Last month’s column on “microaggressions” was my most debated yet. Thanks for reading and commenting.
So this month, let’s explore how the microaggression dynamic works in all societies, and why some people live in denial of it. Brace yourself for a bit of theory . . .
All societies, when defining themselves, decide who is “us” and who is “them.” So do countries. In the name of sovereignty, nation-states must decide who is a member (a citizen) and who is not (a foreigner). (If they didn’t, there’d be no point to citizenship.)
Nation-states also perpetuate themselves by creating a feeling of community for their citizens — national narratives, invented traditions and official shared histories. So the concept of “Who is ‘us’?” gets created, reinforced and generationally encoded through the media, public policy, primary education, etc.
What about encoding “Who is ‘them’?” It is by nature a process of differentiation. Foreigners by definition have different legal, civil and political rights in any society. (They usually cannot vote, for example.)
But differentiation is also codified in everyday interaction. To determine their community’s borders and clarify their identity within it, people tend to contrast themselves with outsiders. This is a process of socially “othering” people.
Eventually the presumptions of “Others” being “different” become normalized into mundane assumptions, such as stereotypes.
Herein come the microaggressions. They keep life simple by enforcing (consciously and unconsciously) the stereotyping. For example, “This person looks Asian; he can use chopsticks,” or “This person looks Caucasian; she needs an English menu.” They are not necessarily grounded in hatred — only in presumed difference.
This means that even well-intentioned people, trying to be kind when offering those chopsticks and menus, tend to view the person standing before them not as a unique individual, but as a collection of socially encoded characteristics assigned to that individual’s presumed group. Then they react accordingly.
That’s why microaggressions are so invisible, powerful and difficult to fight. For why would anyone resist someone trying to be kind? But people do — even in Japan, where they grumble about arigata meiwaku (nuisance niceness).
In Japan, however, microaggressions towards non-Japanese (NJ) are especially difficult to counteract for three reasons.
One is that Japan’s encodings are extremely standardized. Japanese basic education and social science (JBC, Sept. 7, 2010) are grounded both in stereotypes and in a cult of Japan’s difference (“uniqueness,” in fact). They inculcate convictions that, say, all non-Asian foreigners cannot use chopsticks or can understand English. Doubt that? Walk by a schoolyard and count the inevitable “harō!”s.
A second reason is that Japan’s encoding for what makes “us” and “them” is so strong that it is insuperable, precluding possible exceptions. Take, for example, the case of a person who naturalizes and becomes a Japanese citizen. Surely such people prove that it’s possible to jump the wall from The Other to become part of The Self?
Legally, yes. But not always socially. As “Japanese Only” signs and rules make plainer, “real” Japanese have to look Japanese. We are far from a “tipping point” where multitudes of multiethnic Japanese demonstrate that language ability and manual dexterity are unrelated to phenotype.
But the third, more insufferable reason is a lack of cohesiveness, especially within Japan’s English-speaking NJ community (JBC, June 7, 2011).
Instead of asserting themselves as unique individuals, many NJ buy into the stereotypes behind microaggressions and enforce them on each other.
Let’s call the accepters, defenders and enforcers of the status quo “Apologists” for short. Why do they do it?
For some, it’s a matter of “guestism,” as in, “Japan is for the Japanese, so I can’t tell them what to do.” However, Guestists also assume anyone who appears to be foreign are also “guests” and should likewise shut up.
To justify their mind-set, Guestists not only invoke grandiloquent theories like cultural imperialism (i.e., foisting “our” Occidental values on “their” insular, inscrutable Oriental society), but also cook up delusions such as that one person’s protests “spoil” Japan for everyone.
For other Apologists, it’s a matter of vested interests. They’ve lived here long enough to reach mental equilibrium in their fishbowl. Life’s too short — why cloud their day by going against the flow?
After all, many of the Vested have Japanese spouses, kids in school, a mortgage, and a job they can’t just leave. Their Japanese families rarely empathize with any resistance anyway. So their attitude becomes, “Leave me alone. What can I as one person do to change, oh, a bent bureaucracy, an irradiated food chain, and everyone poking my stomach and saying how fat I’ve gotten? Shikata ga nai.” And they acquiesce.
Still other Apologists are either blind or relativistic towards microaggressions because their mind is closed. They’ll criticize even recognition of the concept of microaggression as oversensitivity, paranoia, political correctness, or “seeing racism everywhere!” One sniped, “Somebody said ‘nice weather’ to me! Microaggressor!”
Well, try opening your mind: Let’s go back to that “English menu for Caucasians” example. A commenter excused this as an act of kindness, for how could a waitress possibly tell what language he could read? Was he to pore through an unintelligible menu just to prove a point?
No. The waitress should assume that any customer gets the same menu, unless advised by the individual customer of a different preference. Deciding his preference for him is arigata meiwaku.
Switch shoes: Let’s say a waitress in a Western country is told to give anyone who “looks Asian” a menu in Chinese.
How would that sit? Not well. Because people know that there are many kinds of “Asians” (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, American, Canadian, etc.). Assuming that any “Asian” is a Chinese is just wrong.
So what should have happened? The commenter takes the standard menu from the waitress and, if unable to use it, asks if one exists in a language he can read. Simple.
But that’s the power of microaggressions: so invisible that the aforementioned commenter endorsed the stereotype that all “visibly foreign” people in Asia read English. That’s plain wrong.
Finally, there are the “Hater Apologists” who mysteriously launch into ad hominem attacks fueled by visceral animosity. I think I’ve finally figured them out.
Have you ever noticed that, if they are not the “Team Japan” Japanese defending the nation (even its wartime atrocities) under any circumstances, the Haters are generally white people?
Think about it. Since colonialism and the Enlightenment, whites have been the dominant racial group in the world order. Because whites have historically had “no color” (remember, everyone else is “colored”), they are often oblivious to the processes of racialization.
Brace yourselves for a little more theory: Current postcolonialist/postmodernist analysis of racialization generally holds that people are systematically differentiated, othered, then subordinated. This is how nation-states unified their peoples under national narratives of “Self” and “Other.”
For centuries now, the whites advantageously ranked everyone else below them by race. Whites have never been a subordinated racial minority on a national scale in any First World country.
Except, of course, in Japan. So whites seek to elevate their social standing here by using whiteness to their advantage — as sensei. And they use pandering techniques so normalized they are practically invisible.
For example: 1) offering the “honorary white” status that Japan covets in the world order by teaching them English (witness how “real English speakers” are sold in Japanese media as white); 2) feeling lucky or smug that they aren’t lower on Japan’s ethnic pecking order (they aren’t blacks, Koreans, South Americans, etc.); 3) playing Uncle Tom to offset themselves as “good gaijin” (they aren’t low-wage migrant workers, “illegals,” criminals or “flyjin”) and claim extra privileges; or 4) shouting down anyone who threatens to upend the sensei status quo.
Furthermore, consider what kind of whites are generally attracted to Japan: socially awkward, tech-savvy, nerdy dorks. (I know. I’m one too.) With chips on their shoulder after childhoods of being bullied, the Dorks are at last extracting their revenge on the Lucky Beautiful People (e.g., prom queens, football captains, or anyone with a talent — like writing — they were not born with) by tearing them down.
But in Japanese society (itself culturally rife with dorky, techie, socially awkward people), Dorks are further empowered by the Internet (and Japan’s blind eye towards bullying) to attack people anonymously. And they can coast within a well-established narrative of “cultural relativism” to camouflage it.
Don’t like these stereotypes I’m creating? Alright, Apologists, fight them for a change. But you’d miss the bigger irony.
The Apologists, by reflexively denying the existence of microaggressions (substantiated in decades of social science as a fundamental means for policing social identity), are hurting themselves. They are reinforcing their status of The Other in Japan by supporting the stereotypes that subordinate them. And all for maybe a crust of white privilege.
The final thought I want to leave you with this month is, why do we fight? Who is all this protest for?
Not for us, actually. For our children in Japan.
Many Apologists point out, “We chose to come to Japan. If you don’t like it, leave!”
Well, how will that sit with your Japanese children, who didn’t choose, and who might want the choice later of what society to live in as adults — and maybe even have some control over their identity within it?
Are you going to let Japanese society “microaggress” them into The Other, gaijin category, just because they look more like you than your Japanese spouse?
What kind of future are you helping create for them? One of tolerance? Or one of constant differentiation, othering and probable subordination?
So think seriously before you disparage the activists trying to make Japan a better place for everyone regardless of how they look.
This is not arigata meiwaku. This is advocating The Other become part of The Self.
Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community pages of the month. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org