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Koji's Column

I’m a Racist

A couple of weekends ago I found out I was a racist. Not the white pillow case over my head kind but something quieter, more insidious. It’s made me rethink my own racial sensitivity and question the times where I’ve felt racially offended.

But let me start from the beginning...

I was walking home with my dog when an African American man started talking to me. He was nice and when he turned onto my street I asked him if he had just moved onto the block. When he said he had, I then told him that I was the guy that had rescued his lost family dogs.

He looked confused. Looking back now, that’s where I should have stopped. But I continued. I told him that I was the guy that found his dogs and returned them to his wife and kids.

He smiled and said pleasantly that it wasn’t him. Now I was confused. Luckily, I was near my house so I hurried home.

What I should mention is that the dogs that I had found came from a new family that had also moved onto the street relatively recently. The woman and kids were African American.

I felt like a heel when I realized what I had done: I had assumed that the guy I was talking to had to be part of that family because he was African American too. In other words, I was making him feel un-welcome in my neighborhood. I was saying without actually saying that there could only be one black family on the street.

Of course, that’s not what I meant. I really thought he was the father and I was happy to meet him. And most of all, I wanted to welcome him to the street. I believe diversity is good. And the more rainbow the street, the better.

I told my wife what happened when I got inside and asked if I was being racist. She said I was. I guess whenever you have to ask such a question the answer is usually going to be yes.

I felt horrible. A part of me wanted to find that man and apologize for being a racist/ignorant idiot. The smarter part of me knew it would be better to leave it alone. Most likely, the two minute conversation didn’t mean anything to him.

However, it destroyed me. Where do I get off make such assumptions?

I always considered myself an educated, progressive, and open person. I’m always on the look out for the kind of bigotry that we read in history books. Maybe I should have paid more attention to the ones that are going on in my own head.

This whole experience has made me take a new look at some moments where other people have been racist to me. Specifically, I remember my incident at a mall where a man asked me if I knew a good sushi place in the area. (I wrote about it in a previous article for Discover Nikkei: To the guy that bothered me at the mall)

Now, because of my experience, I’m thinking maybe the guy didn’t mean anything by it. Maybe he only asked me because I looked nice, not because I’m Japanese or Asian/Asian American.

This absolution also goes for those people who have ever asked me where I was REALLY from. They too didn’t mean anything by it. They were just trying to figure out my racial/ethnic background and just didn’t know how.

This feels wrong. Instead of absolving myself and everyone else, I think instead it is important to acknowledge racism and make sure that the next time it doesn’t happen again. I would be willing to forgive the sushi question guy and the where-are-you-from-guy if they also acknowledge that the question itself shows their ignorance and racism.

So to my neighbor (who probably isn’t reading this), I apologize and I want to officially welcome you to the block. I hope what I did didn’t sour you on your neighbors too much.

© 2008 Koji Steven Sakai

About this series

“Koji’s Column” is a column series contributed by Japanese American National Museum staff member, Koji Steven Sakai. His column explores Nikkei identity and culture from the standpoint of a second- and fourth-generation Japanese Americana American male from Southern California.