The recent selection of Miss World Japan has created a stir. The BBC headline “Miss Japan Won By Half-Indian Priyanka Yoshikawa” forefronted only the aspect of her heritage that some found problematic because they do not see Yoshikawa as “pure” Japanese. Last year’s crowning of Ariana Miyamoto as Miss Japan (in the Miss Universe franchise) faced similar responses, as Miyamoto’s parents are Japanese and African-American. While it is easy to see these controversies as signs of the insularity and even xenophobia of some Japanese (which ironically reinforces particular stereotypes of Japan as foreign), that designation is unfair in two ways. First, these two Japanese women and their supporters have challenged such attitudes in Japan, thus refuting the generalizability of the stereotype. Second, such preferences for ethnic purity among some in Japan are not as different from common attitudes in the United States.
The experience of being multi-ethnic is not universal, of course, and people of a variety of ethnicities and mixed ethnicities are recognized commonly as Americans, although some in the US criticized the crowning of a child of immigrants from India as Miss America last year. While these people were frequently dismissed as racist, the issue of purity remains structurally operative in the US, excluding many from the majority community of people of European ancestry. The “One Drop Rule” (the principle that any person with any African ancestry is not white) still influences the common ways that we describe people of multi-racial ancestry. As one famous example, President Obama is identified as African-American. While his parents were Kenyan and European-American, neither he nor the American public identify him as European-American; in common perception the Kenyan half of his ancestry supersedes his European-American heritage.
This manner of racial identification reflects a structural issue in American society; it is not simply a matter of individual choice. Although a few have suggested that President Obama is not “black enough,” he highlights his experiences of everyday racism, such as finding it difficult to hail a cab in New York City, that connect him with the experiences of many African-Americans. Moreover, those who appear European-American and who express their identification as European-American are labeled as “passing” if they have any African ancestry. For example, someone with white Jewish parents but whose biological father was African-American declared on NPR, “So it never occurred to me that I was passing. I actually grew up believing I was white.” In other words, her true identification, according to the language of much of society, cannot be European-American; being half white by birth makes one not white in the structural racism prevalent in the US.
The inequities of this language appears when we flip the assertion. Society does not identify President Obama as “passing” as African-American because of his mixed heritage. The discussion several months ago concerning Rachel Dolezal identifying as African-American is an exception that proves the rule. The focus on the ethnicity of her parents, who both identified as European-American, generated the criticism. If she had an African-American grandparent, for example, her identification as African-American would not have been a problem.
The ways people commonly employ ethnic designations, the language that we rely on, is a factor of the structure of racial dominance in the United States and simultaneously reinforces that structure. Racial dominance, to be sustained, requires work to maintain the boundaries that exclude some from the dominant group. The generalized assumption that Japanese face unresolved issues surrounding ethnic purity and marginalizing multi-racial people becomes an easy way to overlook the issues of ethnic/racial discrimination in the United States. In all of these cases, though, the designations are socially constructed (What is Japanese? What is white? What is passing? etc.) and thus serve the position of the dominant communities rather than reflecting innate distinctions.
Photo of President and First Lady Obama at the Civil Rights Summit in 2014 by Lauren Gerson [Public domain]