-Lewis Gordon, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism
I know that a lot of academic language and academic ideas, particularly ideas from the world of English and literary theory, are not popular. I've resigned myself to it. Yet I could hardly be prouder of the existence of the postcolonial critique, and the Orientalist critique, having read this. It is, I tell you true, one of the most disturbing things I have ever read on the Internet. I read the whole thing. It was hard, but had to be done.
This guy, this Tim Rogers... . You know, discussions of "whiteness," as a category, as a presence, are tough. They threaten to contribute to the perpetuation of race-as-totality, which is the sad philosophy those oppressed by racism labor under; and they also tend to be had by white people. Like me.
This is troubling because whiteness-as-category has, among many unfortunate characteristics, the status of great assimilator. It takes everything in, co-opts everything, drags more and more into its maw. Every attempt to stand apart from it or away from it or against it can be dragged into it. No matter how angry or defiant or oppositional or adversarial, there isn't anything it can't consume. Jenny from Forrest Gump joining the Black Panthers; Freddie deBoer enjoying egotrip's Big Book of Racism! This is the difficulty of insurgent racial resistance movements in a context of cultural whiteness; well-meaning white people, like me, come with the earnest desire to help, and in so doing slowly, imperceptibly make the gains and victories won by such an insurgent movement just another gift from white privilege. This is why Stuff White People Like is so corrosive; it is an acrid critique of whiteness from a white person, enjoyed overwhelmingly by other white people, in an unmistakeably white Internet narrative. It criticizes whiteness while tightening its grasp on the racial dialogue.
But, white man that I am, I still have to stand against Tim Rogers. Because his post, and its reaction in comments, doesn't just speak to the attitudes of one particularly proud and self-serious exoticist-- and make no mistake, his complaints are all exoticism, negative exoticism, but exoticism nonetheless, because they stem fundamentally from the assumption that he is the only human in his interactions with Japan and the Japanese. It speaks also to our diseased racial dialogue, it's bloat and its pretensions, and the vast, simmering layer of genuine racial animus that resides in the backlash against talk of racism.
Rogers, to be plain, is a perfectly ordinary figure, at heart. He's the classic white Japan fetishist, who just happens to have the rare privilege to actually find himself in the "culture"-- for that is how he experiences it, not as a culture but as a "culture"-- that he has reduced for so long to an object for his appropriation and his interrogation. I'm imagining the origins of his feelings in Japan, back in his days getting totally into Buddhism and stuff, telling people how much cooler a Famicom is than a Nintendo, masturbating into his Sailor Moon pillowcase, elevating Japanese people to the most beloved, harmless object that his mind could comprehend. That's a cruel thing for me to say, and crude stereotyping. Those are the conditions he's laid down in that post, though, and while it diminishes me, I can't help myself. In his mind he builds a temple, an elevated space, an exalted one, where lovely automatons dance for his enjoyment, as alien and inhuman as the surface of the moon. And now he writes his missive from Japan, and every word, every single word, screams with the fact that this is a man whose gaze is the most pure of colonial instruments, because he believes it all exists only for him. Every aspect of his experience in Japan is defined by this solipsism. It's all for him. It's all for him.
Do you, reader, like everyone in your hometown? Everything about your hometown? It's an odd question. It's not fuel for your approval or disapproval. It's a place, and they are people, and they exist with their own subjectivity. Rogers's post writes about a place that doesn't exist beyond the way that he has imagined it and the way that he now interrogates it. When he rides on the train (and doesn't he hate the crowded train, so many alien bodies packed so tightly, jostling him, obscuring his view) he takes it all in and makes it mere fuel for his perception. What he once found delightful in the way it surprised his assumptions he now finds ugly and mannered. This is the limit of dissensus: that in the end, nothing could be more totalitarian than a pure subjectivity. It grinds up all difference.
And, you know, it's an unbearably racist post from an unbearably racist person. This is as clear as such a thing can be, and yet it will tell you everything about our racial dialogue and our racial attitudes that, first, this is a man who could not be more certain or more proud of how inflammatory and yet not racist, in his own mind, his post is; and, second, that the number of attaboys and compliments in the comments are all of them straining around the unspoken accusation of racism, the one they are in fear of but secretly desire so that they can destroy it. That comments thread is a terrifying thing. It is pregnant with the fear of being accused of racism, but daring the accusation. It is filled, of course, with commendations for Rogers-- for his bravery. Bravery, honesty, telling it like it is. These are the constant congratulations that race baiting heaps on itself. Curious to see so much praise for truth-telling from people who have never been to Japan, but you know how that goes; the exoticist's love is always one breath away from hatred, the oddity that attracted in the first place being so easily a target for resentment and misunderstanding. The kudos in that thread! The relief that someone else said it, what they've been thinking, what they want to say! The whole enterprise is sweaty with resentment, real, honest-to-god racial animus. Observe it for awhile. It's educational.
I'm sure Rogers would react to accusations of racism with righteous fury. It's a well wrung pose, at this point, of course. We've seen it all before. "Hey, I'm not racist, I live in Japan, I live here! I've got the guts to really take this place in and judge it!" I bet there's a Japanese girlfriend, too, and a better understanding of Japanese history and news than I could ever hope for, and pride in the friendly rapport with the guy from the corner store. It doesn't matter. The post makes it clear that there's only one Japanese person, and he's not really a person, not the way you and I are. It's all so much ching-chong-China.
What makes it all worse is that it is so clearly a perfect inversion of who he must have been when he first moved. I can imagine the calls home, the breathless emails-- it's so cool here, there's so many interesting things, and the cheap noodle houses, and you feel safe when you walk down the street. I'm sure when he returns home Rogers will become the picture of the proud multicultural American, the kind who let's it slip that he lived in another country so easily, trades on it so cheaply. How quickly the novelty became a source of frustration, how the cultural differences that once seemed at once quaint and exciting became a stand in for all the petty failures and annoyances that are a part of everyone's life-- but then how quickly, again, in the presence of other white people, of other Americans, the experience brings that cache. This is the very nature of assimilation: even the things you think you hate can be bent to your purpose.
I'm sure Rogers knows more facts about Japan and Japanese people than I'll ever know. But still, he's a tourist, no matter how long he lives there, the worst kind of tourist. A culture vulture in the truest sense, taking the parts of "Japan" he likes and gnawing what he likes from the bone, while he eyes with contempt the actual face of the thing itself. Smoking! They all smoke! The category: Japanese, they smoke, the lot of them. What a filthy habit, after all, and how bad for you. This is not the cute strange, not the exotic strange, but the actual feeling of butting up against people who are not like you. When you are in another culture, and you're dutifully taking snapshots, and you come across that one little thing, in the least expected place-- something strange to you, in the pharmacy, about the television, something small-- that uncanny shiver... that's the most valuable of it all, because it reminds you that it really is difference, and not difference-for-you.
The right way to understand this, the best way to respect it, is to remind yourself that this is as real and important as what you like. And if you work at it, you might understand, finally, that it is not for you. That it exists in sublime apathy to your frustration, your wonder, your very understanding. Me, I'm a tourist too. We all are, after a fashion. But god save me from letting that tourism devolve into this flat, ugly anger, this pure prejudice. I spent a lot of time in Indonesia growing up. And, yeah, I first remember the gamelan music, my father's friends, the food, the sensory overload. I also take care to remember the most unforgettable memory, which I came to experience again and again, the foul, rotten smell of burning plastic, as the Balinese burned trashed in great piles, anywhere they wanted, mere yards from people, children. For awhile I took this as "the good, the bad," until finally I realized: none of it was for me.
Rogers, meanwhile... at one point, he is describing why Japanese humor is terrible-- and he is, of course, so proud of his sweeping generalizations, so fucking pleased with himself and his iconoclasm, his post-racialism-- and he says "comedians or ex-comedians to whom I express this opinion all sigh, say, 'You know, man, I'd love to get out there and do some edgy jokes, though that's just not how it works here, man. You have to play by the rules. You wouldn't understand. You're not Japanese.'" We're to take it, I suppose, that this is the real racism, that Japan's refusal to bend over and pander to his smug fucking hipster Orientalist persona is indicative of the country's essential lack of class. This coming, of course, from a man who feels that his presence in Japan, in the myopia of his own life, empowers him to understand it all: Japanese mores, Japanese psychology, Japanese people. Because, you see, the Japanese are so Japanese, so situated, so limited in their perspective. He, meanwhile, looks out from outside of any landscape. His whiteness is free of perspective or bias in its perfection. I know this feeling all too well. I rail against it, and then I put it on like armor, my perfect fucking white perspective. I will decry it until I am blue in the face, but I would never, ever give it up. I covet it. I need it. It's a shame, and I'm a hypocrite. The worst kind.
That comments section-- it chills me. When people talk about racial progress, when the talk about a post-racial America, a post-racial world.... . I cannot tell you how often I feel the incredible discomfort of being around white people-- decent white people, by and large, haters of the crude racism that they see as the only kind, resistant to the n-word and lynching but disinclined to see racism in anything else-- the discomfort of being around white people who are engaged in some enterprise that involves race, and are waiting. Waiting for an accusation of racism. Waiting for that moment when they can freak the fuck out that someone had the poor form to make an accusation of racism. It is palpable, you can feel it, this immense resentment at a lifetime of hearing and reading about race and racism, the immense backlash that is growing against movies and TV and magazines about slavery, the Civil War, the Amistad. That's an artifact of the push against antiblack racism, but it informs the way people react to a post like this one. Some of these fetishists, with their Bruce Lee movies and their shrines to Miyamoto and their AZN porn-- yes, they're better than the old school yellowman hater, of course they are. I believe that. But inside some of them, there's a killer, I suspect. I hope I'm wrong. Me, my family... we love a lot of Japanese stuff. Many people I care about do. But where is the line? And how do you understand your appropriation as an appropriation?
Rogers builds to a crescendo:
What I've realized, recently, is that the skeleton of rules of the "game" of "life" is just too visible here in Japan, where multiple perfunctory sentences are required to start any conversation, where you can use a certain positive verb to soften the preconceived impact of a negative verb form, where you can prove mathematically that you are a good person by drinking alongside everyone else, by being the last to go home every day, by ritualistically screaming in the middle of the street after a company party. Oh no! You messed up today! The company lost money. BONUS ROUND: At least you get the opportunity to apologize to the boss. People who can apologize well are respected! Be sure to apologize every time you pick up the phone! Miss one, and you'll lose points! Your score in this game is represented by the balance of your bank account. When you reach the goal, you have earned the right to play a game with much simpler rules.If you think this is that far removed from talking about the essential barbarism of the ooga-booga black man, I think you're very naive. This is where we stand: we have come close to eliminating racist form, but not racist content; we are ruthless in destroying a Michael Richards but recoil at the thought of challenging Tyler Perry; we have conditioned our language but held onto the ideas; we have imagined, finally, that our interrogations of race are wicked if and only if they bear hatred or distaste. If, instead, they are expressed in the language of post-racialism but reflect the most boring, dog-eared racist ideology, they are praised for their honesty, their courage. I don't know if Rogers wrote the headline (Japan: It's Not Funny Anymore); often times, the bloggers don't. Either way, it's perfect. Because it understands, so completely, so accurately, that it was all a joke to begin with. Unlike those Japanese, with their sanitized humor, Rogers, man-- he had guts. He moved halfway around the world for this joke: a man alone, in the one of the largest cities on earth. He walks through crowded streets and, save for that occasional white face, he's the only one there.
Kotaku is a part of Gawker media, a consortium of blogs run by well meaning liberals from New York City. It is populated by bloggers and commenters who couldn't dream of themselves as anything other than enlightened, and I'm sure I would be proud to call many of them friend, had I the opportunity to get to know them. But many of them are both terrified and delighted by the idea of being accused of racism, fearful of the repercussions but bitterly desiring the opportunity to unleash their fury at the very idea-- and out would pour all the resentment, the anger, the built-up tension at being asked, for so long, to understand, and in their minds, at being subtly accused. This post, as far as I can tell, from a prominent, high-traffic blog, passed through the blogosphere without a whisper. This is post-racial America.
At the center of it all is Tim Rogers. I have some sympathy for the guy. He has merely mistaken his dissatisfaction with his life for dissatisfaction with those around him, I'd wager. But while he cannot control his attitudes, he is responsible for his words, and they are ugly business. I wonder how his day went. He walked among Japanese people. Worked with them. Probably ate with them. Every moment, I imagine, he sees as a statement of his enlightenment. How could he possibly be anything less than perfectly righteous? That's the thing, about him, about all of them. They'll never, ever consider it. The idea that they aren't the best to judge, well... it puts the burden of judgment on people who aren't people, people who are an empty set of customs and mores and etiquettes, as capable of judgment as the video games and cartoons that set it all off in the first place.
Where to go, from here? I don't know. I have just put my shoulder to the wheel and winnowed away the space for critique of whiteness that is free from whiteness-in-fact, my whiteness-in-fact. And I kind of feel like a bastard for saying these things about this Rogers, because he's just some dude. See I have fury for his repugnant attitude, and am sickened by the praise for his bravery, but he is real to me, in some way, and the Japanese I am ostensibly defending are merely a class. A fairer vision of a class than his, I do think, a friendlier one, a more just one. But the truth is, they aren't any more real to me, right now, than they are to him. I must learn all of my lessons the hard way.