Friday, May 5, 2006

Lights On/ Lights Off: A Dance in Four Parts

I. Many years ago I read for the first time about Japan’s “untouchable” class, the burakumin, in a book edited by a UC Berkeley anthropology professor (now emeritus), George A. deVos. It was called Japan’s Invisible Race. One of the aspects of the issue which stuck with me was his claim that Japan couldn’t deal with this troublesome minority because it problematized the myth the majority of Japanese lived by, that Japan consisted of a single race of people. That was before I ever went to Japan and before I came to know intimately how successful Japanese can be at not talking about anything which might cause offence or make people uncomfortable.

I was never good at doing as the Romans do while in Rome. Too Calvinist. Too American. And here’s a case in point. I had a class once in comparative culture (which topic justified, I thought, the raising of ‘troublesome’ issues). I asked students to research the status of minorities in Japan. Books are out in great number now on the topic and you don’t have to dig very deep to discover what a myth this myth of Japanese homogeneity is.

Obviously, we couldn’t stop with statistics. How are they faring, all these groups, I wanted to know. What about the Vietnamese refugees? (Very few. Most got pushed back out into the water in their boats.) What about Filipinos and Thais? How many are nurses, how many prostitutes? How about “returnee children” (Japanese kids raised abroad, the group that comprised the majority of the class and which divided evenly between those shocked to be called a minority group (but I’m Japanese! How can I be a minority!) and those shocked that others were shocked. What about burakumin?

Burakumin? I’ve raised this topic a dozen or more times over the years with groups of students and never failed to get the question, “Who are the Burakumin?” My stock response to the admission of ignorance was to ask who in the class was from Kansai (the Osaka, Kyoto area). There were always at least one and they inevitably knew about the burakumin. Students in the Tokyo area were a different story.

One day a student came to my office to talk to me. She was quite upset. “I’ve been talking with my mother and she says I should talk to you. I think you’re doing something wrong in talking about the burakumin,” she said.

This absolutely floored me. I’d never seen or heard of anything remotely like that challenge to a teacher’s authority, and I became all ears instantly.

“Your problem (referring to Americans) is that when you see a problem, you want to turn all the lights on it and probe it with a stick. (Yes, she was this articulate.) We Japanese believe it’s better to turn the lights off. In most cases, problems evolve themselves away.”

I was really quite excited about this challenge. It is probably one of the great examples in my career of learning from students what I was supposedly teaching them – that there are ways of doing things associated with cultural attitudes and values, and rather than judge them in isolation, it is often useful to map out a larger context.

I decided to challenge her back. In our discussion she made it clear she thought I was being a kind of “cultural imperialist” by trying to do things “the American way.” I gave her an argument. Although it may be true what she says about Americans generally wanting to turn on the lights and Japanese generally wanting to turn them off, there is nothing inherently American about the practice. The practices of majorities are just that, practices. Not religious codes carved in stone. And national cultures inevitably contain both those practices as well as counterexamples. The question really ought to be, I suggested, not whether we were doing things the American or Japanese way, but whether in a university environment we were doing something which most of us might see as an educational endeavor. Turning the lights on was not in this case American, I said, so much as what university education was all about.

“American education, maybe,” she said, refusing to budge.

I did not persuade her, as I recall, and she lost interest in the class, a cost which challenged my sense I had had a great moment in learning. That was many years ago. I have become, if anything, more convinced these claims one has to have the finger on the pulse of a national culture are often and largely bogus. I am as easily persuaded, as a more recent student of mine said to me recently, that we pick our side in an argument with our emotions and use our reason to justify the choice. Sifting through for the truth of these claims is a never-ending job.

* * *

II. Yesterday, I sent out a description of an encounter with a man in a coffee shop who in my finer moments I describe simply as a man more inclined to talk than to listen, and in my more everyday moments as a wacko (5/4/06 - Talking and Listening (Relearning America). One person wrote back to me but said nothing about the encounter. Instead, he commented on my description in passing of a group of black students shouting obscenities at each other. “Why did you mention that they were black?” he challenged me.

My answer is that it’s because they were black. I know the next question: Would you have said, “I passed a group of white students shouting obscenities at each other,” and the answer is probably not. But that would be missing the whole point of the comment. It was a large group of black Berkeley high school kids, and it was exclusively black and very hostile. People were clearly caught up in groupthink. There were two groups, one clearly united shouting at the other clearly united. There was no individuality and no crosstalk. And the anger suggested to anybody passing that these were not groups to be messed with.

I was not intimidated. This was Berkeley, and not some inner city where street gangs have a history of street violence. These kids were far more exploding with energy and hormones than with rage, and there was no sense they were looking for a fight with strangers. They were secure in their numbers and they were more loud than mean, despite the hostile remarks. My feelings at moments like these, which happen with some frequency, are to wish there were more civility, more consideration for outsiders to the group, some other place for the energy to go. Kind of like watching thousands of dollars go up in smoke in firecrackers that I wish could be spent on school lunch programs or something.

Black kids still gather in groups with other black kids, white kids with white kids, Asians with Asians, I’m told, in school cafeterias. Breaking through color lines at that age is tough. They aren’t yet out in the world where they have to encounter others; they can still select for like-mindedness and supposed like-experience.

Eight blocks from my house, 1610 Oregon Street is a crack house. It’s owned by an old lady who takes care of her invalid husband. She doesn’t sell; her grandsons do. The city has been dealing with this problem for fourteen years. A bunch of neighbors got together a couple years ago and sued. They won. The house is a public nuisance, the court says, and grandma has to pay them all $5000. The only way she can do that is to sell the house and move out.

And there’s the rub. Her lawyer is arguing – and arguments like these resonate in Berkeley – that the once 12% black population is now down to 8%, since the cost of housing has now long since passed the half million dollar mark in average house prices (it’s twice that in other places) and this shows you it’s the white yuppies trying to push a black family out into the street. Grandma’s black, you see. Never mind the gunshots, the killings, the syringes on the neighbors’ lawn every time there’s a raid. Never mind the cops’ frustration at not being able to do anything but raid from time to time. Never mind the fact that more than one of the grandsons are in jail for dealing crack. It’s white yuppies against black victims of capitalist institutional racism.

This is the kind of story which turns the most liberal of folk into Attila the Hun types, especially when they read of witnesses afraid of testifying against the drug dealers and of firebombings of the house of one person who complained (the person eventually moved away). A horrible story of injustice and the inability of folk to clean up their neighborhood.

Here on the East side of Shattuck (Oregon runs East and West two blocks south of my house) black and white people live in harmony, from all appearances to my eyes. I leave it to others to say whether the fact it is a whiter and more upscale neighborhood is an explanatory factor. There is a race issue, though. There is lots of vandalism, lots of broken windows, and we’re not supposed to talk about the race of the children throwing the stones as they walk through to their homes in the part of town I’ve just mentioned. We are supposed to talk instead of the wisdom of the policy of making kids walk some distance to keep the schools racially balanced, a policy I’ve actively supported, by the way, and still do. Here we turn the lights off of racial identity.
* * *

III. I can’t fix the race problem. I don’t even have suggestions, much less answers. I did when I was young. I thought we should have enforced intermarriage and we ought to make laws requiring every neighborhood to have houses matching the cheapest housing in the city as well as the most expensive housing in the city. And I thought we should all drive cars which run on ethanol and speak three languages minimum. Today I know not to suggest micro solutions to macro problems.

I’ve got lots of friends (well, OK, three) who regularly write me, “Will you please STOP with this bad news. It only depresses me. Get on with you life. Play music. Dance. Smell the flowers. Leave this raking around in the crap of life alone, you poor silly naive fellow.

And then I turn on the television and I see George Clooney and his father talking with Oprah from Darfur and I reflect on the idea that maybe it is personality. To them who want to dance, I say dance. My applause will be sincere if you get to dance with Mark Morris and I will love you for the beauty you create even if you don’t.

Meanwhile I want to think about my friend’s comment that we start with feelings and wrap arguments around them.

Consider this list of facts from a race perspective. (All facts are from Juan Enriquez’ The Untied States of America, although I’ve shuffled some of them around.)

1. Chances a Hispanic vote is more likely to be lost to spoilage than a white vote: 500% (five times more likely)

2. Chances an African-American vote is more likely to be invalidated than a white vote: 900%

3. Number of white senators representing the 2.7 million people of mostly white Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana: 8 (all Bush supporters)

4. Number of black senators representing the 40 million black voters of America (who vote mostly democratic): 1 (Barack Obama of Illinois)

5. Number of black senators representing the 2.4 million black voters of Georgia, 1.2 million of South Carolina, 1.2 million of Alabama and 939,000 of Mississippi: 0

6. Number of white senators representing the 2.4 million black voters of Georgia, 1.2 million of South Carolina, 1.2 million of Alabama and 939,000 of Mississippi: 8 (but they vote with the Bush administration, rather than with the democrats, whom the overwhelming majority of black voters support).

7. Number of senators (or representatives) representing the 60% black population of Washington, D.C.: 0 (D.C. has no senators or representatives).

Argument 1 against this blatant display of bleeding-heart liberal deliberately red-flag in front of bull waving biased selection of facts: There is no law or tradition in the land that one is entitled to be representated by a member of one’s race, any more than by gender, religion, sexuality or handedness. Anybody can represent anybody.

Argument 2: The Senators represent the whole nation, not particular constituencies, and black people have a significant number of representatives in Congress: 42 ¬– a record number, by the way. So shut up, already.

8. Number of black males between ages 25 and 29 in jail: 12.9%, mostly for drugs
9. Percentage of drug users who are white: 72%
10. Percentage of drug users who are black: 15%

Argument 3: There is a bias in the selection of these figures. You are suggesting that it’s the users who are the source of the drug problem, not the sellers. That makes no more sense than blaming the owners of SUVs rather than the Arabs!

11. Percentage of those in state prisons for drug felonies who are black: 58%
12. Chances of ending up in jail in your twenties if you are black: 1 in 3
13. Number of felons who are allowed to vote: 0

Argument 4: Whose fault is it that young blacks commit felonies and don’t vote? If all these felons voted instead, they would be able to have representatives in Congress that would speak in their interest.

14. Percentage of blacks who believe the corporations who employed slaves should apologize: 68%
15. Percentage of whites who believe the corporations who employed slaves should apologize: 32%
16. Percentage of blacks who believe they should be paid reparations for their ancestors’ enslavement: 55%
17. Percentage of whites who believe blacks should be paid reparations for their ancestors’ enslavement: 6%
18. Cost of reparations on the assumption of $40 million worth of unpaid labor between 1790 and 1860: $1.4 trillion

There’s no good defence against criticism about one-sided selection of facts to support a point. I’m not blind to America’s successes in fighting racism, as illustrated by the fact there are many white, Hispanic and Asian kids (adults, too) with black people as mentors or models, for example. I selected bits of information, however, to illustrate the filter through which many people view the world, people most white people don’t ordinarily talk to.

* * *

IV. I’m still operating on automatic pilot. This is a kind of final exam question to a seminar I’d be teaching if I had not retired. I am amused at my unwillingness/inability to disengage. Don’t fret; it’s just a question of time.

Meanwhile, here’s the (take home) exam:

1. What would you have said to the student who argued against opening up discussion about Japan’s untouchables (whom families hire detectives to root out when their daughter or son comes up with a marriage partner of uncertain parentage)?
2. How do you feel about the gap suggested between blacks and whites in Sections II and III?
3. Is it racist to comment on gangs of black kids on the street when you know you would not comment on those same kids if they were white? If so, what makes it racist? If not, what is your definition of racism that makes you say no?
4. Is it racist to mention (or mix in) the racial aspect of the crack house and the alleged move on the part of white yuppies to get blacks to move out of the neighborhood?
5. Is there such a thing as a “black perspective?” Should it have separate political representation (should there be some kind of ‘affirmative action’ in political representation)? Or should it continue to be represented as it is now by political agendas and party platforms?
6. Is the listing of alleged injustices in political representation a kind of “reverse-racism”?
7. Are the “lights out” Japanese on to something? Is it better to stop “picking at wounds” and allow these problems to be resolved through indirect means and through evolution?
8. Is it really that Japanese are "lights out" and Americans are "lights on" people? Or are Americans only "lights on" people when looking and people other than themselves?
9. What do you really think is gained by a lights on approach to problem-solving? (If you prefer, you can restate the question and look at lights out instead.) I mean really get into the pros and cons here!

The exam answers, I should note, are evaluated on the basis of clarity of articulation, obviously, since “feelings” are sought and not facts. And the “success” of an answer (as opposed to correctness) is determined by the amount of discussion generated by subsequent discussion. For that reason, the exam is due two weeks before the end of the semester.

That’s enough playing school. My feet are tired.

May 5, 2006

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