Whitening in Intercultural Relations: Accidental or on Purpose?

by Yuta Kobayashi

For the longest time, I had always thought to myself that intercultural marriages were no different from any other form of marriage, for the purpose of establishing a family and to understand the unique aspects of one another’s identity. I never attempted to view children anything other than being the natural outcome of their parent’s love and nurture. Chapter 4 of Shades of Difference introduces a unique perspective to racial mixing, one linked with the aspect of social stratification and a reason to racial mixing in the context of Latin America and the United States.

Blanqueamiento, also known as whitening in racial mixing, has been commonly practiced throughout Latin America and the United States. As suggested by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and David R. Dietrich (2009), this concept is not only an ideology, but also “a real economic, political, and personal process” that influences an individual’s hierarchal movement. Bonilla Silva and Dietrich argue that the main reason for this “whitening” other than “neutral mixture” is for the children of these mixed racial families to move up the social strata, being given a more mobile identity and greater opportunities for racial promotion.

If the original purpose of whitening was to raise the social status of their children, can the same be said for other forms of intercultural marriage? Some of my “hafu” friends, who possess a mixed race, tell me that sometimes they do not understand why their parents came together and started a family in the first place, for the reason that time after time they encounter cultural barriers and occasional misunderstandings. Based on my assumption, I believe there is a possibility that some parents come together for their looks with expectations of their children to take on a good medium of mixed characteristics and good looks. In places such as Japan, where I live, good looks are an advantage in society. Although the content is slightly different, the point I would like to raise here is that it is not rare to see parents starting a mixed cultural family as a means to be positively recognized by society.

As suggested by Bonilla-Silva and Dietrich, whitening may come with certain social advantages, but at the same time also come with disadvantages. An important question that we should ask ourselves is, if society is to recognize these mixed racial individuals as a part of the privileged race, what are the consequences to racial mixing? My personal approach to this question is that if more and more people start to treat racial mixing as a social norm, there is a possibility of fewer people conserving the “pure blood” of a specific race. Of course, moving up the social ladder is important in reaching equality, especially for those who are facing discrimination in society. However, if more and more people become over-conscious in seeking equality, to the point where they care for social status over understanding their own identity, it will become difficult for themselves, as well as their children to find where they belong and to understand their own identity. Especially in a country where tradition and culture is to be preserved, racial mixing and other forms of cultural integration may not always be socially accepted as compared to countries such as the United States.

Chapter 4 of Shades of Difference introduces the concept of whitening and the logical reasons to why this is significant in modern society. However, in this section, one important question is left out; that is, the reason to the origins of whitening and other forms of racial mixing. This reading by itself still leaves me hanging with the question of whether the origins of whitening was actually with purpose or possibly accidental.

References

Bonilla-Silva, E. & Dietrich, D.R. (2009). The Latin Americanization of U.S. Race Relations: A New Pigmentocracy. In E. Nakano-Glenn (Ed.), Shades of Difference. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Nekita. (August 24, 2013). Rejected from both: Is mixed race “really” better? Retrieved from OrijinCulture.com on October 17, 2013. From http://www.orijinculture.com/community/2011/rejected-mixed-race/

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9 thoughts on “Whitening in Intercultural Relations: Accidental or on Purpose?

  1. I understand that this is a student’s post and the student is working through the issues presented in class. However, this article does not address the idea of race as a social construct, especially in. Japan, where “race” is so tied to “nationality.” Equality doesn’t have to mean giving up one’s identity, either. Everyone deserves to be treated as the humans they are, and I don’t see why a mixed race Japanese person or a permanent resident who came from another country shouldn’t be afforded basic human decency and legal rights. Also, cultural traditions can be preserved by non-Japanese–what about Buddhist monks who aren’t Japanese by birth or taiko groups in the US? One is not born with the cultural knowledge of these things solely by parentage.

    I wish you good luck in your studies, and I hope you’ll consider how these statements perpetuate prejudice.

      • If the original purpose of whitening was to raise the social status of their children, can the same be said for other forms of intercultural marriage? Some of my “hafu” friends, who possess a mixed race, tell me that sometimes they do not understand why their parents came together and started a family in the first place, for the reason that time after time they encounter cultural barriers and occasional misunderstandings

        But race in Japan and other countries operates differently. Applying “whitening” from countries where passing as white or having lighter skin is valued to Japan, where discrimination against people who don’t look Japanese (see the Hafu: Mixed Race in Japan documentary), doesn’t quite overlap.

        My personal approach to this question is that if more and more people start to treat racial mixing as a social norm, there is a possibility of fewer people conserving the “pure blood” of a specific race. Of course, moving up the social ladder is important in reaching equality, especially for those who are facing discrimination in society. However, if more and more people become over-conscious in seeking equality, to the point where they care for social status over understanding their own identity, it will become difficult for themselves, as well as their children to find where they belong and to understand their own identity. Especially in a country where tradition and culture is to be preserved, racial mixing and other forms of cultural integration may not always be socially accepted as compared to countries such as the United States.

        Again, applying the standards of another culture to Japan doesn’t fit. The concept of “pure blood” when Japan has its own ethnic groups and no modern culture is racially “pure” (a term that makes me squeamish to type), and the idea that one can be “overconscious in seeking equality” seems to suggest that part of being deemed “non Japanese” or mixed race in Japan is having to “celebrate” their identity is to NOT seek out basic human and legal rights nor to work on education about inclusivity and prejudice.

    • I also find this statement somewhat disturbing, as someone of mixed background myself:

      ” My personal approach to this question is that if more and more people start to treat racial mixing as a social norm, there is a possibility of fewer people conserving the “pure blood” of a specific race. Of course, moving up the social ladder is important in reaching equality, especially for those who are facing discrimination in society. However, if more and more people become over-conscious in seeking equality, to the point where they care for social status over understanding their own identity, it will become difficult for themselves, as well as their children to find where they belong and to understand their own identity. Especially in a country where tradition and culture is to be preserved, racial mixing and other forms of cultural integration may not always be socially accepted as compared to countries such as the United States.”

      1) Why is it a problem that fewer people will conserve the pure blood of a specific race?

      2) Why do you think that racial mixing will make people stop understanding their own identity and will make it difficult to find where they belong?

      It seems to me that the author fails to see the problem behind viewing racial mixing as detrimental to Japanese culture and tradition. This view is one of the beliefs that keep the racial hierarchy alive and makes life harder for inter-ethnic couples and people of mixed background in Japan.

      • I came back to reply to my comment thread, but this comment nailed it. This particular paragraph was actually the one I felt perpetuated prejudices, too, and for the same reasons.

  2. Hello. Thank you for the comments, they really identify a different approach to this issue.
    Actually, I re-read that paragraph and I probably should have rephrased much of what I had written. My main argument here was to introduce how racial mixing and intercultural marriages should not be used as tools to acquire social equality and status. In Japan, intercultural marriages have become common as compared to as the past. There is a term in Japan used to describe the Japanese people who fall in love with foreign culture over their own national culture called “gaijin kabure” or “gaikoku kabure”. To an extent, some Japanese people would argue that intercultural marriage between Westerners (typically Whites) is something to show status, that they are different from the normal Japanese who live in Japan. My first argument was to introduce the possibility that intercultural marriages may become a tool for obtaining social status rather than, like all marriages, the outcome of love and relationships between the couple.
    Regarding the second argument, what I wanted to mention that there are many “hafu” in Japan who question their identities as Japanese. For instance, at the school where I attended previous to Ritsumeikan, there was mainly a large international population; more than half of the Japanese population were “hafu”. Many of them could not get along very well with the pure Japanese group, and a majority of the time were hanging out with the international population. They tell me that no matter how Japanese they act, they feel “different” than the rest of the Japanese population. Another example of “hafu” is one of my mother’s best friends, who is half zainichi Korean and half Japanese. My mother always tells me, he tries to act as Japanese as possible, shows his love for Japanese culture, and even tries to spend his time hanging out with Japanese people, but no matter how hard he tries, there is always a little bit of his “other side” that he tries to conserve (for instance, in private, he prefers to uses his Korean name over his Japanese name). Being accepted but a minority at the same time, it is difficult to preserve and represent both identities. The question that I have myself regarding this statement is “what it really means to “conserve culture and tradition” and whether racial mixing deprives individuals of doing so.
    I hope this makes sense.

    • To the first argument: a foreign-born spouse is a footnote on the koseki–they aren’t even listed as the spouse or the parent of any children. Getting a spouse visa can be very helpful for spouses who are not naturalized Japanese citizens or permanent residents, but with the level of discrimination against people who don’t appear to be Japanese or don’t look Japanese “enough,” unless the mixed-race child can “pass” for Japanese visually and with their name, there is not an advantage.

      -English semantics note: “pure Japanese” is not factual. No “race” is “pure.” Even Japan is a mix of Ainu and “Yamato,” not to mention the Chinese and Koreans who came to Japan bringing Buddhism and kanji. And “hafu” should be “mixed race.” I know these are not the terms used in Japanese, but “pure race” and “hafu” aren’t really accurate terms. I don’t think your intent is to use these words to hurt, but please be aware that these word are problematic in English.

      -The choice isn’t between a “Japanese identity” and a “non-Japanese identity.” The Japanese government might require a citizen of Korean descent to have a “Japanese” name, but if this person prefers to use his Korean name in private, maybe it’s because he thinks it will be rejected in public because of prejudices against Japanese people of Korean descent. One can both celebrate their heritage and participate fully in the country in which they live. If anything, “half” should be “double.” You have two–or more!–cultures together; conserving two cultures while building a new culture. Conservation and creation are not mutually exclusive.

      Here is an article that I think discusses this issue better than I have here: http://thediplomat.com/2013/10/03/in-japan-will-hafu-ever-be-considered-whole/

      • Good points about the terms ‘hafu’ and ‘pure.’ I don’t want to speak for the author, but I think I can safely say that everyone here agrees that ‘purity’ is a myth. As for the term ‘hafu,’ I like the responses given by Lara Perez Takagi and Megumi Nishikura, filmmakers behind the film “Hafu” (and featured in the article you referenced). They prefer the term hafu, and use it to refer to themselves, arguing that they can be hafu and be fully Japanese at the same time. Megumi gave a passionate and moving presentation at TEDxKyoto last month. The video of that presentation should be available online soon. Others people prefer other terms, and we should respect their preferences. No term is accurate–even the term mixed race reifies biological notions of race. The terms can also have different meanings in different languages. Thus, people more commonly use the term “hafu” in English, instead of the English word “half,” since using the English word conjures up a history of race that’s not the same as present-day understandings in Japan. Part of the process of people carving out their place in society is naming themselves, making these terms extremely personal. Hafu, double, daburu, hapa, nikkei, mixed race, multiracial … each term is part of the discussion, and none is intended to hurt. I use the term hafu because it’s the most common term that people of mixed Japanese ancestry use to refer to themselves, but if someone prefers a different term, or sees themselves a different way, I’ll use the term they prefer.

  3. What bugs me about this blog post is that it criticises racial intermarriage as a process of status attainment because it reduces racial and cultural purity.

    The problem is that racial and cultural purity themselves are status markers. High status group preserve their status by avoiding intermarriage, while low status groups gain status by seeking to intermarry with a higher status group. That is, both seeking and avoiding racial intermarriage are behaviours that are deeply connected with status attainment.

    I would suggest you to think about why racial and cultural purity are important and why they are so valued by some groups in Japanese society. You will see that people who defend purity are not necessarily making choices that are free from status considerations.

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