“Your skin is like crocodile’s”: A case study of an African wài guó student in China

Xu, W., & Stahl, G. (2023). “‘Your skin is like crocodile’s’: a case study of an African wài guó student in China“. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 1-12.

In China, racialised ‘Othering’ can be traced back to the Spring and Autumn period (770-403 B.C.). The ethnic differences between ‘civilised Han Chinese’ and the ‘barbarian others’ were essentialised, with the geographic location and skin colour being used as determinants of foreignness (Wyatt, 2010). Han people, who possessed a lighter skin complexion and conformed to the Confucius moral codes, were perceived to be superior to other populations. This ideology of Han ethnocentrism appears to resonate with various forms of racism in the West, whereby differing skin colours, phenotypes, ‘ethnicities’ and ‘cultural backgrounds’ are employed as institutional and representational tools to categorise humans, so as to reinforce white supremacist ideologies (Ellefsen, Banafsheh, & Sandberg, 2022). In contemporary China, racially coded languages and derogatory labels such as ‘threat’, ‘violent blacks’, ‘black devils’ (hēi guǐ), or even ‘significant sources of risk’ are often used when referring to the Black communities (Bodomo, 2020; Daniels, 2014). These racial ideologies circulating in public spaces further consolidate the racial boundaries between ‘the Chinese Self’ and ‘the African Other’ (Lan, 2016; Liang & Le Billon, 2020).

Although much of the current research focuses on the patterns of the racialisation processes (see, for example, Carling & Haugen, 2021; Ho, 2017; Lan, 2016; Liang & Le Billon, 2020), there remains surprisingly little scholarship addressing how African international students exercise agency to reduce inter-group prejudices against all the odds and ‘bridge’ racial divides in China (Bodomo, 2010, 2012). In the paper ‘Your skin is like crocodile’s’: A case study of an African wài guó student in China published in Globalisation, Societies & Education (doi: 10.1080/14767724.2023.2193317), we presented a case study of a 25-year-old Burundian young man named Alex’s as he travelled on public transport to China’s rural areas. We were interested in both the dialogue (Freire, 2000) he established with village elders and his own self-dialogue concerning race relations. 

Informed by Freire’s (2000) conceptualisation, our findings indicated that dialogic practices assisted both Alex and the Chinese to recognise cultural differences, develop autonomy and courage. Dialogues became a conscientização process, where the Chinese Alex encountered may have critically realised that they lived in a world where stereotypes, colour prejudice and dominant beliefs oppressed their free expression and action, as well as imaginaries of other racial and ethnic group(s). Freire (2005, p. 83) would describe Alex’s adventure in China as a journey as ‘from reading to word to reading the world’. 

The data also suggested that Alex’s consciousness of himself and others was enhanced which could work to break down stereotypes, ignorance or racism which impedes intercultural interaction (Freire, 2005). The multi-way dialogue arguably liberated Alex’s voices to speak directly to the Chinese in Chinese, but also enabled him to critically read the Chinese society/culture departing from the positionalities of the Chinese. Therefore, Alex’s dialogic practices in China could be framed as ‘intercultural action for freedom’, where both his identity and the Chinese villagers’ identities are (re)shaped collectively through dialogue. 

Our finding are congruent with Flores (2021) who asserts that ‘Preparing students of color to navigate a racist world is not anti-racist unless it is coupled with providing them with tools to challenge (not just accommodate) racism’. Dialogue, in conjunction with the Chinese language, appears to be such a tool, fostering opportunities to awaken consciousness, and closing down the lure of stereotypes that leading to racism (see Li, 2021).

We advocate that the spotlight can be shed on fundamental public pedagogy concerning critical consciousness achievement among both Chinese and African communities in China. The opposition to racism ‘from below’ and in naturally occurring interactions might be expanded into social movements, contributing to reclaimed dignity and leading to collective actions that trigger socio-structural change. 


Bodomo, A. (2010). The African trading community in Guangzhou: An emerging bridge for Africa–China relations. The China Quarterly, 203, 693-707. 

Bodomo, A. (2012). Africans in China: A sociocultural study and its implications on Africa-China. Amherst: Cambria Press.

Bodomo, A. (2020). Historical and contemporary perspectives on inequalities and well-being of Africans in China. Asian Ethnicity, 21(4), 526-541. doi:10.1080/14631369.2020.1761246

Carling, J., & Haugen, H. Ø. (2021). Circumstantial migration: how Gambian journeys to China enrich migration theory. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 47(12), 2778-2795. doi:10.1080/1369183X.2020.1739385

Daniels, T. P. (2014). African international students in Klang Valley: colonial legacies, postcolonial racialization, and sub-citizenship. Citizenship Studies, 18(8), 855-870. doi:10.1080/13621025.2014.964548

Ellefsen, R., Banafsheh, A., & Sandberg, S. (2022). Resisting racism in everyday life: from ignoring to confrontation and protest. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 45(16), 435-457. doi:10.1080/01419870.2022.2094716

Flores, N. (2021). Twitter.  Retrieved from https://twitter.com/nelsonlflores

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, USA: Continuum.

Freire, P. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare to teach (D. Macedo, D. Koike, & A. Oliveira, Trans. Expanded ed.). Abingdon: Westview Press.

Ho, E. L.-E. (2017). The geo-social and global geographies of power: Urban aspirations of ‘worlding’ African students in China. Geopolitics, 22(1), 15-33. doi:10.1080/14650045.2016.1149697

Lan, S. (2016). The shifting meanings of race in China: A case study of the African diaspora communities in Guangzhou. City & Society, 28(3), 298-318. 

Li, W. (2021). TESOL educators can contribute to the fight-back against racial discrimination and hatred: A personal view from Britain. TESOL Journal, 12(3), 1-4. doi:10.1002/tesj.618

Liang, K., & Le Billon, P. (2020). African migrants in China: space, race and embodied encounters in Guangzhou, China. Social & Cultural Geography, 21(5), 602-628. doi:10.1080/14649365.2018.1514647

Wyatt, D. J. (2010). The blacks of premodern China. PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Authors’ bio:

Dr Wen Xu, East China Normal University, China

Dr. Wen Xu is a post-doc research fellow at East China Normal University, China. Her research interests focus on language(s) education and society, socio-cultural studies of education, learner identities, and equity/inequality. Considering the worldwide growing upheaval and scepticism around Chinese language education, she writes extensively on how Chinese literacy can be theorised as a pathway towards equity and upward social mobility for Australian students, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds. She can be contacted via email: xuwen0826@gmail.com.

Dr. Garth Stahl, University of Queensland, Australia

Dr. Garth Stahl is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Queensland, Australia. His research interests focus on the relationship between education and society, socio-cultural studies of education, student identities, equity/inequality, and social change. Currently, his research projects and publications encompass theoretical and empirical studies of youth, sociology of schooling in a neoliberal age, gendered subjectivities, equity and difference as well as educational reform.

Managing editor: Lisa (Zhiyun Bian)