We Asked Black Members of the NYU Shanghai Community 5 Questions: Here’s What They Had To Say

An NYU Shanghai professor and four students detail their experiences as Black individuals, their thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement, its future, and the right actions for allies to take.

What began as the year of the pandemic has now evolved to the year of nation-wide protests, and internationally—millions of reposts, retweets, links to petitions and donations, and local demonstrations in solidarity. The brutal murder of George Floyd has been a breaking point for many who have, for centuries, seen friends, family members, and fellow citizens killed by the hands of corrupt justice systems and embedded racism. 

OCA reached out to speak to NYU Shanghai’s Associate Professor of Practice in Political Science, Almaz Zelleke, and students Amen Tesfaye, Denisha Ballantyne-Smith, Denzel Goredema, and Isaiah McKnight. They shared thoughts on their experiences identifying as Black, the outrage following the recent killings of Black-Americans, and the best next steps for all who seek to be long-term allies and inspire lasting change. 

  1.  What has been your experience growing up as a person of color? Are there any memories that stand out or that you’d like to highlight?

Professor Zelleke:

I grew up in New York and lived in a pretty privileged and cosmopolitan bubble. I knew that Blacks were discriminated against, but I didn’t feel it personally until I went to college. In college, I felt defined and judged by others by the color of my skin for the first time. 

Isaiah McKnight 22′ :

When I turned 18 years old, it became apparent to me that the color of my skin impacted the way people look at me, no matter where I was in the world. My mom used to tell me: always wear a belt, never wear a hoodie, and speak properly when I’m talking to people who aren’t black. I find a lot of the time that if I’m not doing these things, then people won’t acknowledge my presence. I have to go above and beyond for people to notice me, and that is how it’s been for a long time now.

Amen Tesfaye 22′ :

Growing up as a Black-African, in a country where there is a range of different skin tones, has been an interesting experience. Colorism exists everywhere. However, apart from minor teases from close friends and relatives on my dark skin tone, I’m lucky to have never experienced any form of racism or discrimination within my country (I’m sure things would’ve been different if I grew up in a country where the system is designed to work against me). 

Denzel Goredema ‘20:

I grew up in Zimbabwe, where the majority are people of color. With that being said, I did not feel as out of place as I have felt being in other places. A highlight for me is just being comfortable in the nation that I’m in. When I speak of comfort, I speak of the relatability to fellow people. Economically, yes, history has it that Zimbabwe is suppressed economically for a number of reasons that directly impact people of color, but that is a historical context than it is a direct impact. 

  1. What’s your reaction to the way the US government is handling the recent upsurge in protests and the government’s overall response to the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others? 

Professor Zelleke: 

The US is always quick to denounce other countries for not letting their citizens protest, but every day we see peaceful protesters being harassed, beaten, and arrested by the police. Obviously looting is against the law and we should expect the police to take action against that. But the curfew is being used as an excuse to violently break up peaceful protests. This is a violation of rights that are protected in our Constitution, and it only reinforces the perception of police brutality that is displayed in the horrifying video of Floyd’s murder.

Isaiah McKnight 22′ :

I don’t agree with the way the US government is handling the recent protests. This wouldn’t have spiraled out of control in the first place had they charged the killer of George Floyd much much earlier. Although I don’t necessarily agree with the rioters, I feel their pain. While some may see them as criminals, I see them as human beings who are fed up just like the rest of us. I don’t think looting is the solution to the problem, but what else is there to do? How many times must our people protest (peacefully) in order for them to get the message, you feel me?

Amen Tesfaye 22′ :

Not many people kill a person and simply get fired from their job like the cops in George Floyd’s murder.

Denzel Goredema ‘20:

The US has handled the four mentioned murders terribly. Terribly! But this is a testament to the history of the US government handling situations that have to do with the majority of people. Dating back to 2008, with the collapse of the economy, what does the government do? It bails out the big banks, the big corporations, the rich, that really don’t need to be bailed out. Who takes the L? It’s the rest of the US population that loses houses and everything. Secondly, you have Coronavirus, where people can’t even go out and earn a living anymore. And now, you’re going to murder black people in plain sight?! The US government is not taking into consideration the US people the way it needs to. 

  1. A lot of people are struggling with what the “right thing to do” is. What would you say to these people that want to take action but are also scared that they won’t post the right thing on social media, or say things in the right manner?

Professor Zelleke: 

Resist the idea that posting anything on social media is either necessary or helpful in this case. If you’re not sure what to do, listen to those who have been doing work in this field for years, and educate yourself. The NYU Leadership Initiative sent a very useful email out that includes a list of resources for education and allyship. If you don’t know much about US race relations, movies by Black filmmakers are an easy way to get up to speed. 

Isaiah McKnight 22′ :

There is no “right thing to do.” Either you do, or you don’t. If you’re not doing anything, then you’re a part of the problem. If you’re on the front lines at these protests, then you’re actively helping to make a change. If you’re signing petitions, then you are helping to make a change. Even if you’re on social media spreading awareness, you are still doing something. One thing I will say is, white silence is white violence, so if you don’t acknowledge the situation, then you are a part of the problem.

Amen Tesfaye 22′ :

The right thing to do is to break the 300-year cycle of black people dying at the hands of a corrupt system designed to work against them. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter if you’re Black, White, Asian, or biracial… as long as you are peacefully advocating for the dismantling of a corrupt system, you’re good.

Denisha Ballantyne-Smith ‘20:

It is not enough to say that you’re not racist, and it’s not enough to say “I have *insert race* friends.” Now more than ever, we see that everyone must be vocal in denouncing racism! If you choose to do absolutely nothing, then you must admit and recognize that it means you are willing to be quiet and complicit in the continued discrimination and persecution of black people. No one who is truly opposed to racism will idly sit by and not take a stand in the fight against it. Protesting is not the only way to fight back! Signing petitions, donating, calling out others (including family members) on their prejudice and racist behavior, are some of the ways one can begin to take a stand. At the end of the day, the right thing has always been to eradicate racism and its systematic hold. I think the true decision is whether or not one is willing to take a stand or be complicit and firm in whatever decision they choose. 

Denzel Goredema ‘20:

Well, the first step of figuring out what the right thing to do is, is figuring out what the wrong thing to do is. We all know that the killing was wrong: we all know that. To what extent can you do something ‘right’? (‘Right’ being to bring to awareness the wrong or the injustice that was perpetrated.) If you post a black square, all of your friends will see that. If you can do more, do more. Just acknowledge the fact that wrong happened, and take action towards making it right. 

  1. What has been your experience being a person of color within China and NYU Shanghai?

Professor Zelleke: 

I get a lot of stares in Shanghai and on my travels in other parts of China, but I’ve never experienced hostility. That might be different if my skin were darker, if I were a man, or if I traveled to cities in China with large African populations. I am very much aware that I am one of very few African Americans professors at NYU Shanghai. I wish there were more of us.

Isaiah McKnight 22′ :

As a black male, living in China is probably the most privilege I’ve ever had in my life. The way the people of China have treated me has been so much more different than the way people treat me back home. I have experienced moments where people were scared of me, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it racism. A lot of Chinese people have never been seen to a black person before, so sometimes the shock factor makes them shy away. However, I have never experienced a hate crime or anything racist while living in China. Now, moving on to NYU Shanghai. Yes, I have experienced racism at NYU Shanghai. Racism comes in many different forms, but a lot of the racism I’ve experienced school is exclusion. If you go to the 2F cafe, you will see that a lot of the groups who hang out with each other have the same skin color or have the same ethnicity/background. There is nothing wrong with that, but when you get excluded from entire discussions and hangouts because you don’t look like them, that is going too far. Some of my friends, in fact (that aren’t black), use a certain racial slur that they should not be using.

Amen Tesfaye 22′ :

NYU Shanghai is good. Everybody is well mannered and respectful (apart from a few overconfident, condescending individuals). When it comes to China as a whole, I have mixed feelings. On one hand, it’s a well-known fact (at least I think it is) that Chinese people are simply ignorant and not racist. Nevertheless, I still think some Chinese people fit in the category of ‘racist,’ and I think this is due to the western media’s nasty portrayal of black people as violent and dangerous, Africans as uncivilized, and in need of help: This needs to change. 

Denisha Ballantyne-Smith ‘20:

Being black in China definitely has its challenges, from the random pictures being taken of you to the stray hands trying to touch your hair. Some might think it’s no big deal, but to many, it makes them feel insecure or like they are on display. There are also the comments of “黑人” from passersby or the odd taxi driver or shop owner who doesn’t want to work with you because of false stereotypes of our race. Most of the time we are told to ignore it or forgive them because “They don’t see many black people here.” But for how long are we to keep using this excuse? When are we finally going to open up the discussions with the public in China about their racism towards black people, as made even more evident through the situation in Guangzhou? Our world is ever more connected and we will continue to interact with different people around the world. Pretty soon “ignorance” will no longer be a good excuse.

Denzel Goredema ‘20:

As open and as diverse as NYU Shanghai is, you still get people doubled-back with their reaction, “Woah Woah Woah, wait, a black dude?”. They’re very open and very accepting on the whole, and I appreciate the school because it’s probably been-so far in my life- the most educational experience I’ve ever had. That being said, stepping out into China, my experience as a black person is… a whole other interview, it can’t be summarized.

  1. In your opinion, what does the future hold? How can we make this a long term, sustainable movement and not just a black square trend?

Professor Zelleke: 

I think this time is different. George Floyd was murdered at a time of mass unemployment and pent-up frustration at the social distancing caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The police brutality issue has been around long enough that there are a number of policy changes that have been researched, piloted, and are ready to be implemented more broadly to improve police accountability. The protests should help to accelerate those efforts. The effects of the pandemic have also gotten people thinking about larger structural inequities, as African-Americans have been disproportionately harmed by the virus and the economic downturn. Policies like universal healthcare, basic income, and reparations for slavery are now part of the mainstream political agenda.

Isaiah McKnight 22′ :

I think times are changing, and I think people all over the world are realizing this. In order to make this a sustainable movement, we can’t just leave this alone after these protests start dying down. Each and every one of us has to hold each other accountable. If you hear somebody say something intolerant, call them out for it. Don’t just let it slide. We can’t change the big things right now like our government or the police system, but we can start with the smaller things. If we can hold everyone to a higher standard for equality, then we can make the world a better place.

Amen Tesfaye 22′ :

Be sincere about your feelings, put yourselves in the place of those people losing their lives for no reason, don’t stop till the cycle gets broken once and for all. And please don’t even bother posting if you’re not sincere about it. 

Denzel Goredema ‘20:

You need something to hit some fundamental core issue, core emotion with you personally for it to have any sort of reverence and lasting effect. You need to be in a situation where you would have interacted with a black person in such a way that it hits some of these fundamental emotions-where the meaning of being black equates to the meaning of being a person, equates to friendship, and equates to equality. 

This article was written by Sicheng Fan (Shanghai, China), Steph Scaglia (San Francisco, California), Gurkriti Singh (Amritsar, India), and Angel Olvera (Victoria, Texas). Please send an email to managing@oncenturyavenue.com to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Photo edited by Jiayin Fan (Shanghai, China)

4 thoughts on “We Asked Black Members of the NYU Shanghai Community 5 Questions: Here’s What They Had To Say

  1. “it’s a well-known fact (at least I think it is) that Chinese people are simply ignorant” so this obviously is not racist??

  2. Hi Sam,
    I think you might’ve misunderstood my point. I’m not in any way having racist attitudes towards Chinese. My time in China has been wonderful. I love the people, the culture, the language and everything about my experience there.

    Ignorance in this context is meant to explain certain unusual experiences that black people encounter in China (like having our hair touched and receiving unusually long stares). I believe this happens because China is a mono cultural society and there certainly is an element of surprise to seeing a black person there. I know the word ignorance has more of a negative connotation, so please correct me if there is a better word to use.

    Hope you understand,
    Amen

    1. Hi Amen, I appreciate you taking the time to respond. To my mind, the most damaging aspect of racism is the tendency to cast an entire group of people in a one-dimensional light, reducing them to nothing more than the stereotype that is associated with their skin color, national origin, gender, or other demographic labels. And to be frank, your characterization of China as “a mono cultural society” is simply the opposite of reality. This is not the place to discuss the complexity of China as a country or Chinese as an ethnic identification, but it would suffice to say that I prefer to treat each and every individual on the streets of Shanghai — or for that matter, of anywhere — as a complex human with unique experiences, emotions, and personal histories. Yes, some of them may be a little curious, but they are decidedly not ignorant. It’s probably frustrating for you to be on the receiving end of this kind of curiosity, but please, it’s not okay to generalize these encounters to an entire country or ethnic group. -Sam

  3. Hi Sam, it certainly is frustrating to be on the receiving end of this “curiosity”. Constantly being reminded that you’re out of place and receiving unnecessary stares really makes it difficult to not make an erroneous generalization about a group of people as “ignorant”. However, I understand your point on how it is harmful to stereotype an entire group of people and I might’ve overstepped in stating this generalization. Stereotypes have and still are affecting people of my color negatively and I certainly wouldn’t want to have a stereotype of my own towards another group of people. I’ve requested for my post to be taken down.
    Thanks for your response

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