On race and belonging

On Between the Covers, poet and writer Claudia Rankine talks about the title of her book Citizen being in part about belonging. This is a theme that has been often on my mind since moving to Japan four years ago.

It’s true that moving to another country gets you thinking and reevaluating a lot of things about yourself and where you come from, as you compare your country of origin to your adopted one. I was born in and have spent most of my life in South Africa. I didn’t know very much about Japan before coming here, and not surprisingly people here don’t know a lot about South Africa. Over the past four years I’ve often been asked about apartheid, and every time I have felt uncomfortable answering. I want people to know about it, but I also don’t want to be associated with it in any way.

Whenever students ask where I’m from, they’re usually surprised by my answer because of the colour of my skin. Yet I am asked the same thing in South Africa – where are you from, originally? So I am aware that the issue of where I belong is a question that does not seem to have an easy answer.


Louise Bourgeois, I Give Everything Away (detail), ink and gouche on paper (2010)

I started to uncover feelings I had not been entirely conscious of before coming here – a longing I had to belong, and uncertainty around what it meant to belong. And also around what it meant to be white. How my skin colour has been an advantage and a privilege as well as a source of guilt and shame.

In South Africa I am part of the privileged minority. In Japan, once again I find myself in a minority. As a ‘foreigner’ (the somewhat loaded term used to refer to any non-Japanese person) and as a westerner (i.e. white) I am still privileged, even if in Japan this privilege does not extend to acceptance. Japan is a homogeneous culture known for its history of isolation and lack of contact with the rest of the world until quite recently. It is the only Asian country to have avoided colonisation by a European country. There are consequences of this which I am not going to go into in depth here. But in short, xenophobia and racism exist here as they do everywhere. I have experienced acts of micro-aggression and been on the receiving end of xenophobic comments. But I am aware that my experiences have been mild in comparison to what people of other colours have experienced here. On the one hand, I will never be accepted in the sense of a full citizen, but on the other hand, as Ian Buruma writes in A Japanese Mirror, although ‘feelings of superiority and inferiority towards the West are strangely mixed in Japan’, there is ‘an aesthetic fascination’ for westerners.

Journalist, writer and film director Donald Richie, an American expat who spent most of his life living in and recording his experiences in Japan writes:

From the Japanese point of view, they would prefer foreigners to come, do their business and go home. For one who elects to live here, this fact is cause for interest and concern. It is often implied that I would do better to go back to wherever I came from. This is not unkind, nor even inhospitable. People are reacting as they would were they in a foreign land themselves.

Though the travelers desired intimacy, Japan was gently teaching them to keep their distance. (And, if they were yellow or black instead of white or pink, the lesson would be harsher and the distance greater.)

hand and hand

Aoki Tetsuo, Hold my hand, woodblock print (2002)

This may be a generalisation, and I can think of several exceptions, yet it is not untrue. Since I arrived here, I have frequently been asked when I am going home, not in a tone implying I am unwelcome but rather that it is a given that Japan is not and will never be my home.

It’s complex. As I prepare to leave my current job, most people assume that I am going back to my ‘home country’ and are surprised when I tell them I’m not. And as I search for apartments, I have been looking at sites labelled ‘foreigner friendly’. A lot of this is due to the complications and hassle, perhaps also reluctance, involved in carrying out such a complicated transaction in a language that is not your own, but it is not only that.

In Min Jin Lee’s book Pachinko, she writes about the experiences of a Korean immigrant family living in Japan. In Japan, permanent ethnic Korean residents are referred to as zainichi (在日), which means a foreign citizen ‘staying in Japan’ and implies temporary residence. In one scene, Min Jin Lee describes how on his fourteenth birthday one of the central characters has to go to the ward office to get his alien registration card, having his photo and fingerprints taken and receiving a dog tag, all so that he continue to stay in the country of birth. And in an interview on Lit Up Lee relates a true story about a thirteen-year-old ‘zainichi’ boy who took his life after relentless bullying by his Japanese classmates. In his yearbook, amongst other derogatory comments and the word ‘die’ repeated several times, they had written, ‘You don’t belong here. Go back to where you belong.’

This is a topic that could fill several books, and it is not unique to Japan. Here, as everywhere, attitude around race is complex and full of contradiction – I could relate countless examples of warm welcome and generosity, and there are many people I know who are eager to expand beyond their culture through internationalisation and travel. But my inspiration for this post was Rankine’s book, which compelled me to take the first step in talking about race, to open up and stop playing it safe.

I admit that I am afraid to talk about race. I would rather discuss religion or politics, as fraught as those topics are, than race. I am afraid to say the wrong thing and cause offence. I am also afraid of disrupting my comfortable identity as a non-racist person. There is in me the urge to defensively list here the life experiences and other bits of evidence here that could qualify me as liberal and free from any racist tendencies. But I know that is not true. I don’t think it’s true of any human. As much as I may resist it, I am a product of the country, the time and especially the city I was born in. Similarly I have realised how I am, as we all are, a product of the predominant religion of my culture. In Japan this is true of Shinto and Buddhism, whose influences are everywhere. We can’t escape the effect of religion and culture, no matter how much we think we can see through them. I was reminded of this recently reading Proust, who writes about ‘the deep and ineluctable Jewish patriotism or Christian atavism in those who imagine themselves to be the most emancipated of their race’.

Claudia Rankine talks about the compilation she edited and which was published earlier this year, The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind. One goal in writing Citizen was to inspire white readers of her book to start asking themselves questions such as ‘What does it mean to inhabit whiteness and move around the world as a white body?’ She has started an institution called the Racial Imaginary Institute, using the proceeds from her book to fund it, and wants to encourage white people to explore their fear of talking about race.


Cara Thayer and Louie Van Patton, Title Unknown, oil on canvas (2012). You can watch this video on how the artists collaborate.

Rankine poses this question during the interview: ‘Can we begin to think about the impact the things we do and say have on another despite our intentions?’ She also talks about the need for calling people out on racism, whether directed at yourself or others, something she trained herself to do until it became an automatic response. I know in the past I have left racist comments unchallenged rather than ‘make a situation uncomfortable’, or failed to stand up for someone being treated unfairly when I should have.

In talking about race, and specifically being white, there are two important acknowledgements to make. First is acknowledgment of difference, as writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses in an interview with Audie Cornish. She talks about the idea many people have that ‘in order to be inclusive, we sometimes have to deny our differences’. She says:

The human difference has for so long been the root of oppression that there’s an impulse to say let’s deny the difference. By pushing away the difference we can push away the oppression. I think this is similar to the idea of colour blindness. I think it’s a hollow idea that if we say we don’t see colour somehow all the oppression linked to colour will disappear. That’s not the case. If we can acknowledge difference we can better, honestly talk about things.

Then there is acknowledgement of privilege. Discussing his recent memoir Born a Crime on Guardian Live, Trevor Noah talks about how acknowledging privilege means dealing with guilt. He says that the primary fear of humans is rejection and the fear of not belonging, which stops us from acknowledging privilege in case this would threaten our position in the tribe we think we belong to. On an episode of On Being entitled ‘Let’s Talk about Whiteness’, Eula Biss talks to Krista Tippett about the etymology of the word ‘privilege’, which literally means ‘private law’. By definition, privilege can’t be shared, as it cannot exist if things are equal. It means someone else doesn’t have, in order for you to be privileged.


Tom Wolf, Hand Study, watercolor (2016)

There are many ways in which I have been advantaged because I am white. In Peggy McIntosh’s essay ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’, she lists 50 daily effects of white privilege. Number 13 reads: ‘Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.’ Her point echoes this instance recorded in Citizen:

The man at the cash register wants to know if you think your card will work. If this is his routine, he didn’t use it on the friend who went before you. As she picks up her bag, she looks to see what you will say. She says nothing. You want her to say something—both as witness and as a friend. She is not you; her silence says so. Because you are watching all this take place even as you participate in it, you say nothing as well. Come over here with me, your eyes say. Why on earth would she? The man behind the register returns your card and places the sandwich and Pellegrino in a bag, which you take from the counter. What is wrong with you? This question gets stuck in your dreams.

I would like to be braver, risk saying the wrong thing rather than nothing. I don’t want to avoid talking about something this important just to protect my ego. I don’t want to be apathetic. If I don’t interrogate this aspect of me fully, it will remain unexamined, dangerous.

The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.

At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?

It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.

I am so sorry, so, so sorry.

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