A white scholar’s recent op-ed suggests he might need some lessons on his own privilege.
Daniel Bell, a white dean at China’s Shandong University, recently penned a piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Why Anyone Can Be Chinese.” In it, he laments how he’s not considered Chinese despite his self-proclaimed dedication to the culture.
China, he argues, should look at identity as cultural rather than racial, concluding the piece with his ultimate hope:
“President Xi Jinping describes his broad agenda for the country as the ‘China dream,’” Bell writes. “My own China dream is more modest: to be viewed as a Chinese not just in my own mind but in the minds of my fellow Chinese.”
Bell claims to have respect for the Chinese. But his piece shows that he’s not looking at identity through the lens of the Chinese, John Kuo Wei Tchen, associate professor and director of Asian/Pacific/American Institute, NYU, told HuffPost.
Bell begins his piece, making comparisons between himself and a Chinese-American who “doesn’t speak Chinese or identify in any way with Chinese culture,” and “forcefully rejects” the label “Chinese.”
But the connections Bell makes are apples to oranges. Bell, a white man from Canada, ignores the real, human experiences that Chinese people live through, Tchen noted.
Bell isn’t someone whose family has been brought up in China through generations, communicating through insider references. His ancestors haven’t lived through events like the Opium Wars or the Cultural Revolution that have shaped the population’s outlook. Bell is a white man whose roots and values come from elsewhere.
There’s another issue at hand with Bell’s comparison. Ideas of belonging and identity are tied to political environment, Tchen says. These concepts are forged out of history and traditions, constructed over time by cultural and political forces. A western view of these ideas will be different from, say, a Chinese one. Bell doesn’t seem to acknowledge that, though.
“Notions of citizenship and belonging come out of particular political cultures. Just because that’s what he believes in, he wants to apply that to China which doesn’t really make any sense,” Tchen said. “It can’t just be willy-nilly applied to any other place.”
Bell continues his argument, listing several traits of his that he believes somehow underscore his “Chineseness.” Though he brings up possible barriers to acceptance like citizenship, commitment to culture, and lack of language skills, he insists those aren’t problems for him. He points out how he’s often “the only person wearing Chinese-style clothing” at conferences. And earlier in the piece he mentions his marriage to a Chinese woman as if those details help assert Chineseness.
In another line, he even puts down native Chinese people and pretentiously writes, “millions of poorly educated Chinese citizens speak hardly any Mandarin, and yet nobody questions their Chineseness.”
However, identity isn’t so simple as checking traits off a list, Tchen said. Bell’s possession of such qualities does not make him more “eligible” to be Chinese.
To be Chinese is not a mere checklist, just like being black or from any other culture isn’t about hitting a set number of achievements.
“If he were to become an expert on Toni Morrison, if he were to then master African-American cuisine, if he had married an African-American woman, would he feel he can claim being African-American or black?” Tchen questioned.
At one point, Bell attempts to point out the flaws in seeing Chineseness as racial and describes the country’s tumultuous relationship with foreigners.
“When China is powerful and secure, foreigners are welcome and considered employable, including at the highest levels of government,” he wrote in the op-ed. “When China is weak, foreigners are often viewed with suspicion and even hatred.”
Tchen told HuffPost that he agrees that ideally, we “need to reject the very notion of ‘race’ and hence racial belonging.” These ideas don’t translate across historical and cultural differences, he says. But again, being part of a culture is dependent on historical context. Identity goes further than today’s politics and culture.
At the end of the day, Bell’s piece begs the question posed by Tchen.
“Are there not deeper shared values that are more important to explore than a European Canadian wanting to be accepted as ‘Chinese?’”