By Raymond Zhou
A while ago when Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, I wrote a blog to explain why it was unlikely for him to pick the latter as his running mate. I used "handsome" to describe him, and one of the responses was "What? Do you consider Obama handsome?"
Sure, I think he is a good-looking guy. But soon I was drowned out in the debate as more and more people joined my challenger and questioned my aesthetic wisdom.
So, I tried to think from the perspective of an ordinary Chinese netizen, without the knowledge of Obama's eloquence, poise or his insight on race relations. He may not be as eye-catching as Denzel Washington, but he can certainly score pretty high on the point of physical attractiveness.
Surprisingly, many disagreed with me, and their thinking process was very interesting. For example, I thought slim was good in this era of body image consciousness, but many Chinese netizens seem to have got their standards of beauty of black Americans from telecasts of NBA games. One said it took him a while to recognize "black beauty" and now that Obama does not look like a typical NBA player it is hard for him to be categorized as physically appealing.
In fact, so many respondents cited NBA as their biggest exposure that it is not a stretch to say people like Kobe Bryant have become the benchmark for China's youths to size up black males. Where does that leave Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Hollywood's efforts in shaping global perception of black Americans? Obviously, not half as effective as the ubiquitous basketball player as far as China's vast basketball fan base is concerned, and they have not even experienced the magic of Michael Jordan.
Chinese and blacks seem to occupy two ends of the aesthetic spectrum. A lot of trends started by blacks, such as hip-hop, reached China via middlemen like white American and Korean singers, losing much of the authenticity in the process. Even then, it is somewhat jarring to see a Chinese youth, with soft-toned skins and smaller features, don the XXL-sized attire of striking colors, which compliments a black teenager so naturally.
On the other hand, martial arts flicks reach the black demographic through mainstream channels like Blockbuster rental and mass-appeal products such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It is not an exaggeration to say that the middle ground is firmly in the hands of Middle America, whose aesthetic values serve as a filter for exchange between non-white ethnicities and races. For example, unless for a function of ethnic diversity, a black would not wear an African tribal dress, nor would a Chinese put on a Tang-style costume. Most likely, they would both sport a business suit because it is the sartorial middle ground. If they do appear with their traditional garb, the outfit will be judged against the suit.
For a Chinese without constant contact with or exposure to black Americans, Obama's look can only be extrapolated and evaluated by being imagined as a white person. It simply cannot be done. I have come upon a diary of a young Chinese journalist who did a comparison of Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright, and it was condescendingly unfair. I guess the only black ladies familiar to a regular guy on a Beijing street are Whitney Houston or Halle Berry.
It has dawned on me that movie star beauty is an inaccurate barometer for a whole race. It may distort perception. The best way to get rid of misunderstanding and prejudice is to know as many people as possible of the race or ethnicity previously unknown to you. By then you'll be able to see Obama - not as another Denzel Washington or Kobe Bryant - but as a charismatic politician that he is.
(China Daily 08/23/2008 page10)