黒人が危ないんだね: Should Foreigners Directly Challenge Japanese Opinions?

I got a letter from a reader and as soon as I finished it I knew I was going to spend at least a couple of hours writing about it. The letter contained, among other things, the kind of complex question that I think many of us here in Japan will face at some point. So I’ve decided to open it up to discussion once I’ve given my take on it.

The letter read as follows:

Hi Baye,

I don’t want to sound like probably all the rest of the commenters you get and so I’ve avoided just outright sending you a typical, wow the book is great type of email, even though I wanted to express that sentiment. I read your book a while ago and it really resonated with me, in some ways helping me to get my own handle on issues of race and racism.

I’ve been learning Japanese for around 7 years now and been to Japan 4 times, for a total of around 6 months in Japan. I’ve never lived there as such, but met many, many Japanese people through conversation exchange etc. I guess I’m asking you if you have any kind of advice for how to deal with a situation such as this:

I’ve just got back from spending the evening with a Japanese girl. We’ve kind of decided to both just be friends/conversation partners, but the thing that I notice and hear a lot goes something along the lines of:

Japanese friend: “I wanted to move to East London, because it seems like a cool area, but I think it’s safer in the West”

Me: “Why do you think it’s dangerous?”

JF: “Last time I was there, there were a few black guys trying to talk to me in a club”

Me: “Oh right…”

JF: “Yeah so it seems like a dangerous area”

Me: “So you think they seemed dangerous?”

JF: “そうだね、黒人が危ないんだね” (Black people are dangerous)

And so on.

I’ve had enough experience with Japanese people to know that you can’t just directly challenge someone’s opinion or present some information or point of view that is in direct opposition to their world view or something they have just said, for risk of completely alienating yourself from that person. Believe me, I’ve done it enough times, and burned through many potential friendships that way, but I’m just kind of at a loss. Something in your book really resonated with me, along the lines of the kind of soft, gentle, persistent racism, but then also the fact that at some point you started to dehumanize Japanese people as a kind of explanatory/coping mechanism.

I’m really feeling like I’m somewhere near this dehumanizing phase at the moment. The whole “these people can’t be human if they think of other people in those terms”. And I can completely vouch for the fact that as a privileged white guy that the racism is present and direct and completely discriminate. It seems like often Japanese people can feel comfortable telling a white guy that they don’t like Koreans, Chinese, Indians and black people, but would balk at the idea of being considered judgemental or racist. I get tired of hearing that the criminals in Japan are the Koreans, or that the guy I mentioned that I had been arguing in a bar with ‘must have been Zainichi, because われわれ日本人 (most Japanese) don’t do that”

And maybe my problem is that it’s because I’m doing the whole racism thing, by referring to ‘these Japanese people’ or something and maybe it’s just confirmation bias or something, because I’m never mentioning all the times that someone Japanese didn’t say something racist. But then again, the Japanese people do talk about “we Japanese” a lot, so it feels natural to frame it in those terms of ‘they/those Japanese”.

Anyway, maybe my question to you is something along these lines:

If you were to be in my position in one of those conversations, a fly on the wall as it were, what would you want to hear?

How do you think the conversation could be steered in a good direction?

I’m not sure that just pointing out any mistake in someone’s reasoning in a direct way could ever work. And maybe it sounds shitty for me to reach out to you and basically ask you something along the lines of “How do I market black people to Japanese people?”, and I really don’t mean to be offensive or for you to take it that way, I apologise if it is.

I’m just kind of asking for your opinion as a somewhat experienced well positioned expert on some of the issues that I face, and possibly somewhat vainly hoping that I can at least make some part of the world not quite so painful for someone somewhere. Believe me, I know the empty seat, and can only begin to imagine what that felt like for you all those years. Maybe I can just eliminate one occasion of the empty seat by stating something well in an easy to accept/understand format.

Anyway, if you’re as short on answers as I am, that’s OK. And the book really is so eloquent and expressive, I found it hard to put down.

All the best,

Mark.

Dear Mark,

First off, thanks Mark for checking out my book. Glad it resonated and provided food for thought. Couldn’t ask for more than that.

Now to your question…

If I were in your position…hmmm…

I am of the belief that very few people, if any, can view life from a perspective other than their own. Human attitudes and behavior simply can’t be objectified, at least not problematically. The first major drawback to doing so is that there really isn’t a universal standard to measure these behaviors. Most people will objectify based on criteria from their own cultural norms and/or those adapted from the society which they were most exposed to and influenced by. The odds of people outside your society agreeing with all of the behaviors and attitudes you embrace rise and fall according to multifarious factors, among them geopolitical, ethnic, racial, economical, and even anatomical.

 

I think many of us foreigners here in Japan are guilty of doing this. As self-aware as I like to think I am of how arrogant, intolerant and inhumane it can be to do so (for African-Americans are, to a large extent, the product of the European effort to engineer humanity and make the world over according to their beliefs, and to be especially tolerant of their positions) even I am guilty of this at times.

As for being “a fly on the wall,” well, after vomiting, and lapping it up as flies do, I would rub my little hands together and wish you NOT to worry about alienating your companion.

Fuck That!

Yes, you have done your homework and you’ve taken your lumps: Communicating directly with Japanese people is a no-no, you’ve ascertained.

My experience has been different, though. I’ve managed to communicate directly with Japanese in my own style and voice. And if I can do it, there’s a good chance others can and do.

That’s not to say that I’ve always been successful. I’ve come to think of it as my weeding out process.

I’m not worried about “burning through friendships.” This fly on the wall wants to holler in your ear: “Burn, Baby, Burn!”

That’s why, in all my years on this island, I only have a handful of Japanese friends…but you better believe, each and every one of them knows that I ain’t about to sit back and listen to them spew any hate-speak against any other people…unchallenged, that is.

Hell, if you hold an opinion strong enough to directly voice it to me, I don’t see why I can’t directly challenge it.

I mean if the opinion was conveyed with subtle equivocations and coy evasions I would use them in turn. I adore the fine art of conversation, of innuendoes and such.

But, there’s nothing really indirect about “Black People are dangerous” or “Chinese people are rude,” now, is there?

I might even extend the benefit of the doubt after indelicate statements like those. Give the person a chance to retract or re-think their position with a relatively subtle challenge like: “You really think Will Smith is dangerous???” And occasionally that’s all it takes to make the other person aware that they are in the company of someone that will push back. But, most often, particularly here in Japan, such a mild pushback isn’t enough.

So, you better believe they are gonna hear my thoughts.

Politely, but definitely directly!

And, as far as I know, that’s respected. If the Japanese in question wants to withdraw their friendship, at least we’ll go our separate ways without regret.

I mean, I guess it all depends on how seriously you use that word “friend.” Personally, I don’t toss the term around lightly. A friend is someone I respect for who they are and respects me for who I am. A person with whom I’ve made and feel a connection, a bond, NOT because I’ve managed to adapt to their style of communication and sharing ideas to the point that my natural way of expressing myself is lost and I am basically mimicking their style, but someone who can appreciate that while my style may not be what they are accustomed to, it is as much a part of me as theirs is a part of them. Someone with whom trust can be established, who accepts that while I may appear to be coming on strong it is being done with the best intentions, just as I have to trust that their evasive style is being done similarly. Trust is the foundation of any relationship with a future, and if there isn’t any, what kind of friendship do you have anyway?

Of course, if you prefer they have the upper hand in all correspondences you can go the route of avoiding confrontation, but I don’t. I would have advised you to continue the convo something like this:

JF: そうだね、黒人が危ないんだね Black people are dangerous!

You: Hahahahahahaha!

JF: What’s so funny?

You: (Slowly fade your smile out) That was a joke, wasn’t it?

JF: Eeeeeeto ne…Anoooooo…

You: (flash a little shock, then feigned patience bordering on pity/disappointment) Wait! You don’t really believe that, do you?

JF: Eeeeetoooooo ne. Black guys are dangerous, deshou???

You: You know, many people believe modern Japanese are a great people with an exceptional culture, ultra-polite and refined. That you guys are open minded and for the most part incapable of thinking ill of people based on race.

JF: Sou da ne

You: Some people, though, think Japanese are a xenophobic child race living on a little homogenous island where they think they’re sanctioned and safe to be ignorant and intolerant of other people.

JF: Really?

You: Yeah, really. From roughly half the Japanese people I know I’ve heard nonsense like what you just said. Whether it be about Chinese or Korean, Middle Eastern, blacks or whites. And, you know what? I still refuse to label Japanese people as just plumb ignorant and incapable of recognizing the full humanity and diversity of non-Japanese. You know why?

JF: Eeeee?

You: Yeah, me neither. Wow, look at the time…

If the person contacts you again, with an apology or explanation, maybe you have laid the foundation for a real friendship founded on mutual respect. If not, oh well…you win some, you lose some.

I’d call that one a win, though.

Besides, living here, you learn rather quickly that you, as a perpetual and conspicuous outsider, are not expected (I want to say invited) to play by the same rules as Japanese do. From their perspective (based on what I’ve ascertained from their behavior and explanations) we’re handicapped by not being Japanese and thus not quite capable of living by their rules and even fully “getting” them, which I’ve found to sometimes be a blessing. Thanks in part to this condescending charitability of theirs, break certain rules (like the one you mentioned) and you are forgiven if not immediately then beforehand.

So, when I’m establishing friendships, or dealing with people I plan to voluntarily meet again and spend time around, I do something really radical: I let them know who I am. The real me. Not the me that avoids confrontation in order not to offend the offending party. No. I mean, the “me” that, with all due diplomacy of course, tackles worthwhile conflicts head-on.

And I think a handful of real friends who dig YOU is a lot better that a shitload of friends you gotta censor yourself and tiptoe around, cultural differences be damned.

And, an ancillary benefit of weeding out the bozos this way is that you are able to keep yourself in touch with Japanese people who’ll help you keep an open mind. Something which is particularly helpful during times like you’re going through now, where you feel yourself slowly dehumanizing them. You’ll have some very human friends to support your equilibrium.

Thanks again, Mark. Hope this was helpful.

Best regards,

Baye McNeil

“As long as you keep your head to the sk
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