When you meet people on the streets of Tokyo, you divert slightly, and the person you meet likewise diverts slightly, in order to give the other space. It’s a mutual show of respect. But as I was walking down the busy street at Naka-Okachimachi last night, I was made aware of a group of people who didn’t budge. I diverted as usual of course, but these apparently rude and careless people didn’t. Only as we met did I raise my gaze to have a look at them.
It was a white family. Coming out from their hotel, they were walking down the street as a company of feudal lords, having every Japanese person they met divert for them. What made the whole scene even more interesting was that the family was completely unaware of everyone else on the street giving them space.
They were just an ordinary family: Father, mother, a girl and a boy in their teens. The boy had an uninterested look on his face, you could maybe call it spoiled. Because here he was, disinterested as teenagers can be, but even in the most mundane of situations he unquestioningly accepted his right to be part of this royal cortège that made its way through Naka-Okachimachi, having everyone else symbolically bow to them in the form of careful diverting.
The scene can be analysed in many ways, not least as the faux pas of tourists everywhere, but what I saw was an example of white privilege: No matter how commonplace you might be, you are still superior and ready to be served by the rest of the world.
Now maybe a Brazilian or Indian family would behave in a similar way, but it would be for different reasons. And certainly no one budges on the streets of Neukölln, but that too is for other reasons. In Neukölln there is an awareness of the street as a battlefield, where meeting other people is an intricate gameplay. I think the essence of whiteness is the unawareness of it, the unconscious assumption of being superior.