Dr. Oussouby Sacko, African-born President of Kyoto Seika U, speaks at JALT, shows more blind spots re racism and tokenism

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Hi Blog. In July 2018, Debito.org talked about a New York Times feature article on Dr. Ossouby Sacko, a Mali-born naturalized Japanese citizen who is currently the President of Kyoto Seika University.  I took a dim view of his views on discrimination by physical appearance in Japan, as he pointedly refused to equate being “treated differently because he does not look Japanese” with racism.

As I wrote back then,

Sorry, that’s not now modern definitions of racism work anymore, Dr. Sacko. Differential treatment of Visible Minorities in Japan is still a racialization process.  But I guess anyone can succumb to the predominant “Japan is not racist” groupthink if it is that strong… But the questions remain:  Is this a form of Stockholm Syndrome?  A cynical attempt to parrot the narrative for the sake of professional advancement?  A lack of awareness and social-science training on the part of a person, despite fluency in several languages, with a doctorate in a non-social science (engineering/architecture)?  I’m open to suggestion.  Especially from Dr. Sacko himself, if he’s reading.

Well, time for an update.  A friend attended a plenary session given at JALT by Dr. Sacko on November 3, 2019. It was entitled:

Diverse Leaders in Japanese Education
In this plenary speech, I would like to share my experiences as a Japanese university manager with a foreign background, and to point out the necessity of collaboration between Japanese and foreign teachers to cope with the needs of more open and global education.

Dr. Sacko also gave a Practice-Oriented Long Workshop on the same day:

Educational Leadership With Dr. Oussouby Sacko
This session will be an open discussion moderated by one of JALT2019’s conference co-chairs, Catherine Littlehale Oki or Steven Herder. This format provides the opportunity to delve further into the themes introduced in Dr. Sacko’s plenary while allowing participants to ask new questions around the topic of educational leadership. We invite audience members to bring questions about teaching, learning, and leading within the Japanese context.

My friend YZ gave Dr. Sacko’s plenary a positive review on FB (all quotes below used with permission), saying:

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YZ:  I just saw him speak at JALT in Nagoya …he gave a plenary and he was fantastic! I could listen to him for hours…humorous, serious, to the point. A real voice for change in Japan.

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Reading this, I sent a link to the abovementioned Debito.org post and NYT article to YZ for consideration.

In response, another friend who also attended Dr. Sacko’s plenary session offered this observation:

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JT: I’m wondering if there need to be people who may not be completely honest with the situation to move things forward. When said like this, it sounds like a terrible insult to Dr. Sacko, and I don’t mean to insult him, but there were some disingenuous notes in his talk, but I had to leave before questions. Though I’m not sure I would have brought them up anyway. But I put them here because they have been gnawing at me.

For example, he talked about how he wanted discussion about his targets for Seika, and produced a document with % targets that _to his surprise_ were taken as an order and discussion started on how to implement them. I can’t believe that Dr. Sacko didn’t realize that he was setting out a mandate and that the uni staff would look at it as a debate opportunity.

Likewise, the charming story about how he would hold parties in his Kyoto rented house and his landlord said his place was too small and it would be better for him to hold them downstairs when he was there, which he did. And then have his landlord and later his neighbors come and speak to him about the _weekly_ parties and because they began by saying ‘we like you and all your friends’, he took that as permission to continue the parties when they were actually expressing their discomfort.

It’s a cute story, but I’ve seen those sorts of situations blow up and looked at from one viewpoint, Dr. Sacko was taking advantage of the Japanese unwillingness to voice objections. While taking advantage of situations is unavoidable sometimes, to do so and pretend you aren’t seems problematic to me.

A lot of problems arise when asymmetries are exploited and I think the solution is not to find asymmetries that you can counter exploit but for you to be honest and upfront. Of course, that may not apply when the other side is not going to take any of your suggestions for change seriously, but if someone said to me ‘you took advantage of X’, I wouldn’t want to play dumb and say ‘how can you say that, they didn’t complain’.”

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To which I replied:

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Debito: I think Dr. Sacko is oblivious to many things. Not only as evidenced in the report from JT above, but also as he expresses himself about racism in Japan in the New York Times article I referred to above.

Obliviousness is a hallmark of most leadership in Japan. But presenting himself as an expert with these obvious blindspots is more than a little annoying. He should know better and say better.

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To which YZ replied:

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YZ: I attended his plenary and found it to be very engaging and interesting…in part, I think, compared to the other plenaries that were so academic and language-based, it was refreshing to hear another’s point of view (that was more cross-cultural) about coming here, learning the language, maneuvering through the culture, language, and human-based relationships…and the other various obstacles that can be put in one’s path, yet be able to obtain a position that is normally reserved for native Japanese people. I felt that his experiences, etc struck a chord with many of the long-termers in attendance as many of us could relate to some of his trials and tribulations. No doubt he isn’t perfect in his assimilation, but who of us are? We all do the best we can within our particular circumstances, abilities, and personal goals. Hats off to him for achieving what is nearly impossible for most people who come here with stars in their eyes of wanting to make a difference and to break that glass ceiling that is an obstacle for foreigners trying to work on equal footing with their Japanese counterparts.

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To which JT replied:

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JT:  I agree with YZ about having him as a counter balance to the academic presentations, and I didn’t want to harsh the buzz by asking him a pointed question (getting mellow in my old age) I also think it is an interesting illustration of how the high profile foreigner who is really in the minority can effect some change, but that change comes with the caveat that the person has to be treated as a token.

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Conclusion:  Educators, especially those who are seen as prominent enough to invited as plenary speakers, are supposed to be experts on what they are speaking of — in this case, according to JALT, “the Japanese context”.  And in research situations, they are required to be self-aware of their position in the society they are studying and opining about.  Dr. Sacko is clearly an expert on his own life.  But given his repeated blind spots toward how he is treated in Japan, to the point where he remains oblivious towards the privilege and tokenism he enjoys as an outsider in Japan (while essentially minimizing/denying the discrimination that happens to other outsiders), I think he is out of his depth in terms of social science.  Debito Arudou, Ph.D.

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