Racial Justice and the U.S.-Japan Community

**This post is the first in a series on racial justice and the U.S.-Japan community. I’m not yet sure how many posts there will end up being because there is so much to discuss. But I am trying to add my voice to this complicated, timely and deeply personal issue. I hope you take something useful away from it. Please share. **

WHY DOES RACIAL JUSTICE IN THE U.S.-JAPAN RELATIONSHIP MATTER?

It is July 2020, and America is in a state of disarray. The coronavirus pandemic has upended all sectors of the economy and daily life. And the recent reckoning with racism finally seems to have gained a foothold, and (white) people are finally paying attention. I have been thinking long and hard about how to contribute to all the discussions on systemic racism. My specialty is not in the areas policing or the criminal justice system. However, I do have experience teaching an undergraduate Sociology course – How Race and Ethnicity Shape American Life. And I’ve even been thinking of finding a way to perhaps teach it virtually. Will get back to you on that. My passion and profession are in the field of international education and exchange, particularly between the U.S. and Japan. So I decided to write down my thoughts reflecting on the U.S.-Japan community through a lens of racial justice. With the recent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, the average (white) American is waking up to the realization that racism has been institutionalized across all systems shaping daily life in America. Even though they may not have built the systems, they unfairly benefit from them for no reason other than their skin color. People have been moved to action in protesting these systems, which is great. But dismantling these systems is going to be a monumental task. It will take intentional actions by individuals and institutions to not only reimagine equitable versions of systems but take on the responsibility of acting out racial justice in their everyday lives and decisions. Then and only then, will things change. But how and where does the racial justice argument fit in the U.S.-Japan field? What, if any, actions need to be taken? First, I want to address the different groups of readers I imagine as the audience for this post and what I want them to get from all this.

WHO IS THE AUDIENCE FOR THIS POST?

Let me first be clear, the purpose of this post is not to make white people feel guilty and lay blame at their feet these systems of injustice. It is about helping people recognize that something like the U.S.-Japan community is not immune from systemic racism or racial bias.  By definition, systemic racism is “how the ideas of white superiority [and whiteness as the default] are captured in everyday thinking at a systems level: taking in the big picture of how society operates, rather than looking at one-on-one interactions.” It’s not necessarily about the acts of individuals, although sometimes individual thoughts and actions do reinforce these systems. But it is about the ways in which whiteness is considered superior individually, ideological and institutionally. While individual white people may not be racist, they can benefit from various systems that privilege white faces and voices, and silence or devalue others. This idea of white privilege is what I believe white America is struggling with trying to comprehend right now.

This post is not only for white people but is also for ethnic minorities who are “white adjacent.” These are persons who are technically an ethnic minority, but through alignment with whiteness (historically and contemporarily) and distancing themselves from the socio-political problems their ethnic group commonly faces, they have access to, utilize and benefit from white privilege (e.g. some Asian American groups). The challenges I make to whites in this article, I would extend to those who are white-adjacent, because they sacrifice the sufferings of their own communities and other ethnic minorities to maintain their inclusion in the benefits of white privilege, specifically here in the U.S.-Japan arena.

Since this post is about the U.S.-Japan community, I do not want to leave out the Japanese audience. I want you to understand these protests are about more than injustice at the hands of the police. It is about fighting racial injustice in all aspects of American life for black people specifically, who have systematically been victimized by the laws and institutions of America for no reason other than the color of their skin. I want you to gain a more nuanced understanding of how racism operates in the United States, and how black people are disproportionately impacted by it. And most importantly that the Black Lives Matter movement is not about trying to destroy America, or violent riots, but about peaceful protests to uphold the principles of the Constitution in ways that actually benefit and protect all. The goal is that “ALL” includes black people, which at present it does not. But that I will explain that later.

To all who read, I challenge you to throw away your underlying assumptions about why things are the way they are or always have been. There is no natural order to things. Man created and shaped society according to his values. While some of what I discuss with respect to racial justice may apply to ethnic minorities in the U.S.-Japan community broadly, I will be focusing the discussion on problematic patterns and practices I have seen in my experience as a black professional in this space.

BEING BLACK IN THE U.S.-JAPAN COMMUNITY

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I love Japan!! With all its challenges and contradictions, Japanese language or culture have been a part of my life since I was 15 years old. I am an educated, black, female who has been a professional in the international education and exchange space for 20 years. I have always been an enigma to my friends and family. They never understood my connection and interest in Japan, often bemused by my Japan related pursuits. This attitude extends to many I encounter as a professional in the U.S.-Japan community as well. When I started working in 2000 as an English teacher on the JET Program in Kawasaki City, Japan, my Japanese students did not think I was from the United States. They guessed I was from Jamaica or Africa (yes, the entire continent, not a specific country). When they found out I was American, their questions were stereotypically about hip-hop or rap music, guns and about my favorite athletes (p.s. I am so not a sports person!). Their questions were shaped by perceptions of Black people.  Encountering Japanese in daily life, they were always surprised by my ability to speak Japanese without a foreign accent as most Americans do. Their image of Americans was blond hair and blue-eyed. And while you might say, “Oh that was 20 years ago, things are different now,” you only have to look at the problematic NHK Black Lives Matter video and the Japanese backlash to Naomi Osaka’s public comments on racial justice to know that negative attitudes about black people and misunderstandings of what racism is persist in the minds of Japanese. These attitudes persist because they do not often encounter many black people or people of color in general and because the Americans they do encounter (i.e. white people) do not talk about these issues or challenge these attitudes (as allies) when faced with them. But it is not just Japanese whose perspectives are problematic here.

When I attend U.S.-Japan professional events, I am often one of a handful of black professionals in the room, if not the only one. And I am not just talking about receptions (where there could be more), but I am referring to content centered events or programs. The U.S.-Japan arena is overwhelmingly white, and male. It is sad to not see more people who look like me in the U.S.-Japan community. In fact, it was this lack of diversity and representation that inspired my pursuit of graduate education and dissertation research on why black students are underrepresented in study abroad. As a kid, being the only black one in U.S.-Japan spaces did not really bother me. But as an adult who understands the importance of representation and often feels the absence of people who look like me everywhere I look, I am troubled. In my work, I always advocate for programs that give opportunities to young people of color who are passionate and interested in Japan. (I’ll talk more about this in a subsequent post.) My experience does not even include the complexity of what it must be like for those who are biracial – mixes of Black, White and Japanese – in the community. And with no black faces in leadership positions or positions of influence in the U.S.-Japan community, I wonder if there will ever be a place for me up there, no matter how hard I work or what credentials I possess.  

  To my readers, have you ever noticed the lack of black faces in U.S.-Japan spaces? If so, have you wondered why that is? If you have not noticed, that is a problem. I often hear people try and explain why the pipeline of talent lacks black representation. Common explanations are: They are not interested in Japan. We do not know where to find them. They often do not have the right experiences or credentials. We are not sure they are a right fit for our organization, panel, or event. They are not senior enough to speak on these issues. These explanations are not only excuses, but subtle forms of bias, individual acts of racism, and manifestations of systemic racism. I have heard these assertions from people at levels of the relationship, including leadership. And that is where change needs to begin. By interrogating these assertions over the course of this series, I hope you will understand why they are problematic.  And you will use this opportunity to take some of these suggested actions to help make the U.S.-Japan community more racially inclusive and access to opportunities more racially just. And that first starts with support of Black Lives Matter.

SUPPORT BLACK LIVES MATTER AND THE FIGHT FOR RACIAL JUSTICE

One of the principle characteristics of leaders I admire and respect are those who “take risks to do what is right.” And that is what I would like to see happen in the U.S.-Japan community. First, I challenge white leaders of U.S.-Japan related organizations to make statements in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. You need to educate yourself on issues of race and stand up and challenge those who argue that “All Lives Matter (ALM).” It is frustrating and pisses me off when I hear individuals refer to the BLM movement as political, rather than what it is, a human rights issue. For every person who tries to silence and delegitimize the BLM protest with an ALM response, you are perpetuating the racist principle that black lives are not equal and ignoring the facts of history that clearly illustrate all the ways that black lives have never mattered in America. My friend and former colleague, wrote an insightful blog post in Japanese explaining how to understand the term BLM, and why ALM is a problematic statement. She focuses on the translation of the BLM phrase into Japanese to get closer to the intention of the argument, which I think makes it easier to understand. The sentiment of the message is that “BLM too.” If ALM, then black men would be able to walk down the street of their own neighborhood at any time of day or night without the fear of police violence. A black child wouldn’t arbitrarily be denied service in a restaurant  because of his dress, despite a white child dressed the same way being served. A black woman wouldn’t be accused of fraud when trying to cash a check at a bank. A black woman (i.e. me) would not be overly aware of where her hands are when she is walking into and out of stores for fear that she might be accused of shoplifting. There are no instances in which white people or even other minorities face these types of systematic discrimination or profiling based solely on their race. You put any other person in any of the above situations, and without fail you would get different results. If ALM, then these situations would happen to everyone or no one equally. But the reality is they don’t. And like the equality, equity, justice photo (below) illustrates, until the causes of inequity (e.g. discriminatory laws and practices) are removed we will not have racial justice and be able to include black lives in an all lives framework.

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I recognize that making such public statements are a risk and may ruffle some feathers, or perhaps cost your organization some supporters or donors. But if you wish to be on the right side of history, then you need to take a stand. When someone congratulates you on “staying out of the BLM debates,” you need to challenge them and explain why you do not support that attitude. If you cannot articulate it or are uncomfortable with talking about this stuff, then you need to educate yourself and get comfortable talking about race, racism, racial justice and white privilege. By thinking the fight for racial justice is not your fight or has no place in the U.S.-Japan relationship, you are making clear that victims of racial injustice are not members of this community. You are ignoring the participation and contributions of those who are not white, Japanese or white-adjacent. And by default you are saying that whiteness is the best, of the highest quality and value. As a professional black, female in this community, knowing your silence reinforces perceptions of white superiority is hurtful and unwelcoming. At this cultural moment, you can no longer simply say you are a leader who attempts to be inclusive and strives to appreciate diversity. You must put your money where your mouth is and have a plan of action that indicates you are serious and really are contributing to change. And as U.S.-Japan leaders, your actions should aim to create community culture that is racially just.

LEADERS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE CULTURE THEY CREATE

The second area where I challenge leaders in the U.S.-Japan community to act is by considering the kind of culture their behavior and actions perpetuate within their organizations as well as throughout the community. First, you need to acknowledge the optics of what white leadership at the head of cultural or internationally focused organizations connotes in the community. While leadership may have been historically white with no questioning of the how or why there is a lack of diversity, this moment in time makes clear that will no longer be accepted as the norm. The next generation is not so accepting of this status quo. They are asking the questions now. They want to know if you have thought about the optics? Do you care or even understand the message it sends to others in the community? And as I stated above, you need to have answers. You cannot stay silent and hope the questions go away. And while your silence may appease those with the power and influence of the moment, if you truly are thinking about the future of your organizations and this community, then you need to get next generation leaders on your side. The post-baby boomer generations are some of the most racially and socio-economically diverse the world has ever seen. Their attitudes on race, social justice, and internationalization have the potential to reshape the world in more equitable ways. For the sake of the U.S.-Japan community’s future, you need to respect and include their perspectives on these issues, and take action especially if you are going to hire them to work in your organizations.

Although many leaders talk about diversity and inclusion in hiring practices, most ignore the challenges of actually managing a diverse work force, especially when that includes black employees. Many black professionals have written about how their experiences in the workplace are often very different than those of their white colleagues. They often feel they have to leave parts of their identity at home in order to be successful in the workplace. This can include feelings of being muzzled or putting their jobs at risk in situations when they might want to call out racial insensitivity. When you hire people and make decisions about “organizational fit” and “whether s/he would fit into the organizational culture,” what metrics are you using? Once hired, how might metrics for success be discriminatory? How might racial bias or white privilege play into these processes? I recently read an article by a Racial Justice organization that identified the characteristics of organizational culture that are damaging to all employees because they perpetuate a culture of white supremacy thinking . We can argue about the words and whether “white supremacy” is the best moniker, but I do think there is a sense of white privilege to how some leaders operate, that their employees or those they directly manage (white and non-white, staff and colleagues) have been asked to ignore and simply accept as the cost of doing business or the norm.

If we want to do and be better as a community on more than just the surface level, leaders need to check their privilege and consider how their perspective is normalized and codified, and how that impacts those they rely on to work for them. Some of the examples from the article such as – “urgency, either/or thinking, defensiveness, paternalism, progress is bigger, more” – are just a few I have seen operate over the course of my career. And I have seen the characteristics unevenly applied across employees in patterns that in my mind reflect racial bias. What I like about the article is that it does not just highlight the characteristics of this type of culture but explains how to address it. I pose the question to readers, if this was a system you worked under every day, and despite all your efforts to change the system or demand treatment as a professional,  nothing happens, because those in power are too invested in their position and power to change. How would you feel? Would you be demoralized? Would you feel valued? That is the crux of the racial justice argument and is what feeds the rage people are feeling all across the U.S. these days, including myself. But my sense is that for the most part, you leaders recognize issues and want to do better for your black colleagues and those in the next generation who want to contribute to the relationship in the future. So what can you do?

ACTIONS FOR MOVING TOWARD RACIAL JUSTICE IN THE U.S.-JAPAN COMMUNITY

            I want to make clear that I have loved my time and experiences in the U.S.-Japan community, especially as a teenager and in my current work with young people. I am passionate about getting young people excited about their U.S. or Japan related pursuits. I love geeking out about what is cool about living in Japan or studying at a U.S. college. I love hearing about their adventures studying abroad. I have met some wonderful people in this community. And formed life-long friendships as well. I have been embraced by Japanese at all points of my journey. I continue to mentor young people from both countries. But I will say it has been hard to feel like a full member of the professional class in this community at times. Perhaps it is because I work with young people, I am not seen as valuable. I am left out of discussions on subjects for which I have more direct experience and credentials then those who are actually making decisions. I am not automatically viewed as a resource when it comes to networks, ideas or expertise while whites who don’t even have my expertise are sought out as necessary for inclusion in discussions and decision-making. I have to work harder, demonstrate greater success for recognition or declarations of my value compared to white counterparts whose performance or achievements can be average, yet they advance or are placed in situations of influence. These are the uncomfortable topics and experiences I will continue to explore throughout the series.

            In modeling a good critical contribution, I did not just want to point out the problems but offer concrete steps that leaders and professionals at all levels can take to support racial justice in the U.S.-Japan community. That is what this series is about. To offer concrete actions that will move the needle toward racial justice. Each post will tackle one of the five assertions I stated at the beginning for reasons why the talent pipeline for U.S.-Japan lacks black representation – They are not interested in Japan. We do not know where to find them. They often do not have the right experiences or credentials. We are not sure they are a right fit for our organization, panel or event. They are not senior enough to speak on these issues. If there are other excuses or attitudes that you would like unpacked, please leave a comment.Of course, everything will not change overnight. However, the cumulative power of these individual actions can lead to a future U.S.-Japan relationship that is more equitable and an accurate reflection of the diverse spectrum of people who are passionately committed and who work tirelessly in support of it.

Thanks for reading!

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