A Little Dose of Racism While Traveling

My time in Japan has been wonderful, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. The cities are clean, the countryside is beautiful, and the nature is astonishing. That being said, I must discuss my experiences with a contentious topic that plagues the world and has affected me directly in Japan: racism.

Here in Japan, I’m not talking about blatantly outright, vicious, potentially violent racism. What I’ve experienced is nowhere near that severe, in fact it’s not even racism. Just an observation of the other.


Here are a few situations where I’ve been on the receiving end of it:

  • Walking down the street, many pairs of eyes look at me with either confusion, fear, or condescension.
  • Every time I sit on the train, the seats around me fill up, leaving one empty on either side. These are the last two to be taken.
  • I passed by a large group of junior high students; and many of them leaned in to whisper to one another while staring and giggling.

I can only imagine that this came from them viewing me as the other or different. And people who are different are a curiosity. A legitimate desire to learn about those differences and to overcome ignorance is a noble pursuit, but most people don’t seek that out. They point, they laugh, they whisper, and they prefer to remain ignorant of other cultures, genders, races, religions, etc.

Let me interject here by saying that Japanese people are incredible. Every single person I’ve talked to has been extremely nice, and many people go out of their way to help you. But in order to see this side of people, I had to actually meet them. It’s the strangers who pass by me on the street or in the metro that leave me feeling uncomfortable in my own skin. To put their minds at ease, I try to appear smaller and wear a face that makes me seem less threatening.

The sad thing for me is that this is the closest to racism I’ve ever experienced. And it’s not much. Some fearful glances, empty train seats, and giggles. That’s all. To me, that goes with white privilege. My experience does not compare even remotely to what many people in our own country go through every day of their life. Sure, as a foreigner I experience mild prejudice from native people, but it was my own prerogative to travel, and nobody has ever uttered a hurtful word to my face.

The same cannot be said for many of my friends in the United States. They experience prejudice and racism, often from white people, every single day. And in recent times, it’s only gotten worse. Some people have told me they are legitimately scared for the future. They’re afraid of being deported because they have brown skin. Even though they are American citizens.

Another friend of mine shaves his beard every time he goes to the airport, to appear less like a potential terrorist. And lo and behold, he still gets “randomly” searched by TSA. Every time. Without fail.

A mixed-race couple I know gets stares and glares on the street while holding hands in a supposedly diverse American city.

All this coverage and discussion regarding the NFL players kneeling during the national anthem is a good thing. Regardless of your stance, this is a step in the right direction because it’s getting people talking. Dialogue about the uncomfortable topic of racism is the first step in fighting it.

It’s like the people fearfully looking at me on the street. They aren’t afraid of me as a person. They are afraid of what’s different, of what’s unknown. But I’ve connected with so many people by simply having a conversation. Discussing racism permits us to learn about the unknown, to overcome our ignorance, and ultimately to change our perceptions. The good news is prejudiced people can and do change.

In high school, I perpetuated racism myself. During passing periods, many black students would congregate in one area of the hallway, which I had to pass through to get to class. My friends and I dubbed this area, “The Black Sea.” I’m not proud of it; in fact, I’m horribly ashamed of the blatant racism I participated in. But since then, I’ve changed.

In college, I talked with people of different ethnicitiy and color to learn from them. To learn about their experience growing up fighting prejudice, and it made me change my views. But to change I had to engage in dialogue.

So I implore everyone who reads this article. White, black, brown, green, blue, whatever. Talk with one person you know of a different race. Share something with them, and in return listen to their perspective. Comment below or on Facebook one new thing you learned. If you feel inspired, share this article with others. Do it for me. No, do it for your fellow human beings. Help get the ball rolling and move our country in the right direction.

Thank you.

6 Responses to “A Little Dose of Racism While Traveling”

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Man, I love this! I feel like our experiences have been very similar. I did and said similar stuff in high school, which looking back, disgusts me. But taking Mandarin and joining AIESEC really helped open my eyes. This is such a great piece and I’m excited to read others you post!

    Author's gravatar

    Thank you Ryan, I’m glad you feel that this article is helping! Definitely the most important piece I’ve written so far, as it’s related to social justice. Please share it with others (maybe even on an AIESEC page?) if you connected with it.

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Hi Tommy, I agree with you that there is prejudice, bigotry And social injustice in our country and it’s very sad for a country that should be so advanced. It did not help that our previous president did everything he could to make it worse with digs and comments that he as the president should have kept to himself not disrespected his station and office by opening his trap.
That being said, you are right about saying we all have our own prejudices and fears of the unknown when we are younger and immature. Your comment about the “Black Sea” was understandably normal, not right, but normal. I’m sure they had thoughts and whispers about white kids too. It’s with maturity that comes intellectual curiosity and the boldness to question your former personal beliefs so that you go out and educate yourself and lose your youthful misconceptions. Which is what you are doing now, traveling the world and learning about new people, places, and cultures.
I completely disagree with these overpaid snowflakes taking a knee to our flag and our National Anthem. The Flag and our National Anthem ARE NOT TRUMP, or nObama, or any other one person or minor group of people. Taking a knee while on the job during our National Anthem does NOT protest Trump or a few rotten cops (among the 100’s of thousands of good ones that get no credit, but just the bullshit hate for the few that have done wrong). Kneeling during our National Anthem, protests The United States of America as a country. It protests all of us, our history, good and bad, the people, good and bad, our accomplishments, good and bad. It protests, our soldiers that are defending our freedom and all the good that they are trying to do while being away from their families for months and years at a time being paid less than $35,000 a year and often coming home battered and damaged. It protests EVERYTHING about us.
These overpaid brats that get on average $11 MILLION a year to chase a football around for entertainment, are cluelessly hurting their fan base and the people of this country! What they are doing does not raise dialogue, it incites anger and hate.
It amazes me that will do anything to chase these multi-million dollar contracts, but only grow a social conscience when it suits their purpose. The greed is astounding and a bit hypocritical.
Off my soapbox now.

    Author's gravatar

    I see where you are coming from. And I agree that if players are taking a knee to support their own selfish ambitions, that is wrong. And perhaps some of them are doing that for attention, which is disrespectful. Perhaps, as you say, others are doing it to protest the presidency and the atrocious acts that a few police officers have committed. Which, I agree, can be done in different ways other than kneeling during screentime.

    However, I believe that many players are doing this for a much bigger reason. They are calling attention to the social injustices that have plagued our country for far too long. They are using their time in the spotlight to exercise their freedom of speech, and send a message. The message being that people don’t want to talk uncomfortable topics such as racism, and if it’s not discussed, then nothing will ever get done.

    But now it IS being discussed. And you’re absolutely right, their actions are inciting much anger and hate. But minorities have dealt with prejudiced hatred towards them for generations, and I’m sure many of them have been angry for a long time. A lot longer than fans have been upset about the NFL players kneeling.

    I understand how it can seem that these actions are disrespecting our country, and our brave soldiers who risk their lives to protect those very players. But again, I don’t think that is the point. In whatever way kneeling during the national anthem may be interpreted, good or bad, it’s causing anger. But it is creating discussion as a result. I mean, I would not have created this post without it. And these discussions need to take place for progress in this country to be made.

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Great article, Tom! I loved your insight on inherent racism that you experienced in Japan. I don’t think this is always negative. However, I do think there is a lot of negative inherent racism in America that people ignore.

    Author's gravatar

    Thank you Noah. I agree that there is racism that is perceived much more positively. But I was curious as to what you specifically had in mind regarding “positive racism.”

    And yes, I’m glad that lots of issues that have been swept under the rug for so long are finally coming to light in the U.S.

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