Last month the BBC published a video documenting a patently racist practice by some Chinese nationals in Africa. Titled “Racism for Sale”, the video documents how, under the guise of making greeting videos for online sale in China, a number of unscrupulous Chinese video-makers coach African children to unwittingly say, in Mandarin, deeply derogatory things about themselves, and dark-skinned Africans in general.

To illustrate the practice, the documentary focuses on a Chinese man locally known as Susu (Mandarin for uncle), whose videos featuring rural Malawian children are particularly egregious. The video is part of the BBC’s Africa Eye indie investigative documentary series, which has covered a lot of topics since its inception, from the cough syrup addiction crisis among Nigeria’s street children, to extra-judicial executions of civilians by members of Cameroon’s military, and more.

Visceral reaction

The greeting videos by Susu are apparently quite popular in China, but they are sickening to watch. For myself, it felt like having stinking mud thrown at my face. More than once while watching the documentary I had a gruesome vision of irate villagers mobbing and lynching the Chinese man. Even worse, I’m not sure that I would have been quick to condemn such a lynching, had it happened.

If you feel that is going too far, then either you’ve never come in contact with your dark side, or you’re too scandalised by it to admit to its existence. In any case, I make a note of these feelings because I think it was perfectly natural for me to have them after watching Susu’s videos. Though he filmed them two countries away, the unlucky children he exploited could as well have been my own siblings, or me and my buddies in our younger days.

But I also include the statement about my feelings only to underscore the fact that it would not be perfectly natural for me to use them as the basis for action. Nor does my reaction justify a sweeping conclusion about Chinese people, or a government clampdown on racism. Human nature, after all, also admits of civilisation, and I have enough of that good stuff to know that the actions of one man or many, however vile, do not necessarily represent their societies.

Tarred with the same brush

Unfortunately, two current trends make reasonable conversation about issues like this quite tricky. The first is that the world’s appetite for accusations of collective racism is so big that it’s the default lens through which we are expected to view such stories. The second is that there’s also a strong appetite for stories about Chinese malpractices in Africa. Cases like the one handled by the documentary hit the sweet spot in validating both of them.

These stances, though seductive, are mistaken. The truth is that the vast majority of human beings aren’t racist. They are just human, and it is human to be ignorant, unnuanced, or even casually derogatory about people outside one’s group. Rather than a moral stance, it’s an existential one; there is little immediate benefit to knowing outsiders well. We just don’t give much thought to the rest of mankind, and so are prone to be indifferent to them or treat them as enemies. This is partly why I felt as I did after seeing Susu’s videos.

Thankfully, what it means to be part of an in-group has changed a lot lately. Each of us now probably belongs to at least one planet-spanning in-group. We are all now privy to the actions of real chauvinists in every part of the world, and tend to feel the same way about them. When, despite censorship, the documentary made it onto Chinese social media, it met with a loud outcry and calls for government action. Many regular Chinese people, it turns out, felt the same way as I did, even if not, thankfully, as creatively.

Personally accountable

Of course, though they are condemned even in their own societies, humankind will always have people like Susu, who have racist ideas and invest their energy and time into defending and perpetuating them, whether by making stupid videos or reserving their respect and good graces to people who look a certain way or speak a certain language. Such people can be found in every society, and their targets need have nothing in common, save being perceived to be different.

This is not an apologia for racists. Far be it from me to defend folks like Susu (whose nickname, by the way, means “piss” in Kenyan slang, for what that’s worth). Being racist alone would have been bad enough. Exploiting poor children to prove it took him to the very edge of my capacity for sympathy. The only silver lining here is that, by exploiting children, and then trying to flee Malawi via an unofficial crossing, he broke multiple laws. He’s in the custody of Malawian authorities, and should suffer the consequences of his actions.

So, no, I’m not defending racist behaviour. What I seek to do with this article, instead, is to remind my readers that, in our polarised times, rational people, as we aspire to be, should not be quick to paint entire societies with broad brushes, though we should feel strongly tempted to do so. Little good in history has come out of such categorisations, and little is ever likely to.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.