What does BLM activism look like across the sea? – The mail
Writer and activist Baye McNeil spoke at COD’s 30th annual Asia Symposium last week to talk about her expat experience in Japan.
In 2004 Baye McNeil moved to Japan to start a career in teaching. After living for a few years in Japan, McNeil found her voice as an anti-racist and pro-black activist. He started a blog, called Loco in Yokohama, and began discussing racial issues in Japan and the United States. McNeil devotes his time to addressing diversity issues in Japanese media; everything from protesting the blatant use of blackface to dismantling the exclusive bias of what it means to be Japanese. Most notably, McNeil has spoken out against the whitewashing of tennis star Naomi Osaka in Japanese media.
On April 18, McNeil attended COD’s 30th Annual Asia Symposium – co-sponsored by the DuPage College Asia Committee, Africa and African Diaspora Committee, and Center for Student Diversity, Equity and Inclusion – to talk about his experience as a writer, activist and black person. living in Japan.
McNeil spoke about his upbringing in Brooklyn, NY and described how his mother involved him in activism at a young age.
“My mother’s first act of activism that I’m aware of,” he said, “was making sure I was proud of black history and culture, which would be almost impossible in the New York public education system.”
To combat this, his mother sent him to a private school that held the same ideal: to form a society of black Americans proud of black history and culture. In doing so, McNeil found himself at the center of the protests at the age of seven.
Although McNeil has extensive knowledge and experience in activism, that is not why he moved to Japan.
“I didn’t come to Japan looking for opportunities or because I had a particular fascination with culture. And I certainly didn’t come here expecting to get involved in any kind of activism,” he said. “I came here to escape an atmosphere that labeled me an ‘alien’ and questioned my basic humanity by constantly and consistently putting me in a position where I had to represent an entire race of diverse people.”
Although McNeil admitted he found the similar experience between the United States and Japan, it was easier to dismiss the alienation.
“It was easier to get distracted here because everything was so new,” McNeil said. “And a lot of things were kind of nice. I had no intention of staying here for 18 years, but once Japan gets a hold of you, sometimes there’s no freedom of movement.
This illusion of friendliness was shattered when McNeil began to notice that Japanese citizens around him often left an empty seat next to him on public transportation.
“A lot of what Japan struck me hammered home the fact that I was just an alien here when I was back in America,” he said. “One of my main complaints was this phenomenon known as ’empty seat’.”
The “empty seat” phenomenon, as McNeil continued, describes the acts of Japanese citizens keeping their distance from outsiders, trying outright not to associate with them. This phenomenon is what McNeil attributed to the creation of his blog where he wrote his thoughts on racism and xenophobia in Japan.
“I had been in Japan for four years at the time, in 2008, when I started documenting the good and the bad,” he said. “I wrote very introspective and personal articles, because that’s the only way I know how to write. To my surprise, considering the number of other Japanese blogs, it really took off.
McNeil called her blog a small step towards activism. Soon after, McNeil got a job as a columnist for the Japan Times. He dedicated his column, titled “Black eyeto tell stories about black people in Japan. Although McNeil began speaking out about race-related issues, he remembered his first act of activism as when he successfully got a Japanese show to air a performance with performers wearing blackface.
McNeil was adamant that the racism he faced in Japan, while much less violent than the racism he faced in the United States, was still worth dismantling and fighting.
“For many, unintentional racism is not racism. Or worse, it’s forgivable,” McNeil said.
McNeil still works as a columnist for the Japan Times. He also lectures and works as a consultant for Japanese media companies. Although there is still a lot of work to do, he said he feels fulfilled in what he has achieved.
“A lot of people equate activism with protests and boycotts and rallies, but sometimes something as simple as a document can be activism,” McNeil said.
For more information on McNeil, see his website as well as his two published books.