“Why are Americans, particularly black Americans, so quick to holler racism?”
I’ve heard this asked a lot. Actually, it’s not always in question form. It’s more like an incontrovertible statement, usually from the lips of nonblack people here in Japan. Some black people, too.
I’ve been accused of dropping R-bombs so often — sometimes without having even uttered the word — that I’ve unconsciously, and sometimes even consciously, modified my gut responses to the foolishness that constantly goes on here. I tell myself these modifications are sanity preservation — a survival tactic, and quite necessary for long-term happiness not only in Japan but in the U.S., too.
Whenever possible — that is, when the incident in question is not blatantly screaming “racism” at the top of its lungs — one must learn to extend the benefit of the doubt to what might seem to be way beyond the reasonable. Otherwise, it’s very likely you’ll be seeing behavior that could be classified as racist at every turn. You really will. Especially in Japan.
And, to make these modifications all the more appealing, I’ve found that this kind of thinking and behavior gets rewarded. People, particularly whites and Japanese, find you much more appealing and approachable. After all, nobody wants to be told that they’ve been unintentionally racist — or that behavior they’ve sanctioned as cultural quirks and implicit biases are likely indicative of something a lot uglier. But, if you modify that modus operandi, you get labeled an evenhanded, fair-minded guy — instead of a hothead who presumes racist intent, or un-intent, at every questionable act they come upon. These guys lose credibility quickly, like the boy who cried wolf when the canine in question was just a beagle or chihuahua.
So when that Japanese person stands, vacates the seat beside you and sits elsewhere on the subway or bus, you must train yourself to sell yourself on the notion that the person could just as well have needed to stretch their legs, or wanted to, umm, give you some extra room. Or perhaps they had been harassed the previous week by a guy who looked just like you, or have had random foreigners just turn and embarrassingly spit English at them. Make it feasible now, cuz you’re the one who’s gotta sell it and buy it!
And if you find yourself, as some of my fellow expats have, being stopped by cops an inordinate amount of times on your bike, or just walking down the street? Before you sprint to the default reason of supposed oversensitive Americans, take a deep breath, man up and tell yourself, sell to yourself, that it’s just as likely — hell, more likely — that the cops are being extra-vigilant because there have been a string of bike robberies by illegal aliens, and, like it or not, you kinda sorta fit that description. (Of course, you fit the description of a legal alien too, but that’s beside the point. Sell it. Buy it.)
And when a former adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe goes on record extolling the system of apartheid, whereby blacks, whites and Asians are forced to live separately, instead of calling her a racist, you can appreciate her words for their honesty and forthrightness. You can even admire her a bit for having the audacity to say what you’re pretty sure many of the people you encounter here would endorse if they had half her courage.
And when you turn on the television one night soon and see a J-pop group called Rats & Star — who’ve clearly raided Little Richard’s (or maybe Flavor Flav’s) wardrobe — singing doo-wop songs in shoddy English with their faces painted black as tar, just do yourself a favor and stop! Don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t drop any R-bombs!
Just consider the possibilities first: Like maybe, just maybe, these guys really, really love black people so much that they are prepared to forsake their own race in favor of blackness — at least during performances, anyway. (I’m pretty sure they don’t wanna be black full-time. Even these guys know there’s a lot more to being black in this world than doo-wopping and shoe polish.)
Or, like my Japanese then-girlfriend back in 2009 told me after I referred to Gosperats, another homegrown blackface group, as “ignorant bastards”: I ought to stop to consider that these guys have been around, like, forever and have nothing but respect and adoration for black people and music, and that this minstrel show of theirs is their way — the Japanese way — of paying homage to black music history. (Need I explain why I dumped her?)
“You’re way too sensitive about race,” she’d snapped over my shoulder as I blogged about these guys. “Everything is race, race, race, race, race with you. Are all black people like that?”
And she had a good point. Perhaps it is my tender sensibilities that are at fault sometimes. But in this case, I seriously doubt it.
The other day, I showed a video of these Rats & Star guys to a Japanese co-worker of mine and, without giving him any clue why I had made him watch it, asked what he thought of it.
“They want to be like black people,” he said, grinning. “They love black people.”
“What’s with the black make-up, though?” I asked. “I love Japanese people but you don’t see me putting cake batter on my face.”
He laughed and shrugged. Then he got curious. Maybe my facial expression betrayed me.
“Why do you ask? Is it bad?”
I sucked air, Japanese style.
“Gotta tell ya,” I said. “I’m not a big fan of it.”
“I see,” he said. “Why?”
“You see, back in the days . . .”
And since he was a pretty cool guy, I proceeded to give him a little black history — nothing too overwhelming, just an overview of the decades-long struggle against this kind of nonsense. I pulled up a couple of pics of famous white actors from the golden age of Hollywood wearing black face, and a bit of a Spike Lee montage from his film “Bamboozled” to illustrate my history lesson.
“Oh,” he said, but I could tell by his face that he wasn’t really processing all the ramifications.
“Yeah,” I sighed.
“Do they know?” he asked, meaning were these Rats aware of the irony — that the manner in which they sing the praises of black people is so offensive that the homage they are paying is being drowned out in the noise of their repugnant presentation? That they’re actually making many non-Japanese people — blacks, whites and Asians alike — uncomfortable at best and at worst offending the hell outta them?
“I really don’t know,” I confessed. And it’s true — I don’t know what they know.
But I know this: They’re going to be on TV next month showing their love for black people in a way that if my mother — who adored doo-wop — saw it, would cause her to shake her head and say, “Apartheid and blackface? Take me now, Jesus, take me now.”