An Interview with Baye McNeil

Michael Ellis, International Christian University High School

Michael Ellis: In your JALT2021 plenary, you used the word “activation” to describe when your mother and you became involved in activism. It was the first time I had heard the word used in that way, and this reminded me of the more recent and somewhat controversial term “woke.” Do you have any thoughts on that term—its meaning or how it is used?

Baye McNeil: The way I use woke refers to people who are aware of the problems that are faced by minorities and disadvantaged people. That’s it. I think that the meaning that has been given to it by other groups is a meaning that they know privileged people will find complicated and difficult to support. That’s their goal. As for activation, I had actually never heard it used that way before. I don’t know why I used it that way. It just felt natural. When Naomi Osaka was in the Australia Open—I think it was 2019—Nissan made an animated commercial featuring her and in that commercial they lightened her skin considerably and made her hair straight to Europeanize her. I wrote a story about how she had been whitewashed. At the time, she was focused exclusively on tennis and not involved in anything to do with the Black Lives Matter movement. When this was brought to her attention, she was focusing on winning the Open but then reporters were hitting her with questions about being whitewashed by a Japanese advertising firm. At the time, I think her remarks were that she wasn’t aware how she would be portrayed, that there was some miscommunication between the American and Japanese offices of the advertising firm, and that they were putting this out without her approval. I think she realized in that moment that she could be manipulated in that way, and that activated her. That was the beginning of her realizing that she claims several heritages—American, Haitian, Japanese—and that both the Haitian and American wing of her character are in jeopardy constantly. Therefore, she felt the responsibility to speak about that as well as honor her Japanese heritage. At the time, that wasn’t well received in Japan. Some of the reporters told her to shut up and play tennis, similar to what LeBron James was told by a Fox News reporter when he spoke up, that he should “shut up and dribble!” They didn’t want to hear her ideas or her politics. This pushed her towards activism, and that’s the first time I thought of the term “activation.”

This is not new—how language that we’re using is being used against us to undermine the efforts of disadvantaged and underprivileged minorities is new. Sometimes the language is so undermined that I don’t even want to use it anymore. Words like woke have become so tainted, and the meaning has been stolen and hijacked, and I really hate that.

It’s refreshing to hear that this isn’t new, but also somewhat sad to hear that you’ve given up on that word.

That changes the focus to the ownership of that word as opposed to the ideas behind it. I’d rather focus on the ideas. That word in particular has become a trigger for conservatives and triggering that kind of nastiness isn’t working in our best interest.

That’s not the fight we need to have. 

Right, that’s not the fight.

You described your primary school’s intentionally balanced education which highlighted the history and achievements of people of African descent. It seemed like a really ideal upbringing to me, but I wondered if you felt there was anything you lost as a result of that education? As an educator, is there any aspect you would go back and change?

In some ways, I think they might have villainized White people in order to highlight Black people’s heroism. I think that’s problematic, and that people need to be dealt with to avoid perpetuating the same problems we’ve been fighting against since we were kidnapped and brought to the U.S.. It was perhaps natural. My mother was born in Savannah, Georgia, a child of sharecroppers and she picked cotton. I’m just one generation from that. My great-great-grandmother was a slave. These problems are still recent, and the emotional baggage and pain in our DNA is still there. That school found one way to channel it into something useful, but in order to do that, it might have fed too much into the fact that we were wronged. I didn’t get over that until university.

Was it an unlearning process?

No, it was just having positive experiences with White people. I mention in my first book that I grew up in a neighborhood at the tail end of the White flight from the Black community. I did have White friends who stayed around longer than others and we were close. People like them and my professors at university helped me to judge people as individuals without labeling an entire skin color. I wish my primary school had encouraged that more.

I can empathize with how you seem to feel grateful but also conflicted about the way you were educated. Would it be fair to say that the philosophy behind your school is something you support and agree with, that it’s compensating for the racism that exists in America, but also not the true balance that we should be striving for?

Yeah, that’s accurate. I love them still and the gifts they’ve given me have made it possible for me to achieve the things I have.

Speaking of your achievements, has the reaction to your work, specifically your blog and books, varied between Japanese and non-Japanese people? How has the reaction been from your colleagues and students?

I wrote the book primarily targeting non-Japanese people in Japan. From that group, the response was overwhelmingly positive. It hasn’t been consumed so much by Japanese readers yet, but it is currently being translated so hopefully I can answer that part of your question then.

You mentioned in your plenary that the publication of your books pushed your identities as a teacher and an activist author together so that you couldn’t hide the activist part of your identity anymore. I’m wondering what that meant specifically.

It wasn’t just the book. The blog was actually the beginning. I was using an alter-ego separate from Baye. The blog was called Loco in Yokohama, and I was known as Loco. When the first book came out I was at a monthly meeting of an ALT dispatch company. I was talking to a friend about the book and another coworker overheard us. She said, “Oh what’s the name of your book?” I said, “Hi, My Name is Loco and I’m a Racist” and she said “Oh, you’re Loco?” and suddenly it became a thing in the office. The second book took that to a next level and then the column was beyond that. The first time the worlds collided was after the Masatoshi Hamada incident when he wore blackface to impersonate Eddie Murphy. I tweeted about that and was then featured in Japanese media. That was when I started being recognized on trains and by my Japanese colleagues and students. 

Do they feel a sense of pride in having such a teacher at the school?

Yes, they realize that I am an asset for more than English now, that I can teach at the crossing between social justice and language acquisition.

It must be empowering to feel valued in that way.

It is.

Has that led to a greater awareness of racial justice? Personally, I struggle to explain this topic to my friends and colleagues in Japan. For example, without a nuanced understanding of the parallel but different history and context of American blackface, they might view the backlash against blackface like the Rats & Star (Japanese pop group) example you described in your plenary as oversensitive, or an infringement on freedom of expression. Is it fair to say that activism should be applied differently in the U.S. and Japan, and if so, do you have any strategies for explaining the U.S. context to those unfamiliar with it?

Yes and no. In the book, I write about topics like the Five-Percent Nation of Islam which is an offshoot of the Black Muslims. This is heavy stuff, so on one hand it doesn’t translate so well to an audience without some of that content knowledge. Many Japanese people think simply: Black people are Black people. Kokujin wa kokujin desu. The difference between a Senegalese, a German, a Fijian, and a Black American is zilch, because they just see a Black man and attribute their ideas and presumptions to that person.

However, in many ways the White American and Japanese reactions to these topics are exactly the same. We are considered oversensitive in America too for speaking up about these topics. Furthermore, other groups are oppressed in Japan too, and I think there’s a correlation between disadvantaged groups. So in a sense you can approach these topics the same way. Many Japanese people might be unfamiliar with Blackness, but they likely know more about the struggles of “Zainichi Koreans” or burakumin. If they can make those connections they feel that they ought to know more. Something like Black Lives Matter might feel like an alien thing, and I get that, but it’s important to recognize that one in thirty children born in Japan are mixed race. A good number of them have a Black parent, and that number is growing. Facts like these can help bring the issue closer to home, which is so important. The only way we’re going to be able to address these issues meaningfully is with wide collective action.

In your workshop on Sunday, you encouraged participants to reflect on and dismantle their own presumptions about others. Though I found this exercise important and rewarding, I also asked myself whether presumptions might ever be useful. For example, if they might sometimes expedite perfunctory interactions like ordering food at a restaurant. I have refused English menus in the past, in part to push back against such presumptions, but the non-Japanese person next to me might then ask for a fork for their sushi. Might presumptions sometimes have a place?

I draw a line at race-based presumptions. I don’t think they have a place anywhere. Such presumptions are problematic, even if they’re on point sometimes. We need to approach individuals as individuals to avoid discriminating against anyone. This is rough because it goes against some core elements of Japanese culture like omotenashi. Part of omotenashi is anticipating the needs of your guests, but we should have conversations before making such assumptions. I understand what you are saying, and I even agree that some presumptions are unavoidable or might be in the best interest of the vast majority of people. But non-Japanese people should be included in that discussion. That will lead to better results.

It seems to me that avoiding such conversations is actually a central goal of omotenashi, and that this naturally puts all guests, not just non-Japanese people, outside of a discussion through which they could actually convey what would be most comfortable. If omotenashi is successful, no discussion takes place at all.

Right, and it’s complicated because you don’t want to destroy Japanese culture. Omotenashi would become a relic because it unavoidably results in discrimination too often. You have to generalize and make presumptions which have racial implications. There are many false presumptions made about Japanese people as well.

Actually, I wanted to ask you about just that topic. One of the strategies you suggested for reducing presumptions is to focus on similarities. This made sense for me when interacting with people who are ostensibly different, but of course we can also hold presumptions about people who look the same, and perhaps in this case it might be useful to focus on differences to emphasize how unique we all are. I wonder if you would agree, and if so, how we can achieve a balance.

I think people instinctively look for differences, so you don’t need to do it consciously. But looking for similarities isn’t so automatic. Perhaps in Japan especially, noticing differences is already a common practice so I don’t think we need to make extra space for that.

You explained how some activists of the past inspired and affected you. Are you inspired by any activists today?

In Japan, I have a friend named Loren Fykes. I admire him a lot. He’s an activist for LGBTQIA issues. He created an organization called Fruits in Suits and inspires me a great deal. I admire Colin Kaepernick, the football player who took a knee during the national anthem. What he did took a lot of courage and hurt him considerably. He stood by his guns, and it’s great to now see him recognized for that.

In closing, do you have any advice for teachers in Japan who want to become activated and tackle social justice issues in their classrooms, but are afraid to take a first step?

It’s OK to begin with a low bar and focus simply on awareness raising as a first step. Start from scratch and approach students here with the understanding that they might not know anything. Become more aware yourself of issues of oppression in Japan so that you can use them to make powerful connections. Don’t be afraid to let them surprise you either. I think Japanese people are generally progressive. In my experience, our students’ minds are open to these ideas. With some more time and effort, their hearts will be too.