American media teach Chinese about U.S. and racism

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Since I have been in China, I am frequently asked a range of questions pertaining to America’s culture, about myself and my life in America. One peculiar question which I have been asked on more than one occasion is, “Do you have a gun?” In the couple of weeks after the movie Crash was awarded the Oscar for Best Picture of 2005, the question, however, was, “Do all Black people in America have guns?”

My response to the gun question had been to talk about the rights of individuals in accordance with our Constitution and pursuant to individual states’ laws. Since the rise in popularity of Crash, however, I hesitate before responding, in anticipation of the direction in which the conversation will flow.

The main theme in Crash apparently reverberated in the minds of adults and students alike and caused some emotional reactions. A college student in a haunting emotional tone expressed his sorrow over the tragic shooting in the movie of a young man by a young policeman, both of whose lives were disastrously altered by prejudicial attitudes.

I was so intrigued by the profoundness of the comments provoked by Crash that I decided to conduct a random, unscientific survey of a select group of Chinese people. I designed a questionnaire to gather information about my sample group’s perceptions of race relations in America and to learn the source of such information. The questions I asked also elicited additional reactions to Crash.

The select group of people I had conversations with were approximately 20 people whom I know casually — whom I met in the park, book bar, and places where I have lectured. I spoke with college students, young working adults, and middle-aged men and women. The college students were excited to discuss this subject; as one exclaimed, the topic is “absolutely attracting to young people in China.” I believe the youth in China are fascinated with America, but the subject of race relations is as captivating as it is baffling.

The findings from my conversations are sensationally revealing about the select group of Chinese people’s perceptions of Americans based primarily on the images represented in the media, such as stories on television and in newspapers and magazines.

Undoubtedly, the impressions of race relations in America are formed primarily from the images Americans create in the form of movies, popular songs and television shows; and with the increasing popularity of the Internet, these images are easily accessible.

Media coverage of the September 2005 devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina was one of the most recent, and most visceral, portrayals of the lifestyles of a large number of African Americans. In the immediate aftermath, an African American family from New Orleans, homeless since the hurricane, was hosted by an international television station in Beijing.

The family shared their experiences with a live audience who was anxious to hear what the American government was doing to help all the poor people. The host of the program expressed his regret that so many Blacks in America had suffered this horrible tragedy.

The individuals with whom I spoke stated that extracts of America’s history are studied in school, so they were familiar with the period of slavery in America and the Civil Rights Movement. They also knew that laws have been enacted to ensure equal rights for all Americans. Almost every textbook includes a section on Martin Luther King, Jr. — middle school students even memorize the “I Have a Dream” speech. Additionally, Rosa Parks’ historical action in 1955 is included in textbooks; and many newer ones include an article on Oprah Winfrey, although she is relatively unknown, as are most Western television stars.

From my conversations, it was obvious that the general perception is that racial conflict is as much a part of America’s culture as is apple pie. One person said, “Racial discrimination has been a longtime problem in America,” and another person added that the problem “still exists, especially in L.A.” Another added, however, “There’s no society [anywhere in the world] where everyone is treated equally.”

That the overwhelming majority of white-collar jobs are held by Caucasians was also a common viewpoint, albeit not shared by all, as was the belief that most Blacks still live in poverty. I was thus taken aback that no one seemed surprised that I was formerly a successful banker in America.

Nonetheless, many asked whether or not as an African American I was afforded the same opportunities as Caucasian Americans.

All who saw the movie said they were not surprised by the message that achieving racial harmony continues to be a challenge in America. It was an eye-opener for at least one man that in America, as in China, there are conflicts between rich and poor, as well as conflicts between people of the same race. Most surprisingly, he said he learned from the movie that racism in America is not relegated solely between Black and White.

Of all the people with whom I had conversations, only one feared that the situation regarding race relations will worsen in America as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The majority, however, believed that although the situation today is not ideal in America or elsewhere, it will get better in the future. For another, he said “Crash has been a knock on the door; it reminds us that while we are so busy with our own work and life, there are still people who deserve justice,” and we must all work together to achieve it.

Jennifer Holder, Ed.D., a retired bank executive from St. Paul, is one of seven foreign teachers and the only African American at a foreign language school in Hangzhou, China. Dr. Holder welcomes reader responses to jyholder@msn.com.

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