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I was brought up in a community and environment where it is taboo to make references about the color of our skin. This was, I guess, our way of saying, that it really doesn’t matter. I’m not sure if was more my family or if it’s because Britain is such a melting pot, but on the whole, unless we become close enough to a person to talk about ethnic differences or similarities, we just didn’t talk about it. That would change after moving Japan, as the Japanese will let you know that you are different at pretty much every opportunity, but we’ll get to that later.
Over the last few weeks, following the murder of George Floyd, I have watched news programs and been deeply moved by some of the scenes and videos coming out of the United States, and at the same time, been deeply frustrated by the lack of change up to now. I don’t talk politics, as who we support and who we don’t support is a very touchy subject, so while trying to avoid offending anyone on that front, I feel that I need to speak out about a number of things that are laying heavily on my mind right now.
Like a few others that I’ve heard say this over the last few days, I was going to just keep my thoughts to myself, but then I did something that I do every few days, which is to recall one of the biggest regrets of my life, and realized that saying nothing can be as harmful as being racist. I don’t have a racist bone or even cell in my body, and I was shocked in my youth to learn that a few people that I thought were friends were racist. My closest friends were like me, no prejudice or racism ever came into our conversation, and those more distant acquaintances that showed racist tendencies did not stay friends.
This story comes with an apology. An apology to a beautiful young black girl named Epee (not sure if I spelled that right) that used to hang out with us in my mid-teens. She was quiet, and had a beautiful laugh, and is a part of many of my memories, but one of the last times I saw her, not surprisingly, became literally one of the biggest regrets of my life.
We’d been hanging out in the local park near the swimming pool, as we often did, and heard that a friend was having a party nearby, so we all walked over there together. As our group walked into his hallway and the front door closed, I heard him say that he was having no black girls in his house. I saw disappointment and sadness of Epee’s face that I’ll never forget, but the deeper regret is that we stayed, and let that young girl walk home alone.
I can’t imagine how painful that must have been for Epee, and of course, to this day, I regret the fact that we didn’t leave with her. If that happened now, I know that I’d have the wherewithal to turn around and walk out, but in my mid-teens, when partying was more important, I didn’t, and I’ll regret that for the rest of my life.
I’ve spent hours online over the years searching for Epee to apologize, but I’ve never found her. If anyone knows her, please let her know about this post. She’ll have left high-school in Long Eaton, Nottingham, England in 1984, a year after I left high-school. If you ever find this Epee know that I’m sorry. What we did was unforgivable. If possible, drop me a line, so that I can let you know personally.
Silence Sends the Wrong Message
I’m relaying this story today because this led to the realization this morning that staying silent on the issue of racism is not acceptable. I may not be able to do anything directly to help, but I cannot just sit back and say nothing, because that allows those who may have other views to include me in their circles, and that party back in 84 was the first and last time I’ll allow that to happen.
I need everyone that listens to this podcast or reads the blog to know that I support any peaceful protests against racism, and regardless of the color of your skin, if anyone wants to come onto the show to speak out on these issues, let me know. I do not want to hear from racists or anyone that would use this vehicle to spread hate, and should anyone I speak to turn the conversation that way, the call will be immediately terminated and nothing will be shared.
Hopefully only a very small number of people, but I know that there will be some people that follow my work that have different views. If that’s the case, you will need to either come to terms with the fact that I deplore racism of any kind, and if you can’t handle that, you can walk away. I will not tolerate racism or white supremacy comments, so don’t leave any. If our spam filters don’t keep you out, know that your comments will be deleted, and if I get many, I’ll stop comments on this post. I will not let hate in because there is no hate here to help you to propagate your own.
My Own Experiences in Japan
I’d like to relay a few other stories about my own life here in Japan that have been a bit of an eye-opener over the years. Growing up as a white person in England doesn’t expose you to much racial prejudice. Even in Japan, it does not expose me to prejudice as much as what I’ve heard from Indian and black friends over here, but there is a certain amount of prejudice that I’ve dealt with over the years that helps me to feel more grateful for the way I was raised, without prejudice or racist feelings.
There will always be looks and even today, after living here in Japan for 29 years at this point, I can sometimes sit on a crowded train with people standing, and a free seat next to me, because some people would prefer to stand than sit next to the foreigner. That annoys me, but it’s not aggressive, so I can live with it. I recall the first time I tried to rent an apartment in Fukushima back in 1994 and was told by the real estate agent that they had nothing to rent in the area I was pointing to on the map. The next area also came up blank, and the next, until I’d pointed to the whole city, and was told that they didn’t have a single apartment to rent. Realizing that they were saying that they would not rent anything to me, I stormed out, stringing together as many fowl Japanese words that I could muster.
I’d struggle when renting apartments on two other occasions, and recall the anger I felt when I moved back to Japan after a short stint in England until 2000. I had arranged our new apartment in Tokyo remotely and was due to go and sign the contracts the day after I arrived back and called the agency from the airport as requested, and was asked a question that made my blood boil. The agent asked where I was from, and I replied that I was from England, and pointed out that they already knew that. Embarrassed the young girl on the phone said that she was sorry to have to ask, but explained that she needed to know my ethnicity. I told her that I was caucasian, and asked why she was asking. Continuing in her embarrassed tone, she explained that the owner of the apartment would not allow me to live there if I was black.
I immediately thought of Epee, and quickly expanded that to every black person on the planet that experienced this kind of prejudice their entire lives, and felt angry that there were some people in Japan, a country that I love so much, that harbor these kind of feelings, and I was shocked that in Japanese society, you can even ask that question. I’m sure that in most countries I could be arrested for asking that question, and rightly so. I was also annoyed with myself because I had no choice at this point, with all of my stuff from England arriving in a few days, but to continue with the contract and I ended up living in that racists apartment for ten years.
Knowing how difficult it is to rent a place here, I had no choice, but both my wife and I were appalled by the question, and never forgave the owner for it. We’d talk about that experience every time the owner annoyed us, by coming to our door to ask if it was me that had put the wrong type of garbage out, for example. He’d assume that anything that required more than a smidgeon of understanding of Japanese or the Japanese culture was probably me, and that annoyed the hell out of me. After a number of such accusations, I told him that I lived and worked in Japanese, and had no problem understanding simple garbage disposal rules and that I’d like him to stop coming to me when someone messes up, and to his credit, he did stop, in the most part.
The apartment that I moved to ten years ago did not have any similar questions, which was refreshing, but it was around the time that I moved here in 2010 that I had a conversation with an Indian friend and learned that as a non-white foreigner here, he was discriminated against much more frequently than I had ever been, which was a bit of a shock. But, I need you to know that although Japan has its problems, in general, they are not aggressively racist, and most people point out differences out of curiosity and in fun, rather than in malice. The Japanese can behave a little awkwardly even around white foreigners, although those barriers are easily broken down by a good understanding of the language.
I should add that I am actually now a Japanese citizen. I naturalized in 2010 and now need a visa when I visit the UK. I no longer own a British passport, so please understand that despite the few shortcomings that Japan has, I love this country and the Japanese people so much that I became one. Also, I need to say that I’m relaying these stories to let you know that I have experienced some racial prejudice, but I realize that my experiences are nothing compared to the oppression and racism that many black people face every day. It doesn’t even come close.
I wanted to relay one last story that touched me recently, to help you understand that the Japanese are compassionate and are also behind the black community in your fight to make the world a better, fairer place. We watched Curtis Hayes tell a 16-year-old protester that he has to come up with a better way to protest, because he has been doing it the same way for years, and nothing has changed. It is a powerful message, from people that live with these struggles every day, and my Japanese wife, having just gotten out of the shower, turned off her hair-dryer to watch this.
As the clip drew to an end, and I was feeling emotional, both sad with the situation, and angry that nothing has changed, I turned to my wife to find her crying. She was crying partly because of the same feelings that I had, and was moved by powerful and deep messages, but also, she told me, by the fact that people like Curtis Hayes still had the strength to protest despite it never leading to any real change, so far.
But with a video camera in pretty much every pocket now, these messages are not lost to the moment. It’s no longer just the leaders such as Martin Luther King that make global news. Everyone has a voice now, and we both hope and pray that these will be the protests that finally lead to change. Everyone is equal. We all deserve to be treated with respect and receive equal opportunities. Things need to change, and the time is NOW.
This has to be our future, and it starts today.
Finally, I’d like to add a verbal credit for the photo that I used as the featured photo for this post. It was shot by Johnny Silvercloud represented by Shutterstock. It’s an amazing photo with a powerful message. As I searched through the library for an image, and saw the message on the t-shirt, “Silence is Betrayal” I knew straight away that this was the shot. Thanks Johnny!
Curtis Hayes video: https://youtu.be/vvuxr5xlBEs
Two boys video: https://youtu.be/nDQezECAxtQ
Featured photo credit: Johnny Silvercloud / Shutterstock
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Thanks! Great message… that is a strong video clip: ‘Come up with a better way!” That’s the challenge, a better way… sad that it takes death to waken most of us up to that fact. Your sharing about your friend and the party was a good reminder that the things we do, day in day out, affect the world around us, the choices we make. I liked your story about sitting on the train… me too, as a long-term resident of Korea, has had that experience so often – and I too say to myself that that is nothing compared to the deep-seated and violent racism shown towards others. But on the bright side, here in Korea, I think, things are changing gradually when it comes to young people – there is hope. Let’s nurture the hope! Thanks again and keep up the good work.
Thank you Eamon! I’m sure you totally get it living in Korea. I’ve only visited once some 25 years ago, but I found it very similar to Japan in those respects. The younger generations are also getting more flexible here too, but it really depends on the individual. Again though, these are the experiences of a white guy. People with more pigment have a harder time, unfortunately.
Well said, sir. I hope you’re able to reach Epee.
Thanks Ed! Me too! Although I can’t undo what I did, I would like to let her know that I realize afterwards that I was wrong to have let such a despicable act slip and stay myself.
Martin, thanks for your words and thoughts. We all still have a long way to go and many fights to win to just come back to basi human equity in life anywhere on our tiny planet.
We artists have an essential role to play in building this future society and photography is both our weapon and our tool. Let’s use it for the best.
Cheers from a French fine-art photographer,
Peace & Light,
Thank you Jean! For sure, I realize that this is a global struggle, and we all have a way to go, but I really hope that this is the turning point.
All the best!
This is a well-written post, Martin, with a poignant story about Epee. I hope you’re able to locate her and apologize for your part in what happened. I applaud your call for each of us to do what we can—not only to avoid being racist but to be proactively anti-racist as wish you would have done all those years ago. That said, I don’t think your experience, one with an innocent victim and clearly culpable perpetrator (your friend) is a useful analogy for what is currently going on in the US. It is not Nazis and Jews. It is Israelis and Palestinians, with both sides blaming the other and refusing to acknowledge their own role in creating the current climate. In both cases, one side has a huge advantage in terms of wealth and power, yet there is blame to go around.
I believe that in order to address what is an intractable problem, both sides have to be willing to have an honest conversation. Right now—at least in the US—I’m not sure this is even possible. Today, I viewed a conversation between two celebrities who both happen to be from my alma mater, Matthew Mcconaughey (white actor) and Emmanuel Acho (black American football player). As I’ve seen more than once, Acho places the blame for racism on slavery in the US. I have no doubt there is truth to this. But there isn’t just one cause of racism. Acho goes on to say this:
[As a white man] “You have to acknowledge that you’ll see a black man and for whatever reason, you will view them more of a threat than you will a white man. Probably because society told you to.”
What Mcconaughey didn’t say (and, in the current climate, couldn’t say), is that, statistically, a black man actually is more of a threat. If it is true—and I’ve yet to see anyone claim that it isn’t—that 6% of the US population, black males, account for 44% of violent crime, then there is little hope that any amount of multi-million dollar donations, policy reforms, or shiny corporate campaigns will change the patrolman’s attitudes toward black males until that changes.
None of this is to deny that black Americans have many legitimate grievances that deserve to be addressed. The relationship between black males and police departments is just one facet of a hugely complex challenge. I wish it were as simple as a black kid and a white kid hugging it out.
Thanks for the thoughtful and, as usual, well-written comment.
While I know you are right, I think it has to be brought into consideration that the reason for those statistics is the racism and inequality that we’re talking about. If you hold a person down, and withhold opportunities from them, then something has to give. It may take decades to work this out, but if we can truly start to treat everybody equally, then these statistics will improve. And, if we were to assume that there is only a certain amount of wealth to go around, we’d probably see these statistics swing the other way a little as well.
I think that you need to keep these opinions private. In the US, BLM and Antifia are hate organizations and have been responsible for almost a billion dollars in theft and property damage, over 650 police officers injured and 6 killed. Otherwise, I love your podcasts.
Like I said in the post B James, I support only peaceful protests. The rest of my post is purely about equality and fairness.
If 6% of the population is responsible for so much crime in 2020 why wasn’t the case in the prior 100 years? This phenomenon has nothing to do with being held down. It has everything with a political party telling them they are victims. If I were told for the last 40 years that I was a victim of racism, I might be willing to riot.
All races have been held as slaves. My ancestors are 90% Scot. My ancestors were sold as slaves by your ancestors in 1745 at the stocks in Boston and Philadelphia. Most people have no clue about this. Should I have a gudge? Only if I believe the sins of the fathers fall to the sons.
Trying to explain what is going on in the US as having to to with slavery and racism is just wrong
It can be true that a “victim mentality” is holding the black community back and that racism is real and something that they have to deal with on a daily basis. The two are not mutually exclusive. It can be true that a black person can be the victim of undeserved racism through no fault of their own and that the black community is a big part of their own problem to the extent that it disrespects laws and law enforcement, devalues education, and celebrates violence. Failure to acknowledge both realities leads to conclusions like “all cops are racist” or “racism isn’t real”. There is no simple truth that one side sees and the other side doesn’t.
Incidentally, blacks of one tribe were delivered into slavery by other blacks of another tribe in an experience analogous to that of your ancestors. You don’t see grudges there either. In both cases, it is harder to hold grudges when you can’t distinguish the oppressed from the oppressor, when you have more in common experientially and culturally, and when you believe that you share a similar lot in life.
I don’t necessarily think it’s a “victim mentality”, more just human nature. If you deprive anyone of anything, a certain proportion of us, regardless of color, will ultimately retaliate in some way. I’m actually surprised that the majority of black people have stayed mainly peaceful under the circumstances for the last few centuries. It doesn’t stop there though, of course. Asian’s are discriminated against, anyone that is different or in a minority, at some point, faces discrimination. I think that the human race has to get better at accepting differences on the whole. Homophobia is another example. Just because I’m not gay doesn’t mean that I have to discriminate against someone that is. Why can’t we just accept that people are different, and treat them with respect?
Of course, there are times when people behave in ways that lead to them losing the respect of others, but again, that happens in all people and should be treated on an individual basis. If an individual commits a crime, they should go to jail. But too many black people are being killed in the arrest process and too many of them for such a petty reason. Using a counterfeit bill, sleeping in a car under the influence, rather than driving it and really breaking the law. These aren’t reasons to kill someone during the arrest. Sure, they tried to escape. So would I if there was a damned good chance that I could get killed in the process.
I am not belittling the overall good job that the police do. In general, I respect the police and think that cutting their budget, the latest fad, is rediculous. That won’t help at all, and the idea that we don’t need the police at all is ridiculous. But we do need them to be fair, and learn how to make better decisions when making arrests. I know it’s a tough job, and I know that things happen that make them over-react or over-sensitive, but enough is enough. Let’s level the playing field, and stop treating others any less than we would like to be treated ourselves, simply because they are different, for whatever reason.
It’s going to get better. It really is–someday.
What you experienced in moving to Japan is the same as what my wife experienced in moving to LA in 1961 just 15 years after WWII.
You may have already read this, but if not, I thought you might enjoy:
I so hope you’re right.
That’s a great post. I’m aware of Loco. I haven’t finished it, but I’ve read a good portion of his book. Very well written and incredibly funny. He sums it up very well in his 10 years on post too. And with him being black, he gets to share the train with the empty seat more than my white-ass. I still get it enough to notice, and it narcs me too.
Right now though everyone is trying to keep one free seat between each other for social distancing. It’s hilarious watching paranoid Japanese people playing musical chairs when the less paranoid traveler boards the train and sits next to them. And when someone (maybe 1 in a 100) people has the nerve to get on the train without a mask it’s an absolute circus! 🙂
Thanks for sharing the post Sigmon. Stay well.
Have you tried this to find your friend?
Cool! I’ll give it a try. I actually don’t remember if she went to my school or my sisters, which was different. I think my sisters, so Long Eaton School is correct. Thanks Sigmon!
Thank you for this post. I was touched and could relate on many levels.