To Our Tamed Tongues: A Word on Systemic Racism

by Professor Yuko Itatsu

The moment is finally coming. 


As a historian, I’ve always been interested in how civilizations change and how societies progress. How cultures evolve and how public discourse develops. The brutal murder of George Floyd and the subsequent mass protests against police brutality are changing the narrative about how we discuss racism. I’m one of millions of people feeling the tide changing. The COVID-19 pandemic may have imposed physical isolation on us, but it has been a timely reminder of the need for global connectedness and collective human dialogue. 


I’ve had many conversations on race in class over the last decade. The conversation tends to have two components. The first always addresses how race is a social construct. We discuss how racism manifests itself in media representation, social and cultural institutions, urban landscapes and the economy. We discuss how deeply enmeshed it is in the current systems of society, not just in the U.S., but also in Japan and the dozen other countries in which students have lived. 

Studying the rules and playing the game to our advantage may have been important for our personal gain. However, by developing these survival tactics, we have also enabled the survival of systemic racism. 

How then do we deal with systemic racism? This is the second topic. We approach this question cognizant of the fact that the majority of us are people of color or with multiple racial heritage. We learn the visual tropes of racist representation and learn to spot them. We also explore how stereotypes can be subverted, so the racist comment is something to be laughed at.


Sometimes we talk about how we maneuver ourselves within systemic racism as people of color. To defend against overt or subtle forms of racism, we acknowledge that we’ve had to develop a thicker skin, simply because we can’t keep getting angry at every single encounter. We learn to tolerate racism to protect ourselves from physical harm or verbal abuse. Some have even learned to become oblivious to racism. Others manipulate racial markers to get a foot in the door, succeed in a chosen career, and secure the black AmEx card. If anyone has made any effort to become an ‘honorary white’ person, it’s undoubtedly because of the social capital it carries, and that’s another tactical choice for success. 


Studying the rules and playing the game to our advantage may have been important for our personal gain. However, by developing these survival tactics, we have also enabled the survival of systemic racism. 


In retrospect, what’s surprising is that we have never discussed the elimination of this beast called systemic racism. The actions we talked about were acts of resistance, protest perhaps, and a rebellion at best. But there’s never been much of an assumption that we’d be able to topple this giant. We talk about how we can spot racism and how we can navigate around it, but we had resigned ourselves to letting this arbitrary power structure dictate our lives. Simply put, we have become complicit in perpetuating systemic racism. 


We must say enough now. The orthodoxy of racism can no longer be upheld. 


In the Preface of the University of Tokyo Charter, there is no mention of race. The Charter declares the University “shall guarantee no discrimination based on nationality, gender, age, language, religion, political or other reasons, origin, property, lineage, marital status, position within the household, handicaps, ailments, career, etc.” This is rather an extensive list, but race is conspicuous in its absence. It’s a denial that race would be considered a source of discrimination. However, we cannot deny racism exists in the form of xenophobia and discrimination in Japan. 


As members of the UTokyo community, what can we do? 


Let’s start asking questions. Is UTokyo free of systemic racism? Is UTokyo free of discriminatory practice against racial minorities? What does UTokyo do to guarantee no discrimination based on race? Let’s point out racism in all its forms. Now is the time to become recalcitrant to the orthodoxy of systemic racism.

Yuko Itatsu is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences with a joint appointment with the Global Education for Innovation and Leadership Program at the University of Tokyo.




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