If you’re an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) working in Japan, then you probably know that you’re part of an incredibly diverse bunch. ALTs hail from countries across the globe and also come from varying racial, social, cultural, and economic backgrounds.
However, if you were to trawl the web to read about the ALT experience in Japan, more often than not, you may find yourself reading stuff written from the perspectives of white ALTs. But for ALTs of color, teaching in Japan can be very different from their Caucasian counterparts—and they may find themselves facing unique challenges simply due to the color of their skin.
After posting the topic in three different ALT-related groups on Facebook and mentioning it in conversations with fellow People of Color (POC) ALTs, it became clear that being an ALT of color in Japan often invites questions and comments that would be considered pretty offensive back in our home countries. But of course, we’re not at home so we have to figure out the best way to respond and do what we came here to do—educate.
1. Do you taste like chocolate?
According to the responses I got, many melanin-rich ALTs have been asked by their kindergarten and elementary kids whether they’re made of the dark, sweet stuff. Some students have even tried nibbling bits of the ALT to find out for themselves (gotta love experiential learning, right?).
Students have also baffled POC ALTs with creative observations about their skin color such as “Did you get burnt in the sun?” or “Your hands look like my breakfast (toast).” Japanese students of POC ALTs also seem to think that dark skin is some kind on spray-on tan as many have been asked “Does your color rub off?” or “Can you erase the brown off your skin?”
One POC ALT I spoke with said that one of their students went as far as to associate dark skin with non-Japaneseness, asking, “Why are you black? Is it because you’re foreign?”
Now, you can’t blame the tiny tots for their ignorance. They are only reflecting the wider societal misconception that Japan is an ethnically homogenous nation where everyone apparently has the same genetic makeup (never mind the Koreans, Ainus, and other minorities who live here). With that said, anyone who is darker than the usual “Japanese” color is considered odd and apparently, a delicacy.
2. How long does it take to make your hair?
After questions of skin color, questions about naturally curly hair appear to run a close second. In particular, these questions are directed at POC ALTs who wear their hair in locks or braids. Questions about an ALT’s curly hair include “Do you wash it?” or “How do you comb it?” Some kids even demonstrate an impressive knowledge of salon-lingo with the ever popular “Do you have a perm?” Others get existential with questions like “Why is it curly?” while another POC ALT cited this downright hilarious observation; “Did a bomb go off in it (your hair)?” Curious kids also like to finger the ALT’s hair to understand its texture (experiential learning in action yet again!).
Again, many of these questions and comments about curly hair may be due to the fact that many Japanese people are born with naturally straight hair. Seeing someone with naturally curly hair in a sea of pin-straight tresses would excite anyone. However, POC ALTs, don’t just let your kids go crazy raking their hands through your hair. Instead, use this as an opportunity to talk to your students about racial differences, appropriate/consensual touching, and personal space.
3. (Are you a) Gorilla!?
A couple of POC ALTs on the job admitted that they’ve been called “gorilla” and “monkey” by some of their sweet-faced Japanese students. While one ALT let these comments slide, another politely confronted his kids with a similar comment to demonstrate what it feels like to be compared to an animal.
These comments may stem from the stereotypes these kids are exposed to on television. Unfortunately, POC are largely portrayed in a negative light. In particular, black people are often depicted as animalistic. Just off the top of my head, let’s talk about that Japanese cell phone ad that was eventually pulled off the air because it likened Barack Obama to a monkey… or not.
Blackface is another phenomenon that continues in Japan today. In 2018, comedian Hamada Masatoshi got in a lot of hot water when he used blackface to play Eddie Murphy’s character in Beverly Hills Cop. Although many blackface supporters claim that the practice is innocent and performed out of admiration and respect of black people, in actuality, many of its representations are cultural appropriations taken out of context. In fact, many blackface stereotypes were originally derived from American minstrel culture that was popularized in Japan by Commodore Perry in the 1800s.
Again, as a POC ALT, it’s a good idea to deal with these “innocent” questions and comments quickly and diplomatically before they become a habit. As a cultural ambassador in the classroom, use the discussion to also teach your students about cultural diversity and cultural sensitivity.
4. Are you good at basketball?
Stereotypes about the perceived athletic ability of a darker-skinned ALT also abound. Based on the responses, for some POC ALTs Japanese kids seem to think that if they are a chocolate brother or sister, he or she must be good at sports because all black people are gifted in that way. For instance, if you’re a tall brother, you must be good at basketball. If you’re a sleek guy/girl, then you must be fast, even as fast as Usain Bolt. If you’re a black female, then you’re clearly Naomi Osaka’s twin.
As a POC ALT, be sure to explain to your students that not all people of color are gifted sportsmen and women and to perceive blackness as an instant passport to athletic superiority is just pure prejudice.
5. Are you from the ghetto?
This question may have a lot to do with the general Japanese perception of black people via the medium of American hip hop. It’s no lie that a lot of US hip hop and rap artists love to sing about the “hood” and “making it” from the economic scrapheap. Consequently, many of the young Japanese exposed to these rap/hip hop music videos on YouTube or elsewhere automatically assume that most, if not all black people must have roots in these economically depressed communities.
ALTs of color, this is your chance to teach these kids that this “rags to riches” story is just a stereotype. First of all, you can show them that this is an American stereotype and that in the US and the rest the world, not all black people live in the hood and that some actually come from economically privileged backgrounds. For instance, you can introduce them to stalwarts like the Obamas who went to Ivy League schools, had successful law practices, and eventually became President and the First Lady of the US.
6. Is English your first language?
This question appears to be typically directed at brown and black ALTs who come from countries that aren’t America. Somehow, JTEs and Japanese students think that because some ALTs don’t speak with an American, British, or otherwise recognizable English accent, then they must just “be fronting” as English teachers and that English must be their second language. For instance, why the heck does the ALT say “wahta” instead of “wodder” like the textbook says?
This is a great time to teach JTEs and students that although American English is taught in public schools as standard English, there are so many varieties of Englishes and English accents around the world. This is your chance to expose them to different varieties so they can learn to appreciate linguistic diversity.
Of course, if you’re a POC ALT and you receive similar questions or comments, you shouldn’t just fly off the handle. Don’t get riled every time someone asks what you think is a stupid question about your racial background.
Instead, think about the motivation behind the question. Does it seem innocent? Born out of naivety? Give your students and JTEs the benefit of the doubt and let those offensive remarks just bounce off your beautiful skin. However, if they become repeat offenses designed to provoke a negative reaction from you, then it might be time to teach them a lesson.
Are you a POC ALT in Japan? Have you ever been asked any weird questions on the job not mentioned in this list? If you have, feel free to share in the comments below.