When I first came to Japan I lived with an Australian and a New Zealander; both cool, both funny, and both white. Over the years I’ve worked through most of my race issues, but sometimes my prejudice escapes from the cage I keep it in and says things like, “Eminem’s pretty talented for a white boy, but I wouldn’t mention him in the same language with Rakim or NAS or Biggy Smalls.”
Joe- he was the New Zealander- hadn’t even mentioned Eminem, the most popular and top earning HipHop artist at that time. He’d just asked me who were the best MCs in my opinion; an opinion he valued because not only was I, well, black, but I hail from NYC, arguably the Hip-Hop capital of the world. But, I’d inexplicably felt this need to make it crystal fucking clear that Eminem wouldn’t even be considered for any of my best list- no way no how.
What made it worse is that Joe had just rolled with it, like he’d expected me to hold that opinion and that kind of prejudice against Eminem. And to top it off, and make worse much worse, it was a big fat lie. I think Eminem is actually much more talented and far cleverer than half of the black Hip-hop artists out there spitting inanity with their only qualifying attributes being breath control, misogynistic lyrics (hmmm, what rhymes with “stink bitch”? Ah! Got it! “chink bitch!”) and a hot producer.
So, how did I come to live with two white cats?
Well, I’d taken this job with an English Language school that was as ubiquitous in Japan as Starbucks are in Midtown Manhattan (you know which). Consequently, the company was the number one recruiter of foreign workers in Japan, and thus tried their utmost to make relocating to Japan as painless as possible. The upside of this aid is they provided apartments at relatively reasonable rates that didn’t require you to go through the rigors and expense of doing so in a language and a culture as foreign as foreign gets. For example, a Japanese landlord is entitled to a non-refundable gratuity, equal to a month’s rent, in addition to the deposit, while the wait staff at a restaurant gets jack for gratuity. The drawback, however, is that you often find yourself in a roommate situation with absolute strangers, thrown together randomly, and forced to get along.
But, I was lucky. They were both great guys.
I didn’t know much about Australians and even less about New Zealanders before we were thrown together. All I knew about Australians was Crocodile Dundee-like foolishness, and if it werent for Lord Of the Rings New Zealand wouldn’t even exist in my world.
Aussies and Kiwis weren’t on my list of oppressed peoples of the world so they were beneath my notice.
I don’t know when it happened but at some point in my life I developed a strong curiosity and empathy for the oppressed and abused peoples of the world, both current and historical. I guess I always wanted to compare abuses and abusers with them. I liked to read books about how these civilizations survived (or not, in some cases.) Sometimes to gain clues as to how to succeed in a society where the majority oppresses the minority, and sometimes just to satisfy my morbid fascination.
In NY, it was a constant comparison with the Jews. They’ve been persecuted for centuries same as Africans/African diaspora. They were exterminated, we were exterminated. Their religion and unity pulled them through and spirituality definitely was a unifying factor in the survival of the black race. The Native Americans have always been a curiosity of mine, as well. I couldn’t tell you the difference between a Cherokee and a Pawnee, but I could tell you who their nemesis was even before I saw “Dances with Wolves”. Nor did I have to read many books about the natives in Canada, the natives in South America, or the aborigines in Australia to find out who virtually wiped them out.
I’d never met any aborigines, nor lived with descendants of their conquerors before. But there I was, living with an Australian named Gregg who managed to somehow innocently refer to black people as “colored guys” and -not-so innocently- refer to Aborigines as “Abos” and as useless uneducated drunks who want to be separate from civilization…a nice way of saying savages.
And this was my first week in Japan.