Thursday, February 19, 2015

Blackface in Japan

In the Community section of the Japan Times this morning was an editorial by an African-American man living in Japan, expressing outrage about a new television show that will feature a Japanese doo-wop group in blackface.  As an American I was surprised that this existed in Japan and shared his sentiments (though admittedly, I can only imagine his full disgust, not being able to experience it first-hand in the same way).  There is a long history of blackface in America and Americans generally regard it to be very strongly offensive and inappropriate, to put it lightly.  It's simply not something that is done anymore.  Perhaps there are some productions that do it for historicity, or something along those lines, but it would not be ok outside of that context.  At least in no other way that I can conjure.  It's simply not acceptable in America.  It evokes a time of extreme inequality and abuse.  It's not ok.

But this is Japan.  Does that matter?  I've been trying to grasp what it means here.  It's a very strange thing.  One take is that it is done out of respect.  The idea here is that Japanese people like African-American culture and want to emulate it through music and appearance.  The problem with this–as the author of the editorial points out–is that if this is the case, they have completely misunderstood the context of African-American culture.  And ignorance of the history and context of blackface (another defense of the practice in Japan) seems incredibly disrespectful given the ease with which a person can search the internet, especially if one supposedly wishes to emulate the culture out of respect.

But it's a tricky thing.  How does one express to a Japanese person why this is so wrong?  In America, we learn about issues of race our whole lives, whether it is formal education in schools, or just simply living and acquiring experience and awareness within the diversity of our country.  Japan has no context in this regard.  It is an extremely homogenous nation, one of the most in the world, so to explain how something like this can be offensive is even more difficult than normal.  Even to some Americans, it can be hard to put into words exactly what is wrong with it apart from the historical era it evokes.  Reading through the comments on these articles or doing internet searches speaks to the elusive nature of pinpointing the offense.  What is racism?  Is this an instance of racism?

Yes.  In my eyes and to my definition, it is.  There are many degrees of racism and I most certainly place this on the spectrum (yes, even though it is in Japan).  No, in itself it is not an act of violence against members of a certain race; and no, it alone is not withholding rights from people based on their race.  But to the extent that it diminishes a group of people to their appearance and the music associated with them, and chooses how else to fill in the remainder without question or even curiosity, it is racism.  It has replaced dialogue with assumption.  It has ignored a painful history and made light of the efforts of millions of people.  It is this sort of blindness that leads to far worse acts of racism.

And it is not, as has been suggested, an instance of "free speech."  It is ignorance, oversight, perhaps even disregard.  To consider something to be "free speech" implies that it is making a point, creating a call to action.  This instance is not carefully considered enough to require that status to maintain its legality, nor would one fight for its continuance with that argument.

Of course, we are all ignorant.  It is impossible for me to understand what it is be an African-American living in America, or living in Japan, or witnessing the continuation of this sort of practice in any cultural context.  I am, and will be my entire life, ignorant of this experience.  But it is not impossible for me to become sensitive to the issue and to take responsibility for that sensitivity.  And while it is understandable that those who have not grown up in the midst of America's diversity might be more ignorant from lack of experience, it is not impossible to become more aware and better educated and to thereby increase one's sensitivity and sensibility in regard to these matters.

And if nothing else, listen.  If someone says it is offensive, listen to that, and keep listening until it starts to make sense.  These can be opportunities to increase awareness and sensitivity.  There is no end to understanding the people with whom we share this world if we listen and try to become better educated.

Blackface is not ok in America, nor is it ok in Japan.  And there are many reasons for why it is not ok.  Some of them are shared between these two cultural contexts and some, like the history, belong primarily to one.  Some of the reasons that it is wrong are explicit and clear and can be learned by anyone; and some must be understood through respect for those who are far more capable of feeling the offense acutely and voicing those feelings.

So listen.  Become better educated.  It's not ok.

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