Culture August 26, 2021
Incessant / Resistant
In following up on my thoughts on ‘maintaining labels,’ I think it is necessary to summarize this maintaining as a way to examine other angles into mixed-Japanese and mixed-race labeling. If we go deep and far enough into reflections on labels for people and things, in the contexts of culture, we can understand how every single thing is contradictory, excluding none.
When I referred to names and labels for mixed-race folks globally, I previously offered the reflection that labels and language, in general, points to as well as emanating from within constructions of hierarchies and status according to local historical cultural norms. In addition, we know that these hierarchies and status designations change throughout history in different ways, some changing more than others. For instance, terms like “mixed-race” are only made possible in worlds where the term “race” can be determined and known. Before the idea of race—a European elite colonial term (with its roots in white supremacy) spread globally to graft itself onto all social and personal aspects of life, there was prejudice based on color or place or way of living. However, race—alongside the idea of nation and nationhood—is a recent invention that brings with it a web of processes of normalizing. This may bring the desire to react by saying: “I am not a race” or “I am just me.” This becomes an often-used resistance to problems in resisting the onslaught of oppressive laws and attitudes that a mixed-race person encounters in life. Claiming a label such as such-and-such a race, may be empowering and resisting norms and is basically true in the face of the normalizing and naturalizing of such historically-produced terms such as race, or nation. But this kind of resistance can prove to be one way to escape history (connection to ancestors) and can become the “normalized” alienation—an aspect of the United Statian prioritized ideology of individualism (rooted in capitalism, colonialism and white supremacy) that can make aloneness, escape and disconnection “normal.” This continues the processes that make communities become fragmented.
As a note, individuality and being an individual are a reality in life for all people. Everyone expresses individuality. However, individualism is the idea of the superior, on-top-of-the-positioned in a hierarchical construct that people may internalize to determine the meaning of life and of self when we force it. The term began as a way to resist the very real social oppressions faced by Europeans in resisting the domination of Christian church doctrine and norms during colonial expansionist times. However, in labeling United Statians as “free” we begin to use this term to escape from and isolate away from social oppressions that United Statians normalize often, in the face of racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. in varying degrees. Japanese, for example, can escape the real prejudices that Buraku, Koreans (Korean nationals), Zainichi (Koreans born in Japan), Okinawans, and foreign workers, as well as women in general face, by using certain words and certain times. These systems of relations between people, continue yet change.
About a decade ago, a friend of mine—a Japanese woman married to an African-American former military man—related to me that she recently travelled to Japan in order to run a teaching session there, for college students who would be visiting the United States. My friend always covers race and class in these teaching sessions wherever she goes. During this session, she said she became very testy when the students denied ever calling a mixed-Black Japanese a “kurombo” and even denied that they had ever heard of the word. If the reader may recall, kurombo was a postwar term that was meant to demean Black-Japanese mixed people and could be translated as “blackie” or in the spirit of its use, more akin to the “N-word” in the United States, alongside such other terms like “monkey-boy.” My friend spoke to me about this with disgust at how Japanese continue to deny. I understood her thoughts but then I added that the term kurombo is no longer used and most Japanese young people do not know that term. Nowadays, from what I hear, there are other names. One term I have heard used by young Japanese (college age and younger) is “maikeru.” This term is the Japanese pronunciation of Michael. It refers to Michael Jackson. This reference to MJ is, of course, in relation to MJ’s whitening of his skin during his later years, and transferring the normalizing status of outsider/weird to being mixed-black Japanese in Japan. Even now, as I tell this story, I think that term for mixed-Japanese is no longer used, as MJ is fading from Japanese cultural memory. In resisting being called maikeru, what would people have retorted in Japan besides: “It’s not nice to call people names”? People already know it’s not nice. Being nice only has meaning in certain contexts. The structure of culture and society are in place and unchanged. What opens the spaces in places and contexts that allows for name-calling? What social-cultural norms are in place for a form of prejudice to take shape in name-calling? What is the purpose? Why does the purpose make sense?
The constancy and maintenance of social structures that use the idea of human races and conditions can change the names but not the impetus and the desire to do certain things related to this structure. In Vietnam, for instance, the terms like Left by the Ship; Curly; bui doi are all still in use (to refer to mixed-race and mixed-Black non/Vietnamese). Being “left by the ship” refers to the many babies and children that American and other western men left abandoned in Vietnam. This phenomenon began mainly with the French colonials and continued through the arrival of the Americans and today, it continues with travelers from around the world. Curly, of course, refers to the curly hair of African and black people’s hair that leaves its body in the hair of mixed-blacks (and made lower and wrong in local contexts). In Korean, much like Japan, there have been terms such as Yanggongju (child of a western princess) referring to a mixed-race person in the pre-modern period which has the double pejorative of a Korean woman who no longer is Korean because of giving birth to a western-fathered child. But other names such as Kkamduggi, can still be heard as a pejorative, apparently, to refer to mixed-Black, that began centuries ago but became a cultural norm in the post-Korean War period.
The names stay or change, but the reasoning and power stay in place because the context is still there. We can prohibit names and continue to “cancel” individual things, erasing histories. I personally think it is most important to erase the contexts, little-by-little, that make oppression a norm.