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LL-Letters: Racism

(KCM note: It seems that Lyle's letter about racism jump-started the discussion. The left hand column is Lyle's own descriptions of his experiences. At the end of the letter he invites discussion, and the right column is the result of those questions. It is a highly recommended read. In the right hand column, the colored words are those written by someone other than Lyle.)


[2006/09/02 - This was originally written about ten years ago as an e-mail that was sent to a handful of e-pals on the Internet - so it's a bit more controversial than if I had intended it for publication on the Internet, so please forgive any barbs.] 

This is a very touchy subject, so my first inclination is to avoid it, but on the other hand, it's a very important subject, so I think it needs to be written about.

Firstly, what constitutes racism exactly? Where and how do you draw the line between what are just normal problems between two human beings, and problems that wouldn't exist but for narrow foolish thinking?

I think the bottom line for racism is, can you feel what that person is feeling? Can you feel empathy for them? If you can't, or I should say don't, feel the same feelings, no matter how much you smile and act polite, if you've got a wall up because they're different, then that's a kind of racism.

As a child, I lived in an all-white environment, so just seeing something different was noteworthy. I remember while fishing with my brothers and my father in a boat on Strawberry Lake, seeing some Asian men in another boat, and I said something about their being Chinese, and my brother said something along the lines of "No, they're not Chinese...they're Japanese."

Another time, on a school bus in the... third grade? suddenly there was a big commotion on the right side of the bus. I don't remember what anyone said, but I remember looking out the window and seeing a convertible with two black men inside. I don't think anyone insulted them or anything, we were just checking them out. Certainly they stood out in that white environment.... (Later, here in Japan, I would have very similar experiences with busloads of children hanging their heads out the window to get a better look at the gaijin, me.)

The first incident I can remember that still bothers me, took place outside the grade school I went to in Boise, Idaho. I and some other fifth grade students were standing around outside the side entrance to the school and three or four black kids came up, and this one big guy in the fifth grade looked at the legs of one of the little girls and said "Looks like dog ****" . And the little girl looked at her own legs... I felt bad, but I didn't say anything. I should have. It haunts me still...

Later, in the sixth grade, at the same school, there was a black man who came to the school on a temporary basis to teach P.E. I don't remember the circumstances of him being there exactly, but I remember that there was a guy in the next class that gave him a hard time in one way or another about being black . (Should I be saying African American?) It's strictly a coincidence, but the girl I liked, Vickie T. (whatever happened to you, my first love...), went over to this same racist, who became my rival, so at one point we had a scuffle out in the school yard that I don't even remember very well, but it was important to the black guy. One day a few days after it happened, he come to the door of my classroom and knocked on the window in the door. The teacher went over, and he told her that he wanted to talk to me. I went out in the hallway wondering what was going on, and he looked at me with a kind of righteous anger in his eyes, and told me "You won that fight!". I just looked at him, not knowing what to say, but sensing his anger. Again he said "You won that fight! I just wanted you to know." and he shook my hand with that fire in his eyes, and... he was gone. I don't think I ever saw him again.

After moving to Sacramento, California, or more specifically, Carmichael (Sacramento County), I don't remember any black people in the school at all. I don't think there were any. I do remember an Asian guy who was virtually invisible in the class until the day everyone had to give a speech, and when it was his turn, he stood up there bravely going at it, occasionally frantically looking up words in his translation dictionary... I have no idea what the guy talked about, in fact it was mostly incomprehensible if I remember correctly. It was hilarious actually, but I managed to dam up the laughter and nothing spilled out. When he was finished, everyone clapped, as it was obvious that he was really struggling.

At the same school, they had representatives from ethnic minorities come and talk to us about their culture. I still remember two; the Japanese guy who had been in an internment camp as a child, and the (something) American Indian (Native American) guy, who explained that there were no "Indians", but there were many nations, and he was of the ?? (sorry!). Exposing us to other cultures like that was a good idea actually, although now that I live in Japan, I realize that everything the Japanese-American guy said isn't true in modern Japan.

In Silicon Valley, in a Mountain View Shakey's, a black man at the table next to me spilled a drink, and I looked at him with a "I know how that feels." look, but I could see from his look that he was running a "friend or foe" check on my eyes. At the time I felt like a good guy, because I had only friendly feelings towards the man, but as I look back on it now, I know what that man was feeling, as I do the same thing in Japan now. It's an automatic thing that I don't think about too much, but I look into people's eyes and make a quick check. If I see that racist gleam, I put up the defenses and know that the person I'm dealing with doesn't think I'm a human being. On the other hand, when someone makes a show of saying they sympathize with my position, I don't feel so grateful. I mean, I give them two points for effort, but if it's real, then nothing needs to be said, and why should I feel grateful for what should already be? When I see someone (of the same race) confront a racist, that gets my sincere respect, as they're sticking their neck out to do that. It's one thing to think that someone is a racist fool, it's another to confront them with it, as you can very easily become their enemy by extension...

At my favorite drinking place, there's this guy who is a typical racist. Not so noticeable, but it shows beneath his words, and.., he's got that look in his eyes. He might even think I'm a human being, but I'm of a sub-species as it were... Anyway, he was saying something like "There were two others of you that used to come here...", meaning two other foreigners, and not said in a friendly way, something like "There were a couple of other furners' that used to come in here..." The woman behind the bar, who isn't hesitant to speak her mind (I know, I had a mini-argument with her once), interrupted and told the guy "I don't think you should say it that way..." He acted surprised, and said "Oh really?"

The thing is, I already knew he was a racist, and I already had my defenses up, so I didn't expect him to behave like a human being, and he wasn't disappointing me... That's the thing. You appreciate the good people, and ignore the fools, the way it is all over the world I guess. But that woman earned my respect. There's nothing "in it" for her. Maybe they'll even lose that customer, but she stood up for me as a human being... You don't forget that. That's real... If I can ever do anything for her...

At an office I worked in for a short time in San Francisco, there were a group of people from Hawaii who were always speaking (Hawaiian?) together, and seemed to have immense fun making fun of the white people in the office to their faces in ways that they wouldn't notice. Trouble was, I noticed. I noticed them making fun of everyone else, and I noticed them making fun of me... From this one single experience, even now I put up my defenses a little just hearing the word "Hawaii". It's really strange what a strong effect those foolish people had on me.

This is the problem with racism. It's like a virus. You start with one sick person going around spreading their poison, and other people catch the bug themselves, spreading more poison to people who weren't involved in the original problem. This is something I'm pretty sure hits me sometimes in Japan. I get a load of poison from someone who has probably had a bad experience with another white person...

Also in San Francisco, on a bus, there was a black woman and her small son (3?) sitting in the seat in front of me, with the boy standing on the seat facing me, looking at me with a look of pure hate... I don't know what brought that on, but it was really depressing. I could only look at him and think "I don't know what someone did to you or your family, but it wasn't me..." I remember I couldn't look long into those eyes... Such intensity... Still I wonder what was behind that...

Before I came to Japan, I exchanged letters with three Japanese pen-pals, and I asked one of them what Japanese thought of foreigners in Japan; did many people dislike them? Her answer was something like "Oh no. We Japanese like foreigners." ... That's it. Well, when you hear something like that my friends, be wary, for no truth about relations between races is so simple. I've since learned that when someone tells me "There is no racism in Japan.", that in itself is proof that the speaker is a racist, for anyone interested in the truth wouldn't/couldn't say that...

One more thing. Renting an apartment in Japan... A couple of years back, I wanted to move, so I went to several different real estate agencies in several different areas. Altogether, I went to about twenty agencies, but all of them, with one exception, were the same.

When I walk in the person says "Irassashaimase", which directly translated means "Welcome", and culturally translated means "What can I do for you?", but in their eyes is a different... feeling, that you can sense with your whole being, and you feel apologetic that you're (in my case) a red barbarian (white), and not a normal human being (Japanese). Actually I sympathize with their position to a certain degree. After all, when the owner tells them "No gaijin" (gaijin meaning "outside person", or foreigner, in case you don't know), what are they to do? But for me, when I see in their books, or in their windows, a nice apartment that I'm interested in renting, and they tell me "Sumimasen, gaijin dame nan desu." ("Sorry, no foreigners in that one."), I don't feel good about it... Basically, it comes down to this: As a foreigner, you can rent a really bad cheap apartment, or a nice expensive one without much trouble, but you just can't find nice and cheap apartments. Well, you can find them, but you're usually not allowed to move in...

What did I do? I gave up, for the time being. I found nice places time and again, but it was always "Sorry, no gaijin.", or the places available were twice as expensive as the place I have now. What I have to do is become a much richer man, and then things will be, oh, so much easier...  [2006/09/02 Note: I should have mentioned how the apartment I was living in when I wrote that was reasonably priced, near a convenient station and the land lords couldn't have been nicer - it was when I explored the possibility of moving into a different area of Tokyo that I ran into trouble.  And I should note that things may have changed since I wrote the above about ten years ago.]

Well, that's enough I guess. This is something I often think about. What is the solution? Just people have to be more perceptive I think, and take in the person before them, and not some preconceived idea...

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

January 30th, 1997 17:36 Yamanote Line, Tokyo
Hello out there in the electronic universe!

I sent out my "Racism" piece, and I've gotten some very interesting replies. I thought you might find them interesting. First, from an Australian e-mail pal.

"It's funny how people when confronted with racism actually believe themselves to be totally innocent of this indiscretion.... with some people the word and its meaning totally escapes them... and they can often be quoted as saying "I'm not racist!"

...whereas in my opinion we all are to some degree, from the very moment we lose our childly innocence and begin to notice the differences in the color of our skins or our respective cultures or anything else that happens to be different... It annoys me (for want of a better word) the fact that I sometimes fall victim to it myself... sometimes feeling uncomfortable in the fact that I'm not behaving normally.... So yes how do we define racism... I guess we all have our own values which we live by, our own conscience to guide us etc. etc...

Since I've never ventured from my country I've yet to experience being a minority, and from what I've seen it isn't much to write home about..."

Personally, I find this person's perspective to be most agreeable to my own feelings about the matter. Particularly the first line, which brings me to my next letter from a Japanese e-mail pal, or perhaps I should say ex-pal?

"Hi, how have you been?

Well, I read your e-mail, and directly speaking, I feel really bad. I have been in Hawaii for 3 and a half years when I was in the U of H, but you totally misunderstood about Hawaiian behavior. When I went to Hawaii at the first time, I also felt something wrong with them because their laugh and words, you know, made me so strange. But, I found out little by little that they are always like that. Hawaiian people do not mean such discrimination or racism or something. That's their way to laugh, look, and behave. That's all. Or, they just don't get used to see international faces, I think. Do not misunderstand them. Please.

Plus, you also misunderstand about Japanese people, too. As you might think, Japan is consisted of islands and people from other countries are not easy to visit. So, we have not so many opportunities to see international people by nature, that is why we Japanese sometimes make you International people feel bad. But, we don't mean making fun of international faces or something at all. I feel sorry about you as the same human being, but at the same time, I think it should be better if you could have a little more understanding because you live in a foreign country with a different environment from your home. You could easily expect that something unusual would be happen. Why we try to communicate with people from other countries? Why we want to work and stay in a different country? That is because we want to be much more international both in mind and in heart, and because we want to get more international thinking into our own way, I believe. Through my stay in the United States, I had many many difficulties and confusions, so I cried so many times.

But, instead, I learned the best thing in my life, which is understanding. Even though we are from different nations, countries, race, and others, we are the same human beings, and we think same things to live in this world like eating, sleeping, playing, studying, and something like that. Only the difference is just languages.

So, if we try to understand and accept them, try not to look at them by our own feeling based on our home environment and past experience, then we'll truly become to love staying in a different country and communicating international people very much. That way, no more misunderstanding would happen, I think. If you think positive, things would be always positive, and if you think negative, you know what would come up to your mind. That's my opinion. If you cannot believe Japanese people anymore, I don't think it is good idea to stay in Japan. I hope things will be fine with you. Bye."

Well, I don't know what to say for this one really. I think it speaks for itself. I am really glad I got it though, as I couldn't possibly have explained this kind of contact better than to show you an actual example. I've found during my stay in Japan that this view is not unusual. If there's a problem then, well, let the next person speak. The next person expresses very well the reaction you can have to racism here. She lived in Japan for over two years. Allow me to emphasize that I'm not picking on Japan, it's just that I live here, so I have more experience here than in other places, and it's been awhile since I lived outside of this country...

"Of all the dirty tricks someone can pull, Ms. Hidoi has hit rock bottom with her lies. I cannot even imagine what you are going through. Just hang in there. The words "intelligence" or "emotional maturity" when used with "Japanese High School Student", create an oxymoron. I taught high school for two years! There was NO sign of intelligence in the over 2,000 students I met. Oh they could memorize and spit back so they gave the impression of intelligence. But the reality is that in all of Japan, what we in the west define as "intelligence" in not just lacking, it is systematically suppressed and destroyed in the general population. Try asking your students sometime, "How many correct answers are there to a question?" I guarantee they will claim that all questions have only one correct answer!!!! Then you could ask "How many correct answers are there to the equation 1+1=n?" None of them can see that the answer depends on what the definition of "one" is. 1+1=1, 1+1=infinity or 1+1=2 all are correct! But you will be hard pressed to find a Japanese capable of getting their brain around it. n my time in Japan, I found only two Japanese who could truly think (by the western definition of "think"). Be careful, if you do this experiment, you just may be called "Logical". Not a good thing!!!!!!!!!

Anyway, enough Japan bashing on my part. When I lived there I did get to the point that I understood the culture and could "think" like a Japanese and EVERYTHING in there culture made sense. I'm not saying I agreed with it, just that it all fitted together. Frightening that. So when I read of your predicament I can see it from the other side as well; however, there is no excuse for what Ms. Hidoi did to you. I wish you the best in you battle with her and the company. Just remember two things: One, in Japan logical thinking is considered foolish. All arguments are won on emotional content, not logical facts! Two, What a Japanese says will be trusted by other Japanese over anything a foreigner says, no matter what the evidence to the contrary is!

Again, I hope I haven't offended you. Good Luck!!!!!!!! and hang in there!!!!!!!!!"

Now I don't advocate getting this worked up, but I can tell you that it happens to a lot of people. Particularly those who have been here about two or three years. I myself used to breathe fire... I don't get worked up so much anymore. I've decided that I've got to fight the original cause of the problem as much as possible. And no matter what nasty person I meet, I don't lump everybody together because of them. In this respect, I have to go against the above letter, but as I said, it's a good example of one of the stages of living here...

The next letter is more relaxed, and is quite interesting. The one before this is a kind of call to arms, but this next one is in peace... Ah! I have to make one excuse for Americans! We often overstate things; if the English have the understatement, Americans have the overstatement!! People don't seem to understand this...

"Hi Lyle: I found your story to be very interesting! I had no idea that, that went on in Japan. But I also can relate to being discriminated against, and I am a white person in America. I immigrated to the United States as a teenager with my brothers, sister and parents, from Holland. We did not speak a word of English, so as I entered school here, I was bullied left and right. Especially by boys, and of all things, I was a girl!! Well being the tough Dutch girl that I was and still am. hhummm, (my brothers taught me a lot; they thought their little sister had to learn and stand up for herself,) (you know the people that created Holland from the sea :-) .well I knocked a big guy's teeth out at school, the next day of course everyone heard about that Dutchie girl... that she is tough!!!

I did get some respect at school but it was difficult. My parents also had a difficult time getting respect from the Americans. But we made it through. And we are all doing very well. But it took a lot of mental fighting. There was a reason for us coming here, my father thought we would have a better chance of advancing ourselves here, although they themselves did not gain from it. They would have been better off staying there. It was very difficult for them. In Holland they would have been well taken care of in their old age by the Government. It's a socialist society, and they have socialized medicine.. so everyone is very well taken care of . Although the young have to pay for that!! But there are no poor or homeless people there. And the elderly are not neglected unlike here. So, yes there is racism everywhere and it doesn't matter where you live. When I came here with my family we did not even know the word! We learned it here of all places, land of the brave, home of the free etc... but don't get me wrong, I love this country, it has been good to us... but it gave us a silent message, that many foreigners don't hear, you are on your own here! If you don't make it yourself, you go down!! We worked very very hard here, working in the orchards, cleaning for people, being maids, and God knows what. But we are proud of all of that, and not ashamed to mention it. We saved, worked, saved, worked, and are the proud owners of real estate property, we are landlords yeaaah :-) i.e. financially very well taken care and independent. We would have never been able to do that in Holland or Germany. I think that's what my father had in mind!

Well here is my story... hope it didn't bore you too much, but I thought I had to tell my side a bit, (coming from an emigrant). You being an English teacher and all, I know you're going to find a lot of errors in my spelling and sentence structure, but hey, my daughter corrects me all the time, she is the perfectionist and the educated one, (she has a masters in linguistics) (my father knew what he was doing, nothing is a waste whether it be bad or good), so I always tell her, (Name) I am always willing to learn and become better, that's what it is all about. It's a life long experience and it will never stop. When it does, your 6 feet under and then it's over. :-)

Take care of yourself."

And then on to "Last, but not least..." my e-mail pal from England who feels like an old friend, even though I've only "known" him for less than a month!!

"The only way for the true solution of racism to be solved, would be for people not to be different from one another (some hope). May I be so bold as to say there is no racism. Here we go! The truth is in the way people have (need to) blame someone for their problems. It's so much easier for the colour of skin, the shape of there eyes to become that excuse. But in truth, we know those with open minds who take people as people regardless, that we are all in the same boat. I do admit I have enjoyed good friendships with "coloured" folk. If we did not have the foreign guy down the road to hate, it would become the next door neighbour (another issue for many). In one factory that I worked in there were many Asian people all with as much right as any to work. But unfortunately there were those who considered themselves better than the Asian folk. On the other hand they considered themselves better than most people bordering upon the absurd. The name calling, the back stabbing were all common place. Comments like, you stink, go back to where you come from you Packy, black b'stard, they are naturally weaker than us, if anything went wrong it was always there fault, although it was proved it was not. Some were constantly picked upon and yet they worked better than their "white" counterparts.

At school my teacher (can't remember her name) sent all of the children with brown eyes to one corner of the room, those with blue to another and those with green and grey to yet another corner. Now you are all different from each other yet you have the same skin! You now have to look into the other persons eyes before you can tell if they are different from yourself. Eyes which are the doorway into a persons heart. It becomes harder to hate someone when you truly look into their eyes. However if it were not the skin, it would become the way you look, the way you dress, the way you smell, the way you talk, the way you walk, the way you live. But those of us who hear the laughter, the tears, the hopes and dreams of one another, can in our small way be the shining light in the darkness for those who need guidance regardless of our looks. For that is all "racism" is, (but it is so cruel). When will they ever learn. (words from a childhood song).

Best Regards"

And that's the last one I'm putting in this e-mail, unless there's something interesting waiting for me in the BIG computer when I hook up through the phone lines.

Well, I think I'll just go with this. I went to my favorite place for a beer, and the smoke was so thick, I'm in smoke shock now. I wish they had better ventilation in that place...