Wednesday, April 15, 2015

How I Realized I'm a White Girl

I didn’t realize I was white until I moved to Japan. What I mean is, I never thought of myself as a “white person” nor was I used to people identifying me as a member of a racial category, associated with all white people the world over...though I never wear NorthFace or drink Starbucks!

In all seriousness, for the first time in my life I became part of a racial minority. Now a caveat: in America "minority" usually means an under-privileged group. In Japan, even though whites are in a minority, we're far from under-privileged (issues of immigrant status and citizenship aside) compared to immigrants of other colors. I became aware of what it means to be a white girl, at least according to what I pick up from Japanese around me (in another country/culture it will probably mean something different): it means being independent, assertive, beautiful, free, wealthy, well-educated, selfish; it means taking for granted one’s ultimate success in life and membership in the ‘movers and shakers of the world’; it means membership in the group that wins all the wars and enslaves other races; it means thinking my own culture and society is much better or more advanced than any society people of color could make; it means being uninhibitedly sexual and yet at the same time, not really female; it means being unable to see beyond my own (pointy white beautiful) nose.

Like, eww, right? Who wants to be that person? But so many people I meet make those kind of assumptions about me just based on the color of my skin. And what luxury it is to experience discrimination that is “positive” as in, “Nice, you're white! Here you can join this event even though you don't have the right ticket because you're a white foreigner and we love those!” (something that actually happened to me) Perhaps I’ll write a separate post about that in more detail, how white foreigners (especially females) are treated in Japan: stared at with admiration and given passes to do as they please, things the Japanese are less likely to do for, say, Asian foreigners. Now every white ex-pat here will have experiences with negative discrimination as well. We've all tried to rent apartments and had a landlord say "no foreigners". But it seems ex-pats of other races encounter positive discrimination less often than whites do.

It may be a product of a long history of comparison and conflict and a lost war with the West, but there is a weird “inferiority complex” some Japanese have towards white foreigners. It makes me feel like they're not really seeing and accepting me for a human being, a person. Because obviously, I am a person, and that makes me no better than and no more special than you are. Yes your country lost a big war with my country but that was two generations ago (that adds another, non-racial element to this discrimination if you’re an American citizen) and neither of us took part in it. Yes Japan still kowtows to American influence in so many ways but neither of us are politicians with agendas here. I don't deserve any kind of special treatment from you. White skin gets terrible acne. In God's eyes, we are all one and we are all equals. He sure won’t play favorites on Judgement Day.
But still, I’m not an individual so much as I’m a member of the group “white American”. And certainly it would seem, in the way the world is ordered, that some of the most powerful forces in the world and in history are manned by this group. Some might laugh at me if I say I never noticed that, at least not in a personal, emotional way (up until now it had only been a kind of academic concept) until I went to a non-white racially homogeneous country, in addition, a country that lost a war to my country that has a white majority.

In America, I get the feeling white people never talk about being white, unless we’re at the beach and bemoaning the fact we can’t tan. Most white people in America hate being accused of racism, we hate having to face the fact that our ancestors were the ones who systematically enslaved and demonized another race; we don't want to fall into either "white guilt" or a "white man's burden" so we're bound and gagged on the subject. It’s actually socially taboo to “check our privilege” and acknowledge that YES, around the world the reality is being white means being associated with power, success, and beauty more than other races are. No matter the topic, if you're denied words and dialogue about it because it's "taboo" , I think that puts a big block in the way of any kind of change or improvement. So I decided to write my thoughts on this blog, though I have no idea if they're kosher or politically correct or even logical. But this is what I see.

Perhaps one reason white Americans get frustrated at the word “privilege” is because we can’t see it. We can't experience it as opposed to non-privilege, we can't feel it personally and emotionally the way POC feel things. We've never known anything different in order to name it. Just the way you academically know you have an accent (for me, Pacific Northwest American English) but you never feel it until you travel far enough and get a little shocked when someone suddenly says, “that’s a funny accent, where are you from?”, so our own whiteness is unnoticeable to us until we spend time in a place with a POC majority. And how many white folks get the chance to do that? So when a person of color talks about racism, and a white person talks racism, I think they're very rarely talking about the same thing, unfortunately. It might as well be a different language, because our experiences of reality are so different.

To conclude, well, there really isn’t a conclusion. I don’t know how this experience will change me or influence how I live here in Japan or in America. I hope it will make me more humble and aware of what whiteness means and what POC deal with. I can’t say, “ok I’m not going to be privileged anymore” and take off my whiteness like an old jacket, so people will always interact with me based on assumptions attached to my skin color, and I can’t control what they think or do. But I can control what I think and do. I don’t how to fix racism or discrimination or stereotypes, I don't know I fit into either the problem or the solution really, but I guess being able to notice and think about these kinds of things more than I was able to before, is a good thing. Articles I've read from people of color say the best thing whites can do is listen. Just like a new language, we can hear a whole lot, but we can't truly listen until we know the meaning of the words being used, the real meaning the speaker holds in their heart. My experience in Japan I hope will bring me a little closer to being able to listen.

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Thanks for reading, be nice!