Why Black People Are Learning Chinese

A growing number recognize that it will be a crucial skill for competing in the global marketplace.

Damon Woods (top row, third from left) with colleagues (Courtesy of Damon Woods)
Damon Woods (top row, third from left) with colleagues (Courtesy of Damon Woods)

When Zuri Patterson, a second-grader, entered her new classroom the first day of school, butterflies traveled the length of her stomach right before she made formal introductions to her new classmates.

“We say Ni Hao [pronounced “nee-how”], which means “hello” in Chinese,” said the 7-year-old attending the Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School, a Mandarin-immersion school in the northeast quadrant of the nation’s capital.

The second-grader’s mother, Qwanda Patterson, an international traveler, told The Root, “We plan to take her to China on her 10th birthday. When I travel to Europe or Africa, everyone speaks at least two languages. Why can’t we?”

In today’s economic climate, in which black unemployment is in the double digits, one way to give the next generation of black graduates a competitive edge is to think outside one’s borders — more globally — and learn Mandarin Chinese. Today’s black graduates aren’t competing only with their white American counterparts anymore. The landscape has changed radically in a relatively short span of time. Black graduates must now compete with their cohorts from places like China.

The past few decades have made Zuri’s first day of school a familiar scene across the nation for many students of color living in urban areas like the District of Columbia, where black students make up about half of the children enrolled in the Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School.

Earlier this year, Michelle Obama gave a speech at Howard University urging students to take advantage of study-abroad programs as part of President Obama’s “100,000 Strong” Initiative, which seeks to increase and diversify the number of U.S. students studying in China.

Chinese-language immersion programs have been on the rise for more than a decade. The Yu Ying immersion school is the first of its kind in the District, but compared with cities like New York and Chicago, D.C. is lagging behind the national trend.  

Interest in Chinese has risen in the past several years. According to a USA Today report, Chinese-language programs are in demand and now available “in more than 550 elementary, junior high and senior high schools, a 100 percent increase in two years [across the nation].”

Why China Matters

So why the emphasis on Chinese? Let’s start with China’s status as an up-and-coming superpower, and the fact that it’s the world’s most populous country (more than 1 billion people, 20 percent of the world’s population), with a steadily growing middle class.

At the moment China is the biggest importer of oil. It is also one of the biggest business partners of the U.S., if not the biggest. And China holds around $1 trillion worth of U.S. Treasury bonds.