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I’m Black Japanese

May 1, 2011

I recently took a Seattle cab and commented that the driver must have many stories to tell.  “Oh, yes,” he said. There was the drunk woman who couldn’t remember her home address, there was a cruise ship dweller who wanted to throw a fish and there was the white man whose first question in the cab was “Cabbie, where are you from?”

“I told him I was from Japan,” said the taxi driver, who noted he had never been called “cabbie.”  “What!?” replied the man in a confused and somewhat arrogant voice.  “Yes, haven’t you ever seen a Black Japanese person?” the driver replied, chuckling as he remembered the encounter.

“What did the passenger say?” I asked.  The driver replied.

He didn’t know quite what to say and started muttering under his breath.  Then, he asked me to pull the cab over and he got out.  That was okay by me.

Then, the driver’s laughing changed to a more serious countenance.  “I get that a lot; I’m from Ethiopia.”

Now, a perfectly logical explanation for this would be it’s a reasonable question.  The passenger was just curious about this person who looked different. I suspect if the driver had been white, that would not have been the first question asked.

Whiteness has trained us to understand that we are the norm and everyone else is different.  It also makes us unaware that what we may see as a simple question – “Where are you from?” – feels burdensome to those who get asked it all the time as if where they are from and what they look like defines who they are as a person.

I recall the international student who went to raise a concern with a professor and his first response to her question was, “Where are you from?”  The student felt as if the legitimacy of her question was immediately challenged simply because she was perceived as different by the professor.

I’ve learned to challenge myself to not have “Where are you from” be the first question I ask, even when it seems natural to do so.  Natural can easily be a code word for operating out of the dominant cultural perspective. I’m appreciative to the taxi driver and the student for showing me a different way.

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