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What being a minority allows us to see

by Amy Chavez

Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it all before — many times. Someone called your child hafu (half) and you take offence. Or your contract is only one-year renewable, whereas your Japanese coworkers have “lifetime employment.” Or maybe someone called you a gaijin as you walked by. I’ve heard these stories dozens of times and while having myself been in some of the same situations, and while I can empathize, I also feel these “victims” are missing the point.

First of all, I’d like to say that discrimination is never acceptable. We all know that. Yet it continues to happen every day in Japan. Perhaps you have been told you are not allowed to enter a public bath because you either you have a tattoo, or because you’re a foreigner (and thus, it is believed, will behave inappropriately). Or maybe it’s that the clerk at the convenience store is visibly nervous that a foreigner has approached the counter, and that she, the clerk, may have to speak English. Or worse, the clerk doesn’t even listen to your flawless Japanese and responds inappropriately because she wasn’t listening to what you said in the first place.

Yes, this is Japan. Now, let’s jump to the rest of the world. Everyone admits that while discrimination (and stereotyping) are wrong, they happen all over the world, even in our own countries. So why is it that the very people who are discriminated against in Japan can’t empathize more deeply with those who are discriminated against in their own countries? Why is it still, as long as they are in their home countries, something that doesn’t concern them?

The Japanese are no more racist than Americans or people of many other countries. The only difference is that when you come to Japan, for the first time in your life, you are a minority and get to see what it’s like to be one. But for some reason, while here in Japan, discrimination suddenly becomes a personal affront, because it’s happening to you. And unfortunately, what follows tends to be the same conclusions: “The xenophobic Japanese!” Or “The Japanese are racist!” Now who is doing the stereotyping?

After being subjects of discrimination here, we scream like spoiled children, “Unfair!” While we have suddenly gained insight and an ability to see though the eyes of minorities around the world, we are blinded by our own self-worth and don’t suddenly empathize with other minorities struggling to achieve equality. No light bulb goes on in the head making us think: Aha! This is why the pilgrims fled England for North America! Or: So this is what the African-Americans in the U.S. struggle with every day!

Your small brush with discrimination in Japan is something that has been a lifelong battle for others who were born into a life of being a minority in our own countries. And many of them suffer far worse than we do in Japan.

Try being an African-American in the U.S. Or an aboriginal in Australia. Or a LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) in any country in the world. Every day people will judge you by your appearance. They may even fear you enough to walk down the other side of the road to avoid you.

I lost a job in Japan once due to discrimination. It was the worst year of my life as I grappled with the meaning and ramifications. But now I look back on it and realize it was one of the best things to happen to me because it made me have a better understanding of the world. It’s very hard to understand discrimination, and equally easy to deny its existence, if you have never experienced it.

As a result of my experience, I have developed a sense of “compassion,” a word not used nearly enough, and rarely even understood, in the US. Compassion should be the most basic of seeds planted in every person’s heart who has had experience with discrimination.

Before I came to Japan, I readily admitted there was racism in America. But it didn’t have anything to do with me — it wasn’t my problem. But now I think differently. Racism is everyone’s problem.

Such an experience should make you to take a good look at yourself-and see how you — yes you — have also, albeit inadvertently, discriminated against others. Are you tolerant of other people’s race and religion? What about that person with a speech impediment, the extremely short person or the extremely tall? The fat girl or too skinny guy? The gay community? It could even be a simple matter of being judgmental in a situation you have no business judging.

If you ask minorities about their own “micro-aggressions,” I think you’ll be surprised. Have you ever asked them?

If you have never been discriminated against, you are lucky. But at the same time, you are also ill-prepared to understand discrimination on the deepest levels. You will most likely deny that you discriminate against others. Yet we all do, whether we realize it or not. After all, I’ve never met anyone who thinks they themselves are racist.

Our own experiences should allow us to reach out to others and try to understand them better. It’s a great opportunity to take a deeper look at our own behavior right and our own hidden evils. While no one is perfect, there is a huge difference between trying to right our imperfections and not trying at all. It’s the difference between playing the victim, and using your experience to empower others.

This is the role of compassion. To accept that these problems are your own and be willing to not just admit they’re wrong, but to do something about them. Speak on the behalf of other minorities, help raise their profile. Especially you — you who have had a taste of what it’s like to be in their shoes!

Just once I’d like to hear someone who has been discriminated against in Japan say, “Now I know what it is like to be an African, Iranian or Muslim in the U.S.” or “Now I will work harder to eradicate all forms of discrimination, to make the world a better place for everyone.”

It’s not a case of us and them but “we.” We need to work together on this. The best way to fight discrimination is by using your experience for personal growth, and to spread the idea of compassion while working to develop a mind that is non-judgmental.

All too often what happens when a majority suddenly enters the minority, is accusations toward the other culture. When really, it should make us look more closely at our own.

Amy Chavez is the author of “Japan, Funny Side Up” and “Running the Shikoku Pilgrimage.”