China-Africa relations

African woman who auditioned for ‘racist’ Chinese TV gala show speaks out on blackface row

Nigerian Gloria Brown says she is glad to have missed out on the role that ended up being the subject of a global controversy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 February, 2018, 1:38pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 April, 2018, 11:50am

When Beijing-based Nigerian Gloria Brown auditioned in ­October for a part in one of the world’s most-watched television programmes, she had no idea that the role she was hoping to play would spark a global debate on China’s attitudes to racism.

The role, which Brown did not get, was that of an African mother in a 13-minute skit for state broadcaster CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala. The sketch was intended as a celebration of Sino-African ­relations but, after a Chinese ­actress in blackface was eventually chosen to play the role, it ­instead triggered allegations of discrimination and prejudice from around the world.

“Many friends posted [about the show] on WeChat,” Brown, 38, said. “Africans posted, Americans posted, Chinese posted.

“Ninety per cent of the people who commented that I saw on my WeChat were against the show, but there was, I think, two or three Chinese saying things like, ‘if you Africans don’t like this show then go back to your own country, don’t stay here’.”

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The sketch, titled “The same joy, the same happiness”, was only a tiny part of CCTV’s four-hour gala – known as chunwan in Mandarin – which aired on ­February 15, Lunar New Year’s Eve, and was watched by almost 800 million people.

The backlash was so big that China’s foreign ministry felt obliged to comment on the ­matter. Far from apologising for any offence that might have been caused, however, ministry spokesman Geng Shuang suggested that some groups were ­trying to use the row to drive “a wedge between China and ­African countries”. But any efforts to do so were “futile” he said, ­adding that relations between the two sides were “ironclad” and mutually beneficial.

Brown, who has lived in China for nine years and whose main job is selling Chinese furniture and cars to African customers, said she auditioned for the show alongside a number of other African actors and actresses. When she failed to get a callback she thought little more about it until the show went out on television.

In the skit, the Chinese actress wore blackface, a fake large chest and exaggerated buttocks, and carried a bowl of fruit on her head. She appeared on stage and shouted in Mandarin: “I love Chinese people! I love China!” to raucous laughter from the audience.

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Despite the later outcry, Brown said she had no bad feelings about missing out on the role and had not been overly offended by the way in which the African character had been portrayed.

“For me, it is just a show … they wanted it to be funny,” she said.

But with all the controversy associated with it, she said she was relieved she did not get the part.

“No one wants to do something that causes so much debate … or makes someone feel inferior, feel regret or feel they’re being looked down on,” she said.

Had Brown been selected by the show’s producers, there would likely have been far less controversy.

On the wider subject of Sino-African relations, Brown said that neither side should have more power or sway than the other.

“Whether China helps Africa or Africa helps China, we are meant to help each other. Therefore no one should wear a crown.”

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African-American Emilia Bywaters, a friend of Brown’s who suggested the Nigerian audition for the role in the first place and who would have tried out for it herself had she been able to speak Mandarin, said she was not offended by the racial stereotyping she saw on stage.

“I don’t think it [blackface] is offensive,” said the 57-year-old, who has been working as a high school maths teacher in Beijing for the past three years.

“I love acting and I think [the Chinese actress] did a great job. It is just like a man playing a woman’s role.”

Bywaters’ business partner, 26-year-old Muhammad Hammid from Sierra Leone, who has lived in China since 2015, was less complimentary. He said he was shocked when he saw the photographs of the Chinese actress in blackface.

“They really should have just found an actual black actress for this,” he said.

“In terms of acting, the make-up was very good … the theme is about friendship, I have no problem with that,” Hammid said.

“But if you paint a person black, it does suggest some discrimination and it takes away a job opportunity for a real black person.”

Bywaters, who was born and grew up in Congo before moving to the United States almost 40 years ago, said that while attitudes towards racism were changing in the West, in China she faced prejudice on an almost daily basis.

“White people are very conscious about racism, nowadays. They really want to make sure they have enough blacks, enough Asians in their schools, they want to be socially and politically correct,” she said. “Universities will say ‘See, we have a black and a Chinese teacher’, just because they don’t want to look bad.

“In China, they don’t talk about [racism] but it’s like an unwritten rule. I have a feeling that the Chinese would probably always prefer a white person.”

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Bywaters said schools favoured new graduates over those with more experience, as well as men over women and white people over black – and that Chinese international schools liked to have a white person as a principal.

That said, Bywaters felt that China has “really helped many African countries”.

“I have lived in America for nearly 40 years, and they don’t give scholarships [to foreign students] over there like China does [to Africans],” she said.

At the China-Africa Cooperation forum in Beijing in January, China pledged to provide 30,000 government scholarships for African students. The move is part of a broader programme of Chinese investment in the continent, especially in infrastructure, which is expected to grow under Beijing’s ambitious “Belt and Road Initiative”.

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The controversial CCTV skit referred to the Mombasa-Nairobi rail line in Kenya that was funded by the belt and road scheme, which is designed to expand China’s connectivity through better infrastructure and trade links.

While China is undoubtedly investing heavily in African countries, the relationship was not as simple as it might seem, said 21-year old Nigerian Daniel Aniekan, who is studying medicine in eastern China’s Jiangxi province.

“You can’t only say China is helping African countries. It’s a two-way thing,” he said. “They have invested a lot, but do you think they will just invest ... and then leave empty-handed? Both sides benefit economically.”

As for the CCTV sketch, Aniekan said he could understand why people got so angry about it, and suggested the authorities should “do something” about it.

“No one liked it,” he said. “Even some of my Chinese friends told me they didn’t like it.”

Despite the more enlightened attitude of his peers, Aniekan said that after four years of living and studying in China he was still concerned about the levels of prejudice he experienced in his daily life, including women running in fear when they saw him on the street and bank tellers assuming his only reason for entering their branch was to stage a heist.

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If China wanted to build better economic relationships with African countries, it should also seek to bring people closer together, he said.

“Those in authority should try as much as possible to stop things [like the CCTV skit] happening, because it hurts the partnerships that everyone is trying to build,” he said.

“Instead of bringing unity, it brings discrimination.”