WHICH OF YOUR VALUES DEVALUES YOU? / Aina Tanaka

“Do you feel racial discrimination here in New York?” Asked friends of mine visiting from Tokyo.

“Well, it’s New York, you know?” I couldn’t come up with any concrete examples at first but then I gave it some thought, so let me try and answer this question.

The answer is simply, “Yes.”

New York City, is usually described as being either a “Melting Pot,” a “Salad Bowl,” or more recently as a “cultural mosaic,” a term brought over from Canada. Even a short stay in New York makes you notice that the city is the crossroad of multi-culture, multi-language and multi-ethnicity. Still, I had some uncomfortable experiences studying abroad as a 3rd year of university. My main intention here is not to tell you of the uncomfortable experiences. (But then again, I need to first tell you the following anecdotes.)

It was when I took a trip to Washington D.C. a couple months ago with a friend of mine who was originally from South East Asia. At the entrance of the bus headed to D.C, a white driver was checking the list of the names and the customers. Our turn came and the driver said, “Name?” and we said our last names, “Tanaka and Le.”

“Huh?” With a look that made us wonder if we had said something wrong, he shouted at us. “Do you understand me? N-A-M-E?” We could hear you all right without shouting, I thought and said again, “Tanaka and Le.” There’s no mistake that these are our names, which are usually understood easily. But the driver said, “Not on the list and I can’t let you in.”

No way, we thought and tried to look at the list to find our names. “You can’t look at the list!” he shouted at us. The driver made us step aside the waiting line and politely ushered a white man behind us. “Can I have your last name, sir?”

In the end, the driver was able to find our names and let us in as we were supposed to, but the attitude of the driver and the different treatment he gave to the white man behind us, made me feel, to be honest, unpleasant.

I could continue on to tell you of similar experiences…

As a memory of our stay in New York, my friend and I got tickets to the Top of the Rock. We were standing in line for the elevator to the observatory. There was a white woman waiting in front of us. She whispered to her mother and her daughter, “If we get in the elevator first, we would have to get out last. So, let the girls behind us go first. They wouldn’t understand why anyway.”

We accepted their attempt of at least trying to whisper, but sorry unluckily for them, their plan had been fully heard and noted. Unfortunately, we understood English. As expected, they tried to let us in the elevator before them but we politely refused their offer. It wouldn’t have really mattered to us if we got off the elevator after them, but we didn’t want to fall victim to their tactic.

Is it something to do with our faces that they thought we couldn’t understand English?

When I recall these incidents, one idea I learned in Sociology class came to my mind. The idea is called interpellation, which was proposed by Luis Althusser, a French Marxist philosopher. Althusser believed individuals are constructed by ideology in society. It may sound a bit difficult. Althusser explained the concept with the following example:

Suppose a policeman shouts on a street “Hey, you there!” Someone who reacted to the voice and turned his head toward the policeman must be aware that he has done something illegal. If someone else who is bigger and stronger defines who you are and if you accept it, you would become that “somebody.” I’ve been off the track too much but I thought this idea would apply to myself. “Just because I’m an Asian, people thought I could not understand English. Just because I’m an Asian, I was treated differently.”

The mere fact that I think this way means I’ve already put myself in the social position where people think: “Asians don’t speak English,” or “Asians are a target of different treatment.”

Maybe the bus driver was just nervous before the long drive.

Maybe the family at Rockefeller Center were too eager to see the beautiful scenery as soon as possible. And it is highly possible that neither the bus driver nor the family in the Rockefeller Center was from New York. So, I should be careful when I say these are my recent “New York experiences.”

Looking at it from the other side, white people might feel uncomfortable if we think “we were discriminated by whites.”

“Which of your values do you think devalues you?” The professor asked us during the sociology class. He made us write down our ideas on a sheet of paper anonymously and collected and read them out in class.

Difficult question, isn’t it?

In my case,

Maybe, I’m too short? (It makes it harder to find clothes that look good on me.)

Maybe, I always speak in a pretty loud voice (People can hear me even when I am whispering.)

No good ideas came to my mind…

Interestingly, quite a few people answered: “being white.” Some students who were ok with revealing their names told the class the reasons. Even with a slight word and action or the same as others, “Being white” could be an element to hurt people or make people offended. My white American roommate says there are times when she feels hurt just because she is white.

“The other day, there was a homeless man who was begging for money. When I passed by him without giving him change, he shouted at me, “That’s why I don’t like white people.” He didn’t say that to a Hispanic family walking in front of me who ignored him and passed by.”

“I understand the social position of white people. I understand whites are privileged. Still, being white is not altogether being good. In New York, we are kind of a minority,” she said and smiled. It was a new and fresh perspective for me, quite the opposite of the prevailing idea that “white = dominant/majority,” which I was taught in my North American history class.

I read somewhere in a newspaper article that if a black person says: “We are proud to be black,” they will likely be greeted with support. If a white person says: “We are proud to be white,” they likely will be met with anger.

Well, I think there is truth in it.

It is a positive change to have a society in which people support black people who say, “they are proud.” But what about the society in which people can’t say they are proud to be white? It’s possible, some white people are fed up with this kind of society, which may have led to the election of the new president…

Well, I can’t make sense of it.

Having thought about all of this, I can’t honestly say to my roommate “I’m sorry to hear that. We should go back to the old days.”

As I write, I recognize how far I’ve gone off track.

I wonder if the bus driver or the family in Rockefeller Center think that being white is devaluing them.

This kind of racial issue cannot be seen in Japan.

Or are we just trying not to see it?

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