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Kaleidoscope of the Heart: Intentional or not, discrimination should never get a pass

Rika Kayama

Comments made by a sitting Diet member are causing a controversy. According to reporting by the Mainichi Shimbun, the lawmaker said, "Right now, the president of the United States is black, has the blood of a black person, of a slave." He later held a press conference, where he said, "It was a statement that caused misunderstandings and I am very sorry."

    However, on a separate occasion he also told the news corps, "In my conscience, it was not a racially discriminatory statement at all," and, "It was my respect for the United States pouring out," and declared he would not resign from the Diet.

    So, is it OK if a person did not mean anything bad or discriminatory when they say something like that? In the book "Sabetsugo Fukaigo" (discriminatory words, unpleasant words) there is a somewhat difficult passage but an important one that I want to quote: "What is important (in determining if an expression is discriminatory), is that it should be evaluated not by looking for the presence or absence of discriminatory intent in the expressing individual (the speaker), but by making an objective evaluation of the discriminatory quality of the content (its social context)."

    Thinking along those lines, one can see that there is a big problem with the part of the legislator's statement noting that a black person -- that is, a member of a race once enslaved in the U.S. -- was now president. The Diet member claims the statement was an expression of his "respect," and that he did not have discriminatory intent. However, we can see that there was a discriminatory context here, of looking at black people within the frame of a "slaves and people of low social status" stereotype.

    We can also see, from looking at how foreign news outlets negatively reported on this incident, that Europeans and North Americans attuned to signs of racism sensed a discriminatory subtext in the lawmaker's words. In that case, no matter how much the lawmaker says that he did not have discriminatory intent, the expression was discriminatory.

    I, too, sometimes carelessly use somewhat discriminatory phrasing to patients with mental illnesses in my consultation room, despite meaning no harm. However, there I can see their facial expressions and apologize, saying, "That was not a good way to put it. I'm sorry." On the Internet, people take advantage of the fact that they cannot see each other and let loose with not just carelessly discriminatory expressions, but with totally malignant ones.

    Diet members, as representatives of the electorate, should serve as a model for the elimination of discriminatory language, and should never stand before the public and use those phrases themselves. I also want them to stop spreading the mistaken idea that "it is not a discriminatory phrase because I meant no harm." Discriminatory words deeply hurt the people on the receiving end, often leaving long-lasting scars. I don't think we can be too careful about avoiding that. (By Rika Kayama, psychiatrist)

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