Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Won't Miss #5 - police harassment (reflection)

One thing that I can hardly go a day without reading or hearing someone talk about is "white privilege". The idea is, and it is certainly based on certain grim realities, that white folks walk around blithely reaping benefits from their pearly skin color without even realizing it. They get hired for jobs, accepted into schools, and are the beneficiaries of at least a couple of centuries of family status and wealth as a result of not being a part of a repressed minority.

As someone who grow up well below the poverty line, received free government cheese and powdered milk, was the child of a father who dropped out of school in 9th grade and did a blue collar job that left him disabled and a mother who only finished high school and went from one miserable and degrading minimum wage job after another when she wasn't having emotional problems, I never felt very "privileged". I paid for my own university. I have worked for everything I've gotten in life. No one has ever handed me a single thing, and there have been plenty of times when they've tried to take away what little I've had.

All of that being said, there is nothing like living in Japan and knowing what it is like to not have some aspects of white privilege to pry my eyes open a little to what it really is. The police in America don't harass me like they did in Japan. That is a piece of white privilege that I lost while living in Japan. Though certainly not the only one that vanished when I stepped off the plane in Tokyo, it was one of the most obvious and shocking. I still don't miss the fact that I don't draw unwanted attention from men in blue uniforms or get detained and questioned for existing while not being Japanese. 


  1. My upbringing was more coddled than yours, and it took me living in Japan to get that asking every member of 'minorities' to just 'pull themselves up by their bootstraps' from my position of birth-luck was presumptuous to the point of odium. I needed to be singled out for something arbitrary, skin colour and nationality, to get a small taste of what it is like for some in my country, Canada.

    That is not to diminish what you achieved, which was 'bootstrapping'. It's not to diminished what some 'black' kids achieve. In fact it should be celebrated more: for a kid to get to university from a housing estate, with only one parent in the home, is a much greater achievement than mine. I only had to not screw up too badly.

    Do you have the right to demand a kid in a bad position get their act together? I think so. Do I? Not so much. It's my job to vote for politicians who'll make it easier for them; support foundations which do similar; and when I teach them to show them the best path for their future. But demand it's all their fault when they fail? No, not so much.

    1. I'm sorry that I missed this question for so long. I started taking one of my husband's graduate school classes recently and have been swamped with reading and some projects.

      I don't think that anyone has the right to demand anyone else do anything. I agree with you that what we need to do is support through action or inaction a movement toward a society which is the one we believe is ideal. I think the issue of what choices people make and the actions they take is far more complex than most people realize and you can't know how hard a choice is for someone unless you live in their skin and live their lives.

      One example I often give of this is a story of 3 men who are given a challenge. Each is sat in front of a pitcher of ice cold water and told that he will be given $1,000 if he does not drink it for 24 hours. The first man abstains and gets the money. The second resists for about 8 hours and then drinks. The third guzzles it down immediately.

      From this information, we can conclude that the second two were stupid and impulsive (if we were so inclined in life to do so). However, if we are provided context, such as the one who drank immediately had not had a drink for a week and the one who resisted for 8 hours hadn't had a drink for 3 days, and the one who resisted just had a big drink before he sat down, then their actions look very different.

      In life, we cannot know who has had a drink recently and can easily make a hard choice or endure a hardship. Minorities, poor people, disabled people, psychologically disadvantaged people, and even ugly people have a host of disadvantages which shape their ability to make certain choices. We cannot assume they all operate from the same point as we do, or at least we shouldn't.

      So, I absolutely don't think anyone should be pulling their boostraps any harder than they personally desire to do so and I do not judge people who cannot change their lot in life. It's a lot harder than people think. Despite my disadvantages, I had some advantages (my "drink of water") that others may not have including finding a loving, supportive, intelligent, and kind partner who provides a stable emotional life that most people cannot have. This, more than money and social status, has been an enormous advantage in my life.

      Thank you for your comment.

  2. im just curious what the harassing actually consisted of? like you're walking down the street with groceries, and policeman comes up and asks you where you're going? why you're here? blah blah?

  3. I won't miss getting stopped on my bike by the police when they are checking to make sure the bike isn't stolen (it happened many times). There is the other side to the coin, though. There are times you can get away with bad manners or get out of awkward situations because Japanese people fear they'll get into a conversation with someone who doesn't speak the language and just want to avoid the awkwardness that might result.

    1. This is how my husband and I were usually stopped as well (bike theft checking). They do this to Japanese people as well, but they target foreigners more often.

      The thing is that, one does not "get away with bad manners". Bad manners are socially inappropriate, but they're not against the law, and it's not like they are the strict purview of foreigners. I saw more Japanese bad manners (and minor law violations like riding two on a bike, looking at cell phones while riding, or jaywalking) than foreigners, but that was, after all, a matter of the numbers since 98% of the people in Japan are Japanese.

  4. My experience living in Tokyo and Chiba City between 1995 and 2001 never included even one interaction with police. There were plenty of frustrating interactions with bureaucrats, landlords or eikaiwa managers. I am a white Canadian man and was in my late thirties at the time.

    1. I've read that this is often a regional issue. There's a famous story of a man who was stopped more than 100 times even though the police knew he wasn't doing anything wrong. Essentially, they were using him as "experience" (or to collect stats). I doubt they would have felt free to treat a Japanese person in this fashion.

      I was stopped three times, and trust me that I am a boring middle-aged lady who does not have any distinguishing marks or dress in an atypical fashion. (No tattoos or piercings, no leather, no showy style of any sort) I think the police just sometimes see foreigners as a chance to put on a show of doing their job (or stat gathering). They don't mind troubling us as we have no right to protest. It doesn't happen all the time. It doesn't happen to everyone, but it does happen.


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