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June 27, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

Real racism vs. real stupidity

With my neighbor circa 1990

With my neighbor circa 1990

October 9, 1997                                                

To be parents of children attending Japanese junior high school means participation in their metamorphosis every weekend into potential Olympic athletes. At least that’s how the “coach” (ordinarily known as the math or perhaps science teacher during the school week) acts. You can expect a telephone call on Saturday nights to say “the team” will be gathering the following morning at 6:30.

And so, early (I left the house at 6 a.m.) one Sunday morning I took my youngest daughter Lila, picked up four members of the volleyball team and drove them to a small town about 45 minutes away for a tournament.

I like to be up early, but I don’t think much about being behind the wheel of a car at that time in the morning. Still, by the time I reached the venue, saw the teacher smiling and genki in his incarnation as coach, it didn’t seem so bad to be out at cockcrow.

As I prepared to drive back home, the other mother who had also transported a carload of girls, suggested we stop at a plant nursery on the outskirts of the town. I thought it was a great idea since it’s a place I don’t go often and this particular garden shop is known for its wide variety of plants and low prices. I wasn’t in the shop 10 minutes before I’d filled a basket with flowers I wanted to purchase. Just as I put my chosen items on the counter, the proprietress of the shop came out.

I’ll stop here to reiterate something I’ve said before:  I expect Japanese people in Japan to notice that my hair it not like most Japanese people’s hair. I myself know it is not like Japanese hair.

This woman came from behind the counter, caught up a bunch of my hair in her hands and, while holding it, looked at the woman I was with, and, addressing her, said:  “Is this real?”

My fellow volleyball mom, duly mortified, was completely speechless. After all, what could she have answered? “I too am curious. Why don’t we ask the person to whom the hair belongs?”

I took the woman’s hand by the wrist, removed it from my hair and said in a voice as cold as Arctic ice:  “It’s real. Don’t touch it.”

I wasn’t sure if the woman had lost her mind or just her manners. Although I had passed the early-morning grumpy stage, I was in no mood for this kind of foolishness. Talk about being impolite, I call that kind of behavior rude and offensive. I’d also call her ignorant, insensitive and inconsiderate. No matter how different I might look, I am not an inanimate object.

Still, I wouldn’t call her a “racist.” That’s the term someone I know used when I related this story. No, it wasn’t a “racist” act. It was stupid.

Racist. That word is asked to cover a little too much ground as far as I’m concerned. I also think that some of the people who are quickest to bandy the word about do not realize their complaints amount to a little more than whining.

One might hear the word “racist” pulled out to describe the owner of a club in Roppongi that doesn’t welcome foreigners. A Japanese shopkeeper is called a “racist” when he or she refuses to speak Japanese to foreigners.

In the first place, these statements presuppose the Japanese are a race. They are not. Secondly, “race” is a totally unscientific category. It is a social myth, not a biological phenomenon.

Surely some distinctions are needed. For example, racism is often confused with ethnocentrism. But we may all exhibit some degree of cultural bias or ethnocentrism. We practice this selective discrimination on a daily basis with no more thought than drinking water.

It is not strange that most people prefer to be with people who are like themselves. Naturally enough, there are also those others who willingly venture out of their comfortably familiar groups to be with others unlike themselves. If you are one of these people, you are exceptional. It may be one of the reasons you are in this country.

Any foreign child can go to any public school anywhere in this country. If they could not, if they were prevented from going because of how they looked and because they were categorized as being of an “inferior race,” and if it required armed officers of the law to ensure they could go to school unmolested, they would clearly be victims of racism.

Racism, as it has manifested itself in my country, the United States of America, has proven itself, over the course of several centuries, a malignant disease. It poisons discourse and has created an enormous amount of human and social damage. To this day it prevents the effective cooperation of productive minds.

Discrimination and prejudice are not necessarily racism, although they can be. Racism systematically and effectively shuts out and excludes persons or groups from the social, educational and economic mainstream. When this system is forcibly maintained by tradition and habit, and institutionalized by law, I would call it oppression.

Oppression. Now there’s a serious affront to dignity.

_______________________

POSTSCRIPT

No one has grabbed my hair recently, but I still, of course, draw attention with my dreadlocks. And of course too, these days you can see Japanese with dreadlocks. They didn’t come about them easily, certainly not naturally. But if I go to the Jamaica Day festival in Yoyogi-koen I am sure to see Japanese with longer dreadlocks than mine.

Only recently it was reported in the news that when one accounts for the gains black Americans have made in education in the U.S., they are still not favored in employment, housing, or obtaining loans. And although white Americans engage in drug offenses at a higher rate than black Americans, the latter are imprisoned at a rate that is 10 times greater than that of whites.

When these quite considerable impediments are considered, what is singled out as ‘racism’ in Japan is a mere nuisance.

On the subject of ‘race’ in general, an article in the Los Angeles Times, February 20, 1995 stated:

Researchers adept at analyzing the genetic threads of human diversity said Sunday that the concept of race–the source of abiding cultural and political divisions in American society–simply has no basis in fundamental human biology.

Scientists should abandon it, they said.

Their controversial conclusion grows out of a more precise understanding of the underlying genetics of the human species and how surface distinctions of skin color, hair and facial features, which may loom large in daily life, have nothing to do with the basic biology of human differences.

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© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

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