As my profile has risen over the years since I started Black Eye, I’ve been called on more and more to speak at various companies and organizations about issues ranging from increasing representation to antiracism and presumption reduction.
To date, I’ve given presentations at the professionals network Vital Japan, Toppan Printing Co. and the U.S. Embassy, as well as media organizations such as the Japan Magazine Publishers Association, The New York Times, and TV stations NHK and TBS. I’ve also lectured at Tokyo, Keio and Waseda universities, to name a few. Most recently I spoke at a Twitter Asia Pacific event.
The media talks I give have always been the most rewarding, as I know what I say could eventually have impact on the broader society. Presentations are specifically tailored to meet the needs of the audience, of course, but one thing that comes up in all of them is that these companies now realize globalization is going to require a bit more of them than they’d previously believed.
I’m able to get access to these places thanks to a career I’ve built over time, but there is always room for more voices. I thought, perhaps, if I share some of my experiences here, it could inspire some readers to share information in their circles through a thought-out presentation, whether it’s honoring Black History Month at a high school or making a case for more diversity in the workplace.
Be proactive not reactive
As a result, competing network TBS contacted me with two questions in mind: Why is blackface problematic, and how can Japanese media avoid causing offense?
TBS asked me to give a presentation to some of its staff, which ended up giving me a blueprint for a specific kind of lecture that I would end up giving at other places, too. I’ll summarize several of the key points I tried to get attendees to be aware of below:
- Blackface has a long history in Japan, having arrived here in the 1800s, clinging onto the coattails of Commodore Matthew Perry’s white supremacy like lice. The racist practice was then adopted by the Japanese and has been practiced here ever since.
- Stress that this is not an issue of one group being oversensitive, including the idea that some comedic examples of blackface have not been met uniformly by Black audiences. Still, any racialized comedy is now going to be viewed with much more scrutiny and, if you haven’t done the homework in this area, then you’re more likely to create a mess.
- Regardless of the target audience, virtually all Japanese media is global now. You need to factor this into programming decisions. In fact, anyone can film video with their phones, and any video can make its way to social media — that includes performances at local comedy clubs, on the street and in school presentations.
- Know that there are risks to ignoring global sensibilities and rewards for adhering to them. Japan will be held accountable when things are done poorly and will benefit when they are done well. This needs to be taken into consideration more so than in days past.
- A solution? Take on non-Japanese or nontraditional Japanese advisers with better-honed global sensibilities to work with producers and content creators — even if temporarily — until you learn how to speak this new language of diversity. You can be entertaining, even controversial, without being blatantly offensive.
Putting out the fire
While TBS was trying to get out in front of any possible controversy, but NHK called me in after the damage had been done.
Ironically, when the national broadcaster was attempting to educate its younger viewers on what was going on with the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020, it wound up causing more offense.
So accustomed was the station to Black lives not mattering that it couldn’t even see the need to speak with a Black person before producing television programs on the experiences we face.
Since it was only a year ago, a lot of you might remember what went down: A show targeted at young people titled “Kore de Wakatta! Sekai no Ima” tried to explain what was happening in the United States by speaking to police officers in Los Angeles. Then, this information was used in the program’s description of BLM, which had the effect of placing the unarmed and mostly peaceful protesters and over-armed militarized police force on almost equal footing. Producers paired this with an animated segment that made the victims of police brutality look like brutes who were deserving of it.
Naturally, the end result was wildly offensive, but NHK was oblivious as to why. Someone on staff called on me to shed some light on where the show went wrong and, though I myself was infuriated by what I had seen, I did my best to focus on the good that can come when someone asks for help.
During my presentation there I made it clear that as the national broadcaster and as a destination that Japanese people turn to for professional, reputable and unbiased journalism, NHK had done the people of Japan a great disservice in reporting the story the way it had.
I actually made similar recommendations as the ones that were made to TBS about living in a global media age. NHK, however, was trying to put out a fire that was still blazing when I arrived. I suggested the broadcaster seriously consider producing new programming specifically geared toward raising awareness of Japan’s current diversity. Every claim of homogeneity, I argued, feeds the notion that non-Japanese lives don’t matter here — that they only matter overseas. The signaling of this idea can be as nuanced as the way NHK characterized marches taking place in Japan as solely being in solidarity with what was going on in the United States and not a direct response to Japan’s own internal racial problems.
The presentation was well-received and there was increased representation in programming focused on BLM, including an interview with one of the founders of Black Lives Matters. Though there was no new programming focused primarily on non-Japanese and nontraditional Japanese citizens and residents here — which I still think is sorely needed — there was an unprecedented one-off program that focused on the experience of being mixed-race Black and Japanese living here, so I guess that’s a start.
The more you know
My most recent presentation was for Twitter JAPAC (Twitter Japan, South Korea and Asia Pacific) and it arose out of the social media giant’s belief that learning is the first step in allyship.
To that end, Twitter held an inaugural summit called Until We All Belong, a 24-hour worldwide event that focused Twitter’s employees on topics of equity, respect, social justice and allyship. I was invited to speak to the challenges of Blackness in Japan and was honored to accept.
This time the presentation was centered on tennis player Naomi Osaka because the role she has played in getting Japan to reconsider some of its thinking and positions on anti-racism, anti-Blackness and biracial Japanese cannot be overstated.
And, on a high note, I was able to point out in this presentation that there appears to have been an end to blackface in major Japanese media (there has not been an incident since the one in 2017), and that the Olympic opening ceremony prominently featured both Osaka and basketball star Rui Hachimura, two biracial Japanese athletes — a watershed moment as far as representation is concerned.
Watching other presentations at the summit was also quite the learning experience for me. Presenters tackled subjects ranging from LGBTQ+ and disability inclusion, to casteism in India and forging psychologically safe environments. It was awesome listening to these fighters from all over the world sharing their courage and intelligence, their victories and setbacks.
I’ve taken two main lessons away from the presentations I’ve done over the years. First, the people I’ve encountered at these presentations have not asked many questions, but I would find out later by email that they had them and were just too shy to speak up. Allow for this and make sure to offer opportunities for one-on-one time.
Second, many Japanese people want to learn and it is your job as a presenter to provide them with something to walk away with that’s practical and useful, and something that they can teach others.
Being able to write this column and articles in many other publications has been a blessing, but there’s something about connecting with people on a more personal level that really lets you know you’re making a difference. And the best part is, anyone can do it.
Baye McNeil is the author of “Hi! My Name is Loco and I Am a Racist,” which will be translated into Japanese in November. For more information, visit bayemcneil.com.
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