Illustration by Hana Ito

Mr. Nguyen: The Psychology of Race

Reading Time: 2 minutes

In a sentence, what is Black History Month?

Dignity: it’s really about celebrating a very, dignified response from a group of people to injustice.

I’ve been hearing the term “celebrating” a lot. What does it mean to celebrate Black history?

To communicate an experience that many people don’t appreciate or are ignorant of.

Is there some psychological or sociological effect of celebrating Black History Month?

I think for a lot of African American students, there could be a positive effect. There is an acknowledgment of their experience or at least a space for them to share and have a dialogue about their experience. It’s also beneficial for other students who might not be familiar [with the Black experience] to have that opportunity to engage in dialogue. I think that anytime there’s communication that’s healthy. Psychologists would argue, generally, that communication is key to all relationships and social systems.

I think it’s fair to say that ASIJ is relatively racially homogenous. How does that play into the way we view race? Should that influence the way we celebrate Black History Month?

Of course it does. I think context is terribly important, especially from within a psychological lens. Heritage, historical experiences, personal experiences, culture: all of these are dynamics that affect how you interpret a celebration of an African American month. It’s especially influential if you don’t have diversity or members of that community present to lead those celebrations. 

What kind of an influence might that be?

I don’t know. That’s very complicated. I would argue that at ASIJ, sometimes there are misunderstandings that come out of [a lack of diversity]. There are times when people intend a positive message, but it might be read as offensive, hostile, or perhaps ignorant.

Some argue that Black History Month is an opportunity for Black people to collectively celebrate a shared ancestry. We don’t necessarily have that community here. What, then, is the purpose of celebrating Black History Month at ASIJ?

Because we benefit from Black history. Being a part of the American Schools in Japan means that we have benefited from African American contributions throughout history. So I think this is just a basic acknowledgment. 

I don’t think it has to do with population. We study colonial American history, but there are no Puritans at our school. Representation is important, but we also have to understand the broader context of the contributions of all peoples.

Some ASIJ alumni claim that they were not prepared for the culture shock they experienced after moving to the U.S. Why is that? Is there something about the culture here surrounding race and ethnicity that doesn’t exist outside of ASIJ?

Absolutely. Our population is very, very weird. We are in Japan, we have an American curriculum. Our teachers are mostly from American educated systems. I mean, that’s weird. We’re in a bubble here; we talk about that constantly.

If you are a Japanese person, you have that anchor [of being Japanese]. But if you’re an American of Asian descent, it’s more complex. You have multiple identities. Therefore, when you do go to America, those identities are perceived differently than when you are surrounded by people who look like you.

So what can we do to mitigate this culture shock?

You cannot mitigate the culture shock. You just can’t, mainly because you have to experience that moment of finding yourself as the “other.”

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