Tangent: How anti-discrimination measures are enforced elsewhere: Racism towards me at a bank in Canada


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Hi Blog.  Got an interesting story to tell.


Recently I had business at a Canadian bank, so I went to a branch of it within Canada.  My transaction required me to show government ID, so I showed my Japanese passport, of course.  That’s all I have.

The teller verified my ID, but then made the comment, “It’s funny that you should have a Japanese passport.  You don’t look Japanese.”

I said, “Let’s not go there.  Lose the racism and complete the transaction.”

Well, after the transaction was complete, I called for his manager.  When the manager appeared, I indicated that his employee had made an untoward comment about my physical appearance and legal status.  “How would you like it,” I said to the teller, “if I said to you, ‘It’s funny you have a Canadian passport.  You don’t look Canadian.’?”  (It it important to add at this juncture that the teller was a Korean-Canadian immigrant — I know because I requested his name from the manager later.*)

The manager ascertained that the teller had said what he had said, and then was told that this behavior was inappropriate under Canadian rules and laws.  He was then sent home for the day, presumably without pay.

The bank manager and I then sat down in his office where he offered his sincere apologies.  And he told me over the course of a relaxed and empathetic discussion that he understood very well where I was coming from.  He himself is Metis, a minority in Canada of mixed First-Nations and settler peoples, but he apparently doesn’t “look Metis” to Canadians.  This becomes an issue whenever he, for example, bargains for a car at an automobile dealership, but has his identity policed by the dealer whenever he indicates that his indigenous status in Canada exempts him from Canadian taxes.  “I produce my First-Nations ID card, of course, but I hate it when people doubt my identity just because I don’t ‘look Indian’ to them, especially when they say so carelessly out loud.  This is unacceptable behavior for them, and it’s unacceptable for my employees too.”

That’s the way it’s done.  None of these crappy “cultural/linguistic misunderstandings” excuses, no shallow apologies and then everyone gets back to work undisturbed, and zero tolerance for assuming that people have to “look” a certain way to be a “real” member of a people or nation/state.  Justice was commensurate, swift, and public.  Well done Canada.  Dr. ARUDOU, Debito

(*CLARIFICATION JULY 3, 2015:  I also deduced that the teller was a landed immigrant because a) he worked in this local branch of a Canadian bank, and you would probably need landed status in Canada in order to get that kind of job, and b) based on his Korean accent, English wasn’t his first language.  However, I made no issue of these assumptions whatsoever during our exchange.  I only asked for his empathy by putting the shoe on the other foot, saying, “How would you like it if…”.)



Hello. I would like your readers to know that I was also there as an eyewitness, and the blog post doesn’t really tell what I think to be the whole story. It’s important that you see that there was more to this case than Debito quickly typed up while on vacation, because some people are really misunderstanding what happened.

Reveal: I am a Canadian who has lived here for more than 40 years. I’ve also lived in Japan and the United States, and, for the record, I am a white woman. I can’t reveal any more than that because Debito has stalkers.

Debito’s recounting of the story is correct until the part where he writes that, “The manager had ascertained that the teller had said what he had said.” What happened was this:

The teller asked for Debito’s ID in order to complete our requested transaction. Debito showed his Japanese passport. The teller verified his ID, looked back and forth at Debito’s face and the passport, and then made the comment, “It’s funny you have a Japanese passport. You don’t look Japanese.”

Debito said, “Let’s not go there. Lose the racism and complete the transaction.”

Note that Debito did NOT raise his voice, nor did he accost anybody. MY reaction was one of shock, disappointment, and embarrassment to be a Canadian. I said to the teller, “I’m sorry, but we have laws against this sort of racial discrimination in Canada. You shouldn’t be saying that.”

The teller then apologized. “You are right, I should not have said that.”

And then we asked to speak with the manager. This was NOT about this issue, but a separate one regarding the original transaction. But the teller then proceeded to tell us that we didn’t NEED to speak to the manager. The transaction was complete.

I then requested, “I WANT to speak to the manager.” He again told us again that we didn’t need to, the transaction was complete.

It was at that time where the manager, whose office was within earshot of the teller’s booth, came to our assistance. I asked the manager about the original transaction issue, and he gave us an answer. But because I was so agitated by the terrible customer service, we THEN brought the other ID issue up with the manager. And I said to the manager, “This kind of comment is against Canadian law.” And the manager AGREED and apologized on behalf of the teller, himself, and the bank.

We then exited the bank, but when we got to the car, I said to Debito, “You know, that was weird. As a member of this bank for more than 35 years, I’d like to go back and get the name of the teller and the manager so I can write the bank about this.”

When we re-entered the bank, the manager greeted us. It was THEN that we were told that because the teller’s behavior was inappropriate under Canadian rules and laws, the manager had sent him home for the day. (Note that we did NOT request that the teller be sent home for the day. We had no idea about what would occur. If we hadn’t gone back, we wouldn’t even know that that had happened, and it wouldn’t be part of this discussion. We also still don’t know anything about pay deduction, official reprimand, etc. After all, we did not request anything like that.)

The manager then invited us to sit down in his office, where he took the time to relay his own story about his identity being policed as a First-Nations person, as Debito wrote. He also told us that he too had been to Japan and had to deal with a lot of ID policing as well.

In fact, the manager ENCOURAGED us to write a letter about this employee to bank headquarters. He gave us the teller’s card and his own.

Now I want to make clear what everyone seems to be getting wrong about Debito: At NO time did he have a temper tantrum, threaten or attack anyone, push anybody around, or even raise his voice. He had a very graceful, calm discussion at all times. This kind of myth that you have about Debito, going in and bullying people do to things, is TOTALLY unfounded. If you’ve never personally been with Debito in a situation like this, then you shouldn’t make comments or assumptions like these.

I left the situation feeling proud a) to be a Canadian, and b) that we have this type of system. Unlike what I’ve experienced many times in situations in Japan, I left this humiliating bank situation FEELING LIKE A HUMAN BEING.

I’ve grown up with various Visible Minorities in Canada — Asians, Africans, First Nations, etc. — where I was not in the majority. I have never experienced this kind of blatant policing of identity in Canada. Never in Canada – not even at the Canadian border – has anyone so blatantly questioned Debito’s passport or policed his identity like what I witnessed at this bank.

What’s even more appalling to me is not what happened at the bank, but the way you all have judged Debito, and seeing the teller, who broke the law, as the VICTIM. The law in Canada is set up to protect people from this situation, and it’s one of the reasons why Canada is an easier place to live. But why are many of you, particularly when you’re living in Japan as second-class residents, seeing the teller who started all this as the victim here?

This is not how our customer service industry behaves. It’s not the teller’s naivete. It’s his own personal stuff that he’s pushing on us. The teller personally took a risk in making that comment. If the roles were reversed, and I made a comment like that, the same punishment would befall me. It should.

Happy Canada Day!


63 comments on “Tangent: How anti-discrimination measures are enforced elsewhere: Racism towards me at a bank in Canada

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  • Anonymous says:

    So just to be absolutely clear Kaoru about what you finally, begrudgingly, admitted in comment #50:

    Japan side, when a Caucasian like yourself shows proof of Japanese citizenship (as you have for 9 years now)
    “at immigration, banks, post offices, polling stations, airports, municipal offices, anywhere in Japan really”
    Japanese people ARE indeed generally surprised at a Caucasian like yourself having Japanese citizenship,
    Japanese people DO indeed occasionally verbally bring up their surprise about your race having J-citizenship,
    Japanese people who DO verbally bring it up GENERALLY accept your race having J-citizenship WITHOUT issue,
    thus at least once: a Japanese person who brought it up MADE an issue about your race having J-citizenship.

    See, that wasn’t so hard. Thank you for finally admitting, in comment #50, what you denied in comment #41.

  • Anonymous says:

    RE: Racial Microaggressions, this dangerous “Blame the Victims” public-post deserves to be preserved for posterity:

    “Blaming the victims of Racial Microaggressions is an entirely appropriate response.” – Miki Kaoru, July 10th 2015

    Already, Kaoru Miki has successfully forced the Internet Archive to delete the embarrassing evidence:
    Currently, Google is still displaying the evidence, so feel free to check for yourself before it disappears:
    Next, he may attempt to force Google to delete the cached page, so here is the permanent Imgur screenshot:
    Finally, even if Kaoru successfully forces Imgur to hide his “Blame the Victims” post, this proof can’t be censored:

    Denying racism in Japan (#41) and encouraging the world to “Blame the Victims”, both posted within 24 hours.
    Both of those posts are shameful. Racial discrimination DOES happen in Japan. Victims should NOT be blamed.

    To avoid future public shame, don’t claim “Racial discrimination has never come up in Japan” and “Blame the Victims.”
    Instead of trying to hide what you wrote, the appropriate action should be real 反省 for a better Japan for our children.

    That’s all I have to say about that. And yes, I will call out anyone who denies the 精神苦痛 of racial discrimination in Japan.

    — I think we’ll draw this topic to a close.

  • Ms Canada says:

    It took me all of a whole second to realize that you weren’t speaking to a national born Canadian. My apologies that landed immigrants behave this way. His child on the other hand would never allow something so ridiculous to exit their mouth. I am a national born Canadian citizen and my parents are immigrants. The attitudes drop in the next generation and his daughter will probably marry another Canadian race much to his shock. Welcome to Canada, I married a Canadian-born that doesn’t speak my parents language.

  • As a Japanese-born Canadian of Metis descent, I am truly ashamed of your unfortunate experience in this country. But my empathy can only extend so far. White privilege in Canada is as real as ethnic privileges in Japan, and having been on the wrong end of both I can say with some conviction that discrimination against non-Japanese pales in comparison with racial discrimination against Indigenous groups here. After all, the teller’s comment was a benign consequence of understandable ignorance–he merely, and perhaps justifiably, expressed interest in your identity, and correctly commented you are not of Japanese descent.

    It’s true that this conversation is strictly irrelevant to a business transaction. But in many walks of life, it’s a completely normal remark to make. I am often curious about other cultures, and most people I meet are proud of their nationality, and happy to talk about their allegiances. I hate to break it to you Debito, but neither you or I are ethnic Japanese. That is a fact–one evidently not worth the embarrassment you seem to suffer from at that. But since you are Japanese–an informal ambassador of your nation, as it were–it’s rather disappointing that you were affected so personally by a remark that was put to you with reasonably innocent intentions. The response is, for better or for worse, as a atypical of your fellow citizens as is the teller’s atypical of my fellow Canadians.

    I do not pretend that Japan and its people haven’t any flaws. I left the country after twenty years out of frustration that I would never be afforded the same basic rights and privileges as everyone else, or even worse, that nothing I could do would substitute for the heritage that both you and I lack. Hence, I suppose, why I returned to my ethnic and cultural roots. But at no point was I assaulted, restrained, refused basic services or otherwise significantly harassed on account of my ethnicity. The racism I usually experienced was often institutional, rather than personal. And neither, as far as I can tell, have you been made to suffer as much as most victims of racism in my country. It’s not that what you experienced isn’t a big deal, but my concern is that making it a bigger deal than it needs to be insults those who face even more significant barriers to inclusion on an even more regular basis, including, for all we know, the manager whom you assume shares your experience.

    Whenever someone asks me where I’m from, I state the obvious: “I am Canadian of Indigenous descent (practically more “Canadian” than anyone I’ve ever met) and proud of it.” So why not respond with the obvious the next time somebody asks you the obvious as well? (i.e. “I am as Japanese, if not more, than any one else I’ve ever met. I am also of (e.g) European descent, and proud (?) of it”). These are the facts. Let them speak.

    — Because what you state is “obvious” is not obvious to everyone. I say let there be less assumed “obvious”, and better yet less expressed “obvious” when it comes to people’s identities. The concept of “obvious” is what gets us into identity policing in the first place.

    • Happened again, aggressively from an Asian Canadian. Her “Where are you from?” Me “Japan”. Her “Bullshit!”
      Wow, such an open mind, “curious about other cultures” as one previous poster wrote it all off as.
      Her “Where are you really from?”
      Me “I ve been in Japan for decades but before that Australia”
      Her :Yes, thought so.

      So, more a case of wanting her previous prejudice confirmed.

      How about I said to an Asian Canadian, “Bullshit! Where are you really from? China? Yeah, thought so.”
      No, that wouldn’t be acceptable at all.
      I don’t share the optimism of other posters that second generation immigrants lose their prejudices or can see the massive irony of denying a half Caucasian nationality in an Asian country.

  • Fair enough. I was being somewhat sarcastic, given the relative outrage to what I take to be–again, relative to racism elsewhere–a fairly innocent remark. But of course, remarks like “you do not look Japanese” are made because identity politics is not, and never will be, entirely obvious. I take this example to be somewhat analogous to a caucasian Namibian/South African being told that they are not, in fact, black (i.e. ethnically/anthropologically from the region). In one sense, it is a pedantic, infantile sort of thing to say: it’s extremely obvious that they aren’t, just as it is obvious that you aren’t of Japanese descent, whatever that means. The appropriate response to an oversimplifying innocuous sort of remark to this end is to be simple, straightforward and even charitable in return. Of course, this is a lot harder to do if you are not sure yourself (it is not obvious to you) how your heritage has shaped your identity. So in all this, I meant to say that at least I take my own identity to be obvious to me, and am confident in explaining it to others. I understand that others find this sort of conversation extremely difficult to navigate, and I suppose I lucked out in at least that respect.

  • Baudrillard says:

    @Lisa “The appropriate response… is to be simple, straightforward and even charitable in return.”

    “Lets not go there. Lose the racism and complete the transaction” is very simple and straightforward, and is charitable in that it educates, without verbal abuse.

  • Baudrillard says:

    Thank you Ms Canada “My apologies that landed immigrants behave this way.” and “It took me all of a whole second to realize that you weren’t speaking to a national born Canadian.” This is spot on to the real crux of the matter here.

    There is compelling evidence the Korean born? teller was bringing his own “Asian issues” into this (as other commentators have mentioned on this thread).

    Pro UKIP arguments about immigrants having to adopt local ways aside, what about global, human norms of decency? I.e. “Lose the racism”.

    Of course the J Rightists would have us believe that “Discrimination is a Japanese Right” (hmmm, where did I hear that? Oh yes, G. Clark). Or that Racism is “part of Japan’s unique culture”.

    But that is like saying that in a society of cannibals, human sacrifice or cannibalism is acceptable and therefore should be given a free pass in today’s international community.

    No, it shouldn’t.

  • Baudrillard says:

    Lisa, you were lucky in Japan “at no point was I assaulted, restrained, refused basic services or otherwise significantly harassed on account of my ethnicity. The racism I usually experienced was often institutional, rather than personal.”

    All of the above happened to me. So much for white privilege!

  • Baudrillard, the theory of white privilege was developed to interrogate racial dynamics in the English speaking world, not Japan. In that light, your repeatedly dismissals of the theory make me uncomfortable, particularly as they occur at a time when (in the case of the U.S.) more black people are being killed by the police per year than were lynched than during Jim Crow.

    They also seem counterproductive, particularly when the theory *can* be applied to Japanese society in the modified form of “wajin privilege,” which has been discussed in scholarly papers and on this website before.

    Those of us who have ever taught English in Japan, while not privileged in comparison with the Yamato majority, have still been the beneficiaries of British/American imperialism in a way that most other minorities have not. (Yes, the Yamato majority has also benefitted from Japanese imperialism, but that doesn’t make things a wash for the victims of either empire.) YMMV, but I find that trying to understand my position in a more dialectical way opens up the route to more radical criticisms which are actually *strengthened* when people argue that “it’s just as bad where you’re from.”

    — “More black people are being killed by the police per year than were lynched than during Jim Crow.” Source please.

  • I’m not familiar with Canadian law, but I’m not sure the teller’s comment was worth being sent home, or was racist. Maybe the comment plus the refusal to allow the two of you to speak with the manager though. “Funny” was a bad choice of words, but what if he has said “interesting” or “cool” or something more positive instead?

    It’s already been established that Japanese discriminate against those who don’t look Japanese. This is obviously bad. The Koreans do it too, to some extent, with people of mixed Korean and other ancestry. Plus Japan is one of the more xenophobic nations. It has been told time and again that it was very hard for other ethnicities who were born in Japan to obtain citizenship. This appears to be untrue, but it is something I had heard for years. Thus a white person having a Japanese passport might be seen as “funny” by a Korean if he thinks it must be very difficult to obtain Japanese citizenship.

    My takeaway from this article is that the author was tired of having his nationality questioned, probably had some good reason to call the comment racist, even though I am not sure that it was (and not sure that it wasn’t either), but maybe should have a small speech prepared to educate people that it is possible to be a naturalized Japanese citizen, and try not to discriminate in the future.

    Finally, FWIW, a lot of people who live abroad from their home country will say “I am x ethnicity or nationality y, but I’ve been living in country y for Z years”. Maybe that works better in the US due to its diverse heritage. But I know people who moved to the US as young children who still claim their country of birthday nationality if asked, even if they were raised and educated in the US.

  • I believe the actions taken by the manager were very appropriate and congratulate him on the actions taken with the teller.

    You also make some pretty big assumptions as follows:

    – landed immigrant
    – Korean accent,
    – English wasn’t his first language

    and my favorite:

    – It it important to add at this juncture that the teller was
    a Korean-Canadian immigrant — I know because I requested his name from the manager later

    — Yes, I know.

  • Baudrillard says:

    XY, LOL.”us who have ever taught English in Japan, while not privileged in comparison with the Yamato majority, have still been the beneficiaries of British/American imperialism ”

    No, Japan needs English to advance its own (imperialist, cultural) agenda. Or to say No to Gaiatsu.

    Low paid English teaching at Nova, etc. Now THATS what I call “White Privilege”. How about after years of Japanese study, as Debito has mentioned, we were told in the 80s we would move into managerial positions. Hasnt really happened due to a glass ceiling, instead we have short term contracts, or contracts just short of tenure (see Debito’s black list of universities) and contracts oft falsely stating only 29 hours a week worked to avoid paying benefits.

    Most Little Hitlers and Scrooges at Eikaiwa (like Hagwons in Korea, who have been warned against officially by the US Embassy there, but I digress-Japan gets a free pass?) use up their English speaking White Models, pay them as little as they can,enforce ridiculous micromanaged rules of teaching which fly in the face of any TEFL method ever approved, and encourage a revolving door of fresh faces before the NJs get too jaded or fatigued as how GENKI the teachers is, is all.

    “Seen as disposable labor…. since the Meiji period” (Powers, Working in Japan, 1990)


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