China Isn’t Quite Ready For Its First Black Athlete

China’s got a ways to go with race relations; during the Olympics, they held many black people in custody because they were believed to be drug dealers. But the world is about to get its first look at China’s surprisingly heterogeneous population.

Ding Hui

Ding Hui will be China’s first black international athlete. The 19-year-old volleyballer has been named to the highly competitive national team, and is likely to make his Olympic debut in 2012. How are the notoriously exlusionary Chinese handling it?

Hui was born to a South African father and a Chinese mother, and is part of a growing African immigrant community in Guangzhou, known to many as “Chocolate City.” But for most Chinese, he is a novelty.

“Chinese views towards black people are not sophisticated, partly because it is not very common to see any in the cities and even less in the country,” a group of Beijing residents told The Times.

“A lot of people will be very curious about Ding, and will be positive towards this decision to have him on the team. On the other hand, there are still plenty of Chinese who, unfortunately, think of black people as somewhat barbarous or automatically assume they are involved in crime.”

Unsurprisingly, many subscribe to the Jimmy the Greek view of black athletes.

Sports magazines have breathlessly hailed his “special characteristics”; learned analysts have spoken in awed tones about the “athleticism of his genes” and some have praised the “whiteness and size” of his teeth.

Hui’s been creatively nicknamed Xiao Hei, or “Little Black.” But he is, of course, of mixed race. It’ll be interesting to see if his emergence forces China to reconsider race, ethnicity, and what it means to be Chinese.