Originating in the United States, Black History Month serves as a dedicated period to honor and acknowledge the contributions and achievements of black individuals that may have been overlooked or underrepresented in the past and present.

This month, we had the opportunity to hear directly from students and faculty members within the African-American community at NYU Shanghai. Their experiences and perspectives shed light on the unique challenges and triumphs they encounter.

Sophomore Kayla Brackett from Washington D.C applied to NYU Shanghai because she desired to study abroad for four years but not at a “host university.” While considering her interest in majoring in International Relations, she saw NYU Shanghai as a great opportunity to pursue her desires. 

Senior Sophia Alfred from Maryland has immersed herself in Chinese culture as she has become fluent in the language. She lived in China before attending the university and preferred not to take the required HSK Chinese Proficiency Test to attend other Chinese universities. She took a particular interest in NYU Shanghai and the IMA major as it resonated with her more.

Marcel Daniels from Atlanta, Georgia, is a lecturer and the director of the Academic Purposes Department. Marcel was teaching ESL for his alma mater Georgia City University and wanted to get some more international experience. His first international work experience was in South Korea, and he worked in China a couple of summers previously doing a summer program. He was familiar with East Asia and was looking at different countries in the region. It was during this exploration that he discovered NYU Shanghai’s recruitment efforts, particularly in the department in which Marcel had specialized in.

Question One: Have you encountered any stereotypes or misconceptions(in China) related to race, and how did you handle them?

Kayla: “I have encountered people having misconceptions about my personality or how I would behave due to my race. Outside of campus, I also get questioned about nationality a lot, with few locals believing that I was ‘really’ American, which was really shocking to me.”

Sophia: “I have encountered many stereotypes, especially from netizens when I posted dance videos on Chinese media, eventually many netizens made racist comments and began targeting me. Also being someone who is fluent in Mandarin I hear many ignorant comments that other people might not understand. On Chinese social media, reporting racist names or comments often has no action. Generally, the response is that there’s nothing objectionable about it, making it difficult to report. I usually just ignore it because speaking up tends to escalate the situation.”

Marcel: “The longer I stay here, the more I sense a gradual improvement in acceptance. It’s a combination of factors contributing to this positive shift, making me more at ease with the current state of affairs. When I initially arrived here in 2015 to work at NYU Shanghai, I encountered a lot of stares, a lot of whispers and even blunt comments. Their questions and communication style were often direct and straightforward. While I still occasionally face similar inquiries and assumptions that I’m from Africa and if I tell them I’m not, they get surprised. Which is something that I’ve kind of tried to turn around because if someone assumes I’m from Africa, that’s not insulting, it’s just another place in the world. So I just kindly informed them that I’m not.”

Question Two: How do you feel about the representation of Black individuals in Chinese media and popular culture?

Kayla: “There are few good representations of Black people in China. Black people are often represented as either ‘cool’ or uncivilized and primitive. Both representations are harmful and do not show the multifacetedness of Black people. I think a lot of people see Black people as beneath them, regardless of  how ‘cool’ Black politicians, athletes, and musicians are, we are seen by the value of our skin color.”

Sophia: “Working in media, social media, modeling, and acting in China it is very difficult to change the perception of black people in pop culture. If you don’t fit the stereotype portrayed in Western media—such as hip-hop, urban culture,then you’re often overlooked. In casting calls they use white synonymously with pretty and beautiful. People of color are typically sought after only when targeting Western audiences, like in the case of brands like Shein.”

Marcel: “I don’t use Chinese media like Weibo or Douyin therefore I’m not too aware. However occasionally on Wechat, I’ll see things where they’re kind of either making fun of, belittling, or  spoofing black culture in a certain way. I don’t hold any expectations for Black representation in Chinese media because our population here is too small to make a significant impact. However, I do reserve the right to be disappointed when misrepresentation does occur, especially if it’s done in a mocking or derogatory manner.”- Marcel

Question Three: In your day-to-day interactions, do you feel adequately represented or face challenges related to being a minority?

Kayla: “I feel like there is no adequate representation for me, so I have to become that representation for other Black people. I feel like I have to maintain a positive and non-intimidating demeanor continuously. I feel like I am always worrying about what people would think about me, not just as ‘Kayla’ but as a Black person.”

Sophia: “I encounter challenges in my profession due to being a minority. Initially, when meeting my boyfriend’s friends and coworkers, I faced stereotypes suggesting that black women are promiscuous. However, I persist and overcome these obstacles with positivity, demonstrating through my actions that such stereotypes are inaccurate.”

Marcel: “I know that I came to Shanghai for a reason as opposed to a second or third tier city because I know that I would not be able to function very long. Personally, it’s about creating or curating the environment and the circles that work well for me.Whether it’s on Wechat, the friends that I spend time with outside of work,  or the people I spend time with at work outside of a professional space, it all relates to those who I think are diverse who are interesting who are intelligent and humorous. Therefore I think it’s not challenging to be in Shanghai and to find your niche.”

Question Four: Have you found a community or support system among other students who share similar experiences?

Kayla: “I have made friends of both similar and various backgrounds, but I do not think there is a solid support system for students who share these experiences.”

Sophia: “Not necessarily, mainly because I keep to myself”

Marcel: “Among the first things that I did when I moved here, I created a Wechat group chat named ‘the monthly Black folks function.’ And the purpose of it was as black people, when I see another black person on the street, whether I know them or not, I give them a nod and we acknowledge one another. It was just a group that was meant for black folks in Shanghai. Once a month, we organize outings like KTV, dining together, or watching movies as opportunities to communicate, bond, and appreciate each other’s company in person. It’s important to nurture these connections beyond the digital realm. By establishing these spaces where we can engage in activities that connect with our cultural and historical interests, we deepen our shared experiences.”

Question Five: Have you had opportunities to celebrate and share aspects of your own culture with anyone here?

Kayla: “No, I think people assume that as an African-American, my culture is so mainstream that I do not need to share it.”

Sophia: “Definitely I have had opportunities to share and it was nice. I did find a small community in which is comforting and NYU Shanghai has a great community ”

Marcel: “Yes, I have a friend in Shanghai whose brother, William Frazier, is a businessman here. He played a key role in organizing the first Juneteenth celebrations about four years ago in Shanghai. I’ve been involved in assisting with the production of these events. We’ve had cultural gatherings, such as tying them to the premiere of Black Panther a few years back. One significant event featured individuals from the diaspora dressing in attire representing their respective origins. Following these events, we held reflective discussions to debrief and share insights. I highly appreciate the balance we maintain—sometimes hosting events exclusively for our community, while other times opening up the space for others to join and participate. I believe any medium that fosters this inclusivity is beneficial. I strongly advocate for creating spaces that reflect our identities and encouraging others to do the same. It’s crucial that we all feel represented and included.”

Question Six: Has the experience of studying abroad in Shanghai contributed to your personal growth and understanding of your own identity?

Kayla: “I have grown up in diverse places, but I had never been somewhere where there was such a small population of my race. Studying in Shanghai has allowed me to meet people from nations I hadn’t heard of before meeting them. I feel like I have grown much more independent and sure of myself and my personality.”

Sophia: “Definitely, coming from a mixed family, I’m the only one among my siblings with darker skin, shaping my perspective differently. It wasn’t until I arrived here that I began identifying as a person of color, realizing that my individuality places me within that category. Teaching my boyfriend about the black experience has also been enlightening for me, as I didn’t grow up within a predominantly black community. NYU Shanghai’s Black Student Union (BSU) has played a crucial role in helping me navigate and build my identity, especially given the university’s rich diversity, where many individuals share similar backgrounds or have lived all over the world.” 

Marcel: “Absolutely!  I think living in a different country that speaks a different language humbles you. I think being abroad has increased the amount of patience that I have and the amount of understanding that I have about the way people function and justify their actions. I have to pause with my assumptions, remember that not everyone has the same background or experiences or sees doing things through the same lens. For example when I go back home and  talk to others, I realize that I’ve become a better listener and a more empathetic person overall. I think You need to be humble and start learning all over again.So I think that has helped me expand my circle and learning more about different people has been very, very helpful as well. And then I think it’s really, really important for Americans especially. And I say this with all due respect, but we do live in a very particular bubble of exceptionalism where we think that our way is and should be the way and the more that we visit different places in the world and understand that everyone is getting by just fine without our particular way of operation is important to know.As the world complete continues to become more globalized and continues to get smaller.”

As we close upon the second month of 2024, many recognize it as a month of celebration and togetherness. February holds significance as the time of Spring Festival and Valentine’s Day. However, it’s essential to acknowledge that this month also marks Black History Month. In the midst of various celebrations this February, the experiences and insights shared by Kayla Brackett, Sophia Alfred, and Marcel Daniels offer a profound glimpse into the intersecting dynamics of race, identity, and cultural representation within the vibrant tapestry of Shanghai’s international community.