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Race, Culture and the Politics of Being Black in China

Being black in China is not easy, but it’s not as bad as many would have you think, according to our two guests this week who are both black immigrants currently living in Beijing. Sure, people stare a lot and there are often some inappropriate questions about hair and skin color but more often than not says Black Lives in China creator Nicole Bonnah, those awkward questions come from a good place: curiosity.

Nicole, originally from the United Kingdom, is a Beijing-based journalist who is embarking on an ambitious documentary film project about daily life for black immigrants living across China. One of the people Nicole interviewed for the film was Tiffany Johnson, an African-American educator also based in Beijing.

Tiffany, like Nicole, said China’s largely homogeneous culture and inexperience in dealing with diversity does lead to some awkward encounters, but she adds that it would incorrect to label this “racism.” Compared to the United States, where race is a filter for almost everything in society, the Chinese are largely ignorant about issues of race.  So when Chinese people say things that would otherwise be off-limits in Africa or the West, Tiffany and Nicole argue that because the intent isn’t the same than as if those same words were said in New York, London or Johannesburg, the impact is also different.

Nicole and Tiffany join Eric & Cobus to talk about what it’s like to be a black in China.

About Nicole Bonnah:

Born in London, Nicole Bonnah is a British journalist who has been living and working in China since 2013. While working as a foreign editor at CCTV News Content (CCTV+) headquarters in Beijing, she is currently producing her debut documentary, The Black Orient: Black Lives in China.

The documentary is an accumulation of years of experience in covering human stories centered on the experiences of ethnic minority groups. Nicole’s latest undertaking focuses on the cultural studies of ethnic migrant groups in China, empowering People of Colour and their communities to tell their own stories.

As a journalist, Nicole’s writing has been featured in a number of news outlets, including, London’s number one Black Newspaper –  The Voice, and China’s Global Times. Graduated with a BA in Journalism, Film and News Media from Roehampton University, Nicole is currently completing her Master’s Degree in Professional Journalism at Edinburgh Napier University.

About Tiffany Johnson:

Tiffany Johnson is an American elementary teacher in Beijing, China. She graduated in 2013 with a second degree in Elementary Education and Special Education. Shortly after obtaining that degree she decided that the best way to teach her students about life and how to be successful on its roller-coaster was to break out of the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania bubble and explore the world and learn for herself. So she hopped on a plane and moved to China.

She has lived in China for 2 years and plans to stay another 2 years and then hopes to continue to explore, learn, and educate in other parts of the world. She had a bumpy ride in the beginning stages of transitioning to China but has learned how to adapt and accept the culture and learn how to become a part of it. Tiffany has recently taken over the Elementary Department in her school and plans to delve into the administrative side to education as a way to continue to develop professionally and personally. She decided to take part in the “Black Lives in China” documentary by Nicole Bonnah as a way to be a catalyst in educating not only a small population of students but an entire culture. Tiffany will be getting married in October of 2016.

What is The China-Global South Project?


The China-Global South Project is passionately independent, non-partisan and does not advocate for any country, company or culture.


A carefully curated selection of the day’s most important China-Global South stories. Updated 24 hours a day by human editors. No bots, no algorithms.


Diverse, often unconventional insights from scholars, analysts, journalists and a variety of stakeholders in the China-Global South discourse.


A unique professional network of China-Africa scholars, analysts, journalists and other practioners from around the world.