“Now I know what it’s like to be black!” Invisible Minorities and Privilege in Japan

by Robert Moorehead

Recently, the Japan Times ran a column encouraging readers in Japan to take advantage of their new minority status to re-examine their racial attitudes. In “What Being a Minority Allows Us to See,” columnist Amy Chavez tries to contextualize complaints about ethnic and racial inequality in Japan as reflecting the eye-opening experiences of those who, for the first time, find themselves as racial subordinates.

So far, so good. Chavez makes an important point that living abroad can place us in unfamiliar situations, and that we should apply the lessons of those situations to our lives back home. Those of us who were in the majority in our home countries, and are in the definite minority in Japan, could think about how our experiences parallel those of other minorities, and maybe we can learn some empathy.

However, digging deeper we see how this approach perpetuates problems facing racial minorities. Firstly, Chavez assumes that her readers are members of racial majorities in their home countries. As she writes,

“The Japanese are no more racist than Americans or people of many other countries. The only difference is that when you come to Japan, for the first time in your life, you are a minority and get to see what it’s like to be one.”

In one sentence, Chavez renders invisible the people in Japan who were minorities in their home countries. I doubt the Nikkeijin (overseas people of Japanese ancestry), including Japanese Americans, Brazilians, Peruvians, and Filipinos, are experiencing being in the minority for the first time. Rather, they migrate to what they’ve been told is their ancestral homeland, only to find themselves racialized as gaijin. Adding insult to injury, now they’re left out of the discussion altogether.

“After being subjects of discrimination here, we scream like spoiled children … While we have suddenly gained … an ability to see though the eyes of minorities …, we are blinded by our own self-worth and don’t suddenly empathize with other minorities struggling to achieve equality. No light bulb goes on in the head making us think: Aha! … So this is what … African-Americans in the U.S. struggle with every day!”

Does an African American need to travel to Japan to learn what African Americans in the U.S. face?

And have we learned to see through anyone else’s eyes? Is getting rude treatment from a taxi driver (as I did recently) the same as what African Americans face? Am I being stopped and frisked repeatedly? Do I risk being shot for wearing a hoodie and carrying Skittles and iced tea? Am I attending poor schools? Do I stand a greater chance of being in the correctional system than in a university? Am I more likely to live in a highly segregated neighborhood? Am I more likely to get a subprime mortgage, when I’m able to get a mortgage at all? Do I have a higher risk of heart disease or diabetes? Do I have a shorter life expectancy?

The problems Chavez refers to, like employment discrimination and racial stereotyping, are real, but they do not compare to the African American experience. Not all forms of discrimination are equal.

“Your small brush with discrimination in Japan is something that has been a lifelong battle for others who were born into a life of being a minority in our own countries. And many of them suffer far worse than we do in Japan.”

“Try being an African-American in the U.S. Or an aboriginal in Australia.”

Some readers do not need to try being an African American or an aboriginal. They are African Americans or aboriginals.

Chavez’s approach is similar to John Howard Griffin’s classic book Black Like Me, in which Griffin, a white man living in the Jim Crow South, darkens his skin to learn what it’s like to be black. Griffin recounts his experiences and shares the terrorism of Jim Crow with a white audience. But this is only half of the equation. This idea that blackness is something to be understood leaves whiteness unexamined. We study discrimination but we avoid examining privilege.

“This is the role of compassion. To accept that these problems are your own and be willing to not just admit they’re wrong, but to do something about them. Speak on the behalf of other minorities, help raise their profile. Especially you — you who have had a taste of what it’s like to be in their shoes!”

Minorities can speak for themselves, thank you. They do not need a white guy who had a racial epiphany in Japan and now suddenly understands black experiences to speak for them.

Chavez also avoids the word “privilege,” even though this is what she is trying to describe. Instead, she chastises readers for allegedly lacking compassion, and tells them to talk to minorities about their experiences. Instead of trying to understand minorities and speaking for them, how about understanding the white experience and try to dismantle the systems of privilege that give unearned advantages?

“The best way to fight discrimination is by using your experience for personal growth, and to spread the idea of compassion while working to develop a mind that is non-judgmental.”

No, the best way for those in the majority to fight discrimination is to gain a broader understanding of their role in systems of privilege, and to challenge that privilege. Non-judgmental minds that operate in systems of institutional inequality are not enough. A non-judgmental mind does not challenge the fact that the median wealth for whites in the U.S. is 20 times that of blacks, or that more black men are currently in the U.S. correctional system than were enslaved in 1850.

Don’t get me wrong, non-judgmental minds are wonderful. But we live in a world in which racial inequality is built into the very structure of our societies. Challenging this requires much more than looking in the mirror and freeing our minds. To paraphrase Canadian PM Stephen Harper, now is the time to commit sociology. If it helps, we can crank Michael Jackson and En Vogue while we do it.

I strongly recommend the work of Tim Wise, including the new documentary film, White Like Me. The film is available for online streaming until August 31. Tim’s books are also widely available in paper and electronic forms.

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9 thoughts on ““Now I know what it’s like to be black!” Invisible Minorities and Privilege in Japan

  1. It’s true the JT article is full of racial bias itself, although it was clearly written (or started to be written) with good intentions. It’s not true that white English speakers in Japan suddenly understand “the black experience”, there are things in my case I have direct experience of now that before I had only heard or read about:
    -being made aware of one’s ethnicity frequently in social interactions or transactions
    -being in a “faultable” class, ie prone to being made to feel at fault simply because of what one is
    -feeling that an expression of anger at bad service would only serve to justify the stereotype that led to the bad service in the first place

    These are all things I understand better now than before I moved to Japan. I don’t think it’s productive to totemize the experience of black or other minority Americans and dismiss all progress made by whites in understanding the processes by which majorities discriminate against minorities as if it violates some kind of taboo.

    • Thank you for the comment!

      I agree that the experience of finding oneself in a minority position for the first time can be extremely positive. It’s one that everyone should experience because it can broaden our views and teach some valuable lessons. Based on my own experiences, I’ve told my students that living abroad quickly teaches you the concept of cultural capital–it’s the thing you need more of so you can more clearly understand what everyone else already seems to know. Ditto for stereotype threat, and the issues you listed. The experience can personalize the lesson.

      But the absence of productive dialog across racial lines, including persistent segregation, in the US has led to dramatically different experiences when it comes to race. This can lead to statements like the ones in the column, comparing minority treatment in Japan to US-style racial discrimination. There are certainly parallels to be made (and they make up a good portion of my research), but there are also giant differences that need to be acknowledged. Tim Wise’s new documentary is a good place to start in having that conversation.

      I think the intent of the column was good but it really needed a lot more nuance. And the veiled jab at Debito wasn’t appropriate, since the JT doesn’t need to have columnists going at each other.

      • I agree that the differences exist and should be acknowledged. I just object to the censorious attitude that some progressives take when whites profess to understand even a little bit about what it feels like to be discriminated against. Not that I’m accusing you of this, but I’m sure you recognize the phenomenon.

  2. I agree Tim Wise’s work is worthwhile. Chavez’ article was just so patronizing. She seems to view herself as the model minority, who’s annoyed by other people’s opinions.

  3. I think Chavez had an idea. She thought it through for a bit, felt strongly about it, from her own personal experiences as a majority white in Japan, that there was a story in it. Stories keep her name in print, maintains her social status here and provides money. So she wrote the story from a white to the whites, basically. She did not need to spell that part out for me. I think though the fact is, her blind spot (that foreigners other than whites get – and more so – racially discriminated against in Japan) is obviously as a result of being basically ignorant.

  4. “In one sentence, Chavez renders invisible the people in Japan who were minorities in their home countries.”
    Such a good point – it captures an attitude that seems so pervasive amongst white expats and travellers in East Asian countries. Not only are they categorised with specific terms in the local language, they also categorise themselves and specifically exclude all other non-natives from their ‘group’. I think subconsciously they assume that only they are ‘real’ representatives of something foreign, because only they are the ‘real’ natives of their home countries. Quite a disturbing idea but I think it really does crop up in the mentality of many expats.

    Also, I find the “now I now what it’s like to be black” line pretty unconvincing. These people enjoyed privileged status back home, and they generally continue to enjoy various privileges in the country they have moved to. Yes, people may stare and ask insensitive questions, but it’s absolutely nothing like what people of colour experience in America and other countries. One difference (among many) is that people of colour in America experience prejudice and discrimination in their own country and in their own culture.

  5. Whites don’t get the Black experience in Asia. Sure, in some places they are denied as foreigners, but they still get preferential treatment when it comes to jobs and women. I’m a Black man, and contrary to popular believe, I’ve never benefited from affirmative action, and even the Blacks that do get AA jobs don’t get to sleep with a new attractive woman every other night.

    Whites learn what it’s like to be discriminated against a bit in Asia, but even then the positives FAR outweigh the negatives. Blacks get the foreigner discrimination, on top of anti-Black discrimination from locals and other foreigners alike.

  6. Pingback: Foreign in Japan = Minority in the USA? – Futureal is real

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