ‘the divergent processes of racialisation and ethnicisation in colonial and slave contexts’ that differentially incorporated Africans—along with Asian and Indigenous peoples—into capitalism (Olaloku-Teriba 2018: 115). Antiblackness is produced through specific historical conditions, global locations, and epistemologies. Investigating Chinese antiblackness requires locating it in histories of race, empire, slavery, and capitalism, none of which is discrete, and across multiple conceptual vocabularies of race and Blackness.

If antiblackness is a condition of Western modernity, it is also global in scale. But if antiblackness, like modernity, is not universal, what makes it global? Antiblackness achieves its illusory global totality as the sum of its different local forms, each grounded in place-specific histories and genealogies of race; together they achieve ‘global’ coherence. Here, I build on Adam Bledsoe and Willie Jamaal Wright’s (2019: 18) framing of global antiblackness and global capitalism as enmeshed in a web: ‘Empirical examples from across the world demonstrate that while localized relations remain distinct, global capital accumulation and anti-Blackness remain fundamentally interconnected.’ Although antiblackness is historically rooted in Euro-American colonialism, slavery, and white supremacy, as capitalism’s centre shifts to the PRC, its ever-expanding structure incorporates Chinese subjects into local racial projects.

Blackness in Translation

In their introduction to the book Antiblackness, João H. Costa Vargas and Moon-Kie Jung (2021: 4) raise the global scope of antiblackness across the Western and non-Western worlds: ‘Since the dawn of modernity, Black people have been progressively, singularly positioned—materially and symbolically—as the “slave race” around the globe.’ This is the case in China, where ‘Black’, ‘African’, and ‘Slave’ have gone together, albeit in quite different ways from in the United States. Black, which signifies both colour and race, is associated with the dark, shadowy, sinister, immoral, illegal, and undocumented (Sautman 1994). Only recently did Black become a racial category linked to Africa and Africans. Initially, Blackness was an internal concept to China insofar as the antecedents of its modern meanings and associations were formed before European contact.

The concept of Blackness became primarily associated with slavery through the premodern figure of the dark-skinned kunlun slave (崑崙). In premodern times, kunlun, named after the Kunlun Mountains on the western edge of China, referred to dark-complexioned Chinese, Khmers, and Malays. The term designated the geographic otherness of frontier peoples and signified dark-skinned individuals and was established well before documented encounters between Chinese and Africans. In premodern and modern encounters, African peoples were incorporated into the term kunlun and its associations with magic, bestiality, and slavery. These contacts were sporadic, but literary depictions of African ‘foreign slaves’, ‘devil slaves’, and ‘kunlun slaves’ were nevertheless lasting (Dikötter 2015; Snow 1988; Wyatt 2010).

In addition to the figuration of slavery, there is a history of Chinese slavery and encounters with enslaved Africans in China. During the Tang (618–907) and Song (960–1279) periods, Arab traders brought African slaves to Canton (Guangzhou) to serve the cosmopolitan class. Whether they were treated as chattel remains unknown (Wyatt 2010: 70). Chinese encountered enslaved Africans aboard European ships and when European merchants arrived in China with slaves between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries (Wyatt 2010: 8). Until the 1920s, Africans were categorised as the ‘black slave race’ (Dikötter 2015: 93). In the Han Chinese imaginary, Blackness has always signified enslavement (Shih 2013: 157). These premodern ideas have a long afterlife and constitute an alternative genealogy of antiblackness—one that begins in the Kunlun Mountains, not the Atlantic Ocean.

Chinese ideas of race emerge from distinct constellations of knowledge and the global historical conditions that produced them. In modern Chinese thought, race combines colour, class, and lineage and indexes China’s position in the world. The invention of Han Chinese identity and race was a nationalist response to Japanese and Western imperialism in the late Qing and Republican eras. Race became equated with nation through the term minzu (民族): a people (民, min) of common patrilineal descent (族, zu). Han people were envisioned as descendants of the Yellow Emperor—a mythology that united Han Chinese through a common patrilineal line and territorial soil against foreign ‘white devils’ and ‘black devils’ (Dikötter 2015; Driscoll 2020). Chinese thinkers who were exposed to Darwinian and Spencerian evolutionary theories through British missionaries and Japanese translations turned consciousness of skin colour, protonationalist sentiment, and genealogical thinking into a systemic theory of race as a ‘breed of lineage’ (种族)—the closest translation of ‘race’ (Fennel 2013). They divided the world into four or five ‘breeds of lineage’—black, white, yellow, red, and/or brown—with white and yellow at the top and black at the bottom (Dikötter 2015).

Offering a complementary case, Jae Kyun Kim and Moon-Kie Jung (2021) trace contemporary antiblackness in Korea to the emergence of ideas of Blackness vis-à-vis Japanese and European imperialism. Before a Korean racial identity took hold, Blackness entered Korean imaginaries through how intellectuals metaphorised slavery. They equated the loss of sovereignty to foreign states with enslavement—the fate of a presumably inferior people to be avoided. Likewise, in the early twentieth century, Chinese intellectuals saw Africa as the ‘truly last unhistorical space of the modern world’. The continent was peopled by slaves, giving way to a binary of historical/ahistorical space and people/slave (Karl 2002: 121–22). Chinese thinkers followed the Second Boer War (1899–1902) between the British and Dutch-descended Afrikaners, which consolidated two competing white settler-colonial projects into a single nation-state. Chinese intellectuals did not side with the Africans dispossessed of their land and exploited as labour, whom they deemed culturally inferior. Instead, they sympathised with Afrikaners, who, like them, were subjugated under British rule (Karl 2002).

Blackness and its association with Africa and slavery have been a cornerstone of Chinese antiblackness. In contemporary popular Chinese discourses, ‘Black’ and ‘African’ are used interchangeably (Huang 2020). Chinese antiblackness draws on antiblack ideas through the cross-pollination of Euro-American discourses, but it departs from the history of transatlantic slavery that underpins prevailing theories of antiblackness. Slavery was more figurative than material in China, a spectral presence, not a lasting institution, and indeterminately racial or chattel in character. Other histories are also at play. Chinese antiblackness emerged alongside the constitution of a radicalised Chinese national identity in the historical encounter with Western and Japanese imperialisms. An anti-imperial invention, race located vis-à-vis the white/West and Black/Africa in a global racial hierarchy that animates antiblackness across Global China today.

Antiblackness Across Global China

To return to the beginning of this essay, given increased Africa–China engagements, the twinned ideas of Africa and Blackness have re-entered Chinese popular imaginations. In this context, to speak of race is to invoke racial, civilisational, and developmental hierarchies that index China’s position in the world. In the twenty-first century and Global China’s extension to Africa and Latin America, the PRC has taken up the ‘yellow man’s burden’ of modernising the formerly colonised world (Nyíri 2006). Nowhere is this clearer than in the 2017 blockbuster film Wolf Warrior 2, set in a generic African country, which contrasts China’s promise for the continent’s future against well-worn Western and Chinese stereotypes of Africa out of time (Liu and Rofel 2018).

In the Global South, Chinese migrants compare the quality (素质, suzhi) of themselves with local people and the level of economic development of the PRC with their new host countries, recasting old civilisational hierarchies of white and yellow at the top and black at the bottom into developmental ones. As I observed in my fieldwork in South Africa, my Chinese interlocutors sealed themselves off from the perceived dangers of the African city, living in securitised enclaves, avoiding ‘black areas’, and distancing themselves from African employees. They disparaged the ‘backwardness’ of Africa and attributed economic development to British colonialism. African workers were called ‘black labour’ (黑工)—a term associated with undocumented labour in China that denoted their location at the bottom of the labour hierarchy. Some Chinese migrants characterised Africans as less-than-human ‘brutes’ and ‘black devils’. Enduring ideas of the ‘black slave race’ devalue Black labour and life today.

Antiblackness plays out on Chinese online forums and microblogs. Scholars have analysed a litany of instances in which Africans and African migrants are described as parasites, primates, and predators of Chinese women, which I do not reproduce here (Cheng 2011; Frazier and Zhan 2014; Pfafman et al. 2015). African migrants in Chinese cities are often called ‘triply illegal Black people’ (三非黑人), lacking legal documentation of entrance, residence, and work. They are scapegoated, along with rural–urban migrants, for urban decay and crime. Contemporary Chinese antiblackness goes back to the 1980s campus protests and the backlash against Maoist support for decolonising African nations that was incited by Chinese fears of African male sexuality (Cheng 2011; Sautman 1994). Chinese antiblackness expresses resentment towards Africans seeking entrepreneurial opportunities in China and the PRC’s aid to African nations.

As before, moral panic over interracial relationships, mixed-race children, and Chinese women’s sexuality is a flashpoint for antiblackness. The emphasis on racial purity reflects the popularisation of eugenicist thinking in the 1990s and contemporary heteropatriarchal racial nationalism in which Han patrilineage is reproduced through the endogamous family (Dikötter 2015; Huang 2020). One netizen makes explicit the latent antiblackness of Han racial nationalism: ‘It’s okay if you want to marry, just don’t leave your children/descendants in China. I don’t want future Chinese people to be like those half-black half-yellow people in Latin American countries’ (Pfafman et al. 2015: 544). As racialised migrants arrive in China and Chinese diasporas expand across the Global South, older civilisational hierarchies are recast into developmental ones and biopolitical imperatives with gendered antiblack features. Chinese antiblackness remakes what Ferreira da Silva (2015: 36) called a twentieth-century racial grammar of development that naturalised the scientific, technological, and economic developmental capacities of the white West and the incapacity of the racialised non-West.

As evident in China’s ‘win-win development’ and humanitarianism in Africa and the Global South, China positions itself as the leader of the continent and former Third World. As Black studies scholars have importantly argued, the afterlife of slavery animates antiblackness. Additionally, a Sinocentric racial grammar of Chinese developmental capacity—and its corollary, Black/African lack thereof—is part of twenty-first-century antiblackness.

Antiblackness Beyond the Atlantic

In a 2016 Zhihu forum on international reactions to the Qiaobi laundry detergent commercial, most commentors balked at Western political correctness and raised the issue of anti-Asian racism, equating them as a deflection strategy. One commentator advocated respect and reciprocity while citing Confucian principles and contrasting China with the United States: ‘We Chinese have never bought or sold black slaves, and we have never had black blood on our hands. This is a fact.’ This comment, while in the spirit of equality, positions Chinese as outside histories of slavery and Western epistemes. An amnesiac act, it disavows the history of slavery in China and the symbolic role slavery played in the formation of Han racial identity. The commentor poses my conundrum: how to think about antiblackness when Blackness is in translation, and when the transatlantic history of slavery, taken to be constitutive of antiblackness, is one of many animating forces. Chinese antiblackness is informed by slavery but not of the same kind.

Despite these differences, Chinese antiblackness resonates, sometimes uncannily, with universalised Western antiblackness. We might consider other logics and relations that shape Chinese antiblackness, including a Sinocentric racial grammar of development and conception of race that emerge from colonial subjugation, which is coeval but not analogous with slavery. Global antiblackness achieves its illusory global totality through its myriad localised forms that reinforce and multiply each other when they overlap.

More than twenty years into the twenty-first century—which many see as the ‘Chinese Century’—Chinese racial formations and antiblackness are increasingly salient in and beyond the PRC and worthy of critical examination beyond the siloes of China studies and Black studies. In writing this essay, my intention is not to engage in ‘whataboutism’ by reading two bodies of ideas to point out their myopias, nor to catalogue local expressions of antiblackness, which is necessary to a degree but can inflict its own order of epistemic violence. My hope is to question divisions of knowledge and the presumed universality of categories and relations of Black/non-Black, West/non-West, Black/white, Human/non-Human as a springboard for further inquiry.

Ferreira da Silva’s (1998: 230–31) essay is still urgent more than two decades later:

[T]he study of any specific strategy of racial subordination must account for its placing in the global historical and discursive context in which the histories of modern societies and the biographies of racialised subjects have been written. Only then will we be able to formulate insurgent counterdiscourses, which will be at the same time truly non-ethnocentric theoretical and political interventions.

There is much work ahead for thinking through antiblackness across Global China to understand and dismantle it, which will necessarily be relational and coalitional.



I thank Danchen Xu for assistance with assembling a social media archive and Christian Sorace, Ivan Franceschini, and Jan Borrie for carefully editing drafts of this essay.

Featured Image: Jene Highstein, Black Sphere, Installation View, 1980. PC: The Renaissance Society.



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Mingwei Huang

Mingwei Huang is an Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Dartmouth College, USA. Her book The Chinese Century and the City of Gold: Racial Capitalism After Whiteness is forthcoming with Duke University Press in 2024.

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