Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Won't Miss #23 - bigoted taxis (reflection)

I'm going to say something which probably sounds a little crazy, but bear with me. When I fill out a survey here in the U.S., and I do so more often than you'd think, I feel like I've somehow failed as a person when I have to check the box which says "white/Caucasian". Since I have returned, I've had "white privilege" tossed in my face so many times that I feel like I've done the part of America that gets to check other boxes a huge disservice by virtue of having been born with my particular genetics. I want to say, "please forgive me, I didn't choose this skin color!" Such is the life of a person living in a liberal state which makes sure to throw it in the faces of the "privileged" as often as possible that they are living lives of ease and comfort that others do not. There is a presumption that I can't possibly know what it is like to live as a minority and that I need to be "educated", and it needs to be happening constantly, to make me understand

My skin color means I can't possibly "know" what it's like for police to follow you and question you without cause, for clerks to be rude to you, or for taxis that you hail to drive by you... except, you know, I can and do. However, I still get talked at like I didn't live for over two decades in a place in which about .56% of the population was not visibly Asian in appearance and I was treated like an alien who'd just stepped off the mother ship on a daily basis. 

The truth is that, having been snubbed by businesses in Japan, I know what it is like to be on the other side. To the extent that I don't get treated that way now, I can understand the concept of "white privilege", though I quibble with the vocabulary choice. I think that what it really is is "minority disadvantage", but the words were changed at some point to make white folks feel like they're getting something they don't deserve and didn't earn instead of focusing on the fact that other people aren't getting something they deserve and shouldn't have to earn. It's meant to make one group feel guilty for what it has, rather than make that same group feel sorry for those who don't have something they should. Somewhere along the line, somebody figured making the majority feel bad created a better prospect for change than relying on their empathy and compassion for those who were being denied basic human rights and dignity. 

Because of my 23 years in Japan, I know what it's like to be treated like dirt because of your skin color, and the taxis in Tokyo that drove by when we tried to flag them down were one of the better indicators of that. I don't miss the way in which it made me feel like a lesser human being.


  1. I'm not at all saying that that there isn't a lot of discrimination in Japan, there definitely is. But from what I have read and experienced the Japanese have an aversion to foreigners also because they really don't want an awkward encounter which will probably be challenging communicationwise. So it isn't so much that they think of you as lesser but just really different. So they wouldn't want to pick up foreigners because it'll be a) confusing and b) people who aren't japanese and therefore arent part of the whole social trust arrangement that the culture and society runs on. Just a thought and my perspective on it because it's a shame if it were perceived as negative discrimination when it might not be quite like that.

    1. Sometimes, it is what you say, Deb. Sometimes, it is absolutely negative. I've been outright insulted and there was no doubt about it. It's not always about awkwardness and discomfort or fears of communication, though it sometimes is.

      That being said, what do you think people would say if a white cab driver in America said he didn't pick up an Arabic-looking or Hispanic-looking person because he felt there may be some awkward communication issues? Would that be a good excuse and not racism or a negative view?

      The bottom line is that racism is making an assumption about another person which is based on a stereotype ("white person can't speak Japanese) and acting on that assumption in a way which denies someone a service or right that is given to those who are seen as like oneself rather than unlike oneself.

      Any way you slice it, it's not a good thing. The motivation may be different, but it's still racist. Can we ever say racism is okay because the motivation is less negative?

  2. With taxis, it isn't always clear-cut racism against potential fares who appear non-Japanese.

    For example, it's against local ordinances to pick up fares near some train stations, and in much of the main Ginza area, except at official taxi stands.

    Also, taxis licensed in one city are not allowed to pick up passengers in a different city.

    Riders also have to also pick up on the exact sign displayed in their window. Anything but an "available" sign (空車) means that they are not legally required to stop and pick somebody up.

    That said, if you talk to Japanese people who use taxis regularly, and many don't because rides are expensive, you'll find people of all different shapes and sizes face the same problem -- the inability to get taxis to stop. Apparently taxi drivers are masters of "passenger profiling" in the fly, and they may turn down likely small fry fares for a potential big catch just down the road. I've heard about women, young people, anyone when it's raining, all having trouble.

    Personally, I've found that it's more effective to be confident and look at the driver with the expectation that s/he will stop than to show any timidity, but that's only based on infrequent rides.

    I don't disagree that taxi drivers, like people everywhere, may determine whether or not to stop based on perceived nationality or race. But that is just one of many different reasons that drivers may use when they make that instantaneous decision to stop or to blow right by you.


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