Empty Praise: Identifying by Race


ecently, Sleetse wrote that he was tired of being a “glob.” I was surprised and flattered that he remembered the word I “coined” in nlute, a short narrative of selected periods of my life. I too was a glob–good little Oritental boy–not because I was genetically predisposed to be a “model minority” but because others expected it from me.

I have always been aware of my racial identity. Born and raised in the 50s and 60s–before and during the civil rights movement–a non-white was always accutely aware of being, well, non-white. My mother never insisted that we learn Japanese. Quite the opposite, she wanted to learn English along with her children as they grew up. She wanted her kids to be pure Americans. But as a child, I never felt pure. Not because I didn’t want to be, and not because of my parent. My identity as a non-white, a Japanese American was being forged by those around me. All my neighbors were white or hispanic and I was the good little Oriental boy (as well as the ching-chong Chinaman and ah-so Nip). It was difficult to live up to the expectations of being an Oritental boy, and failing to do so created, at first, a sense of guilt, then a sense of radicalism, the feeling of being pressured too much and ultimately rebelling against everyone and everything. Of course, back then, I was told not only by whites but by JA community leaders that being identified as a “model minority” was a good thing. It suggested that mainstream (read: white) society recognized our good qualities and held us in high esteem. These qualities? Hard-working, uncomplaining, sorta like the definition of the model slave… When will people learn that this kind of identity is demeaning? By identifying a racial group as the “other” is to objectify it. By categorizing and studying them, raising them as an object to be emulated–by other minorities, of course, not whites–don’t they realize that they are delegating us to the realm of the sub-human.

But I’m not here to rag on American society. Because, in truth, this phenomenon is not exclusive to America. The character on the right is a plastic blow-up toy that was all the rage in Japan in the early 1960s. She is called Dakko-chan. Literally, dakko means to carry in one’s arm, and -chan is a diminutive suffix that replaces the more adult -san, similar to “-ette” in French or “Xiao” (little) in Chinese.

As you can see, this little toy does not represent a Japanese person, nor any other East Asian or White. Neither is it an animal of any species I know. It has big lips and black skin and is wearing a grass skirt. Yes, that’s right, it’s supposed to represent an African female. Obviously, the Japanese of the 1960s had the sensitivity that would make any good ol’ boy proud. But I find it repulsive and embarrassing.

When I bring this up to a Japanese person old enough to be familiar with the doll, their first reaction is often, “How nostalgic! It was so cute.” And of course, their first line of defense is usually, “It wasn’t meant to be offensive. It was created to be cute. What’s wrong with thinking that Africans are cute? Isn’t that a positive approach?” Obviously, these Japanese people have never read Orientalism by Edward Said. The more knowledgeable among them will also come back with a Western example: Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman. It’s a British story of a sharp little Indian boy who is chased by a tiger but eventually outwits it as the tiger ends up running around a tree and melting into butter. So this Indian boy, black and poor, is smarter than the tiger–Oh look, aren’t Indians actually smart? Further, the descriptions of the boy and his family are offensive (read above link), and the story has been banned as racially inappropriate in most schools. But, there are websites for it, and the book is still being sold widely. People still don’t realize that images identifying one specific group as a whole–even, or especially, if it is an attempt to point out a good trait–is still identifying the “other”, and is ultimately demeaning.

So what got me on this train of thought? Last week, when I went to my favorite watering hole, I conversed with this guy at the bar about basketball. He was rooting for the Minnesota Timberwolves and trash talking the Lakers and LA and while I’m not particularly a Laker fan, I do hold a bit of nostalgia for the City of Angels, and was willing to defend her honor. Well, this guy–a white guy in a dress shirt and tie, likely straight from work at some office–was raving about how great Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant and Shaq were, that these black players were incredibly talented.

I asked him if he was from Minnesota.

“Naw, I’m from around here,” he said matter of factly. “I’m rooting for Minnesota because they play more whites.” I’m not sure what surprised me more, the fact that he actually said it, or that there was no hint of malice or malevolence in his voice. Apparently, rooting for a team based on its racial make-up–a team made of the same rather than the “other”–was nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to be embarrassed about. It was a part of who he is, and perhaps, for him, a part of being American. Now that’s a scary thought…

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