Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones but Words Inflict Lasting Pain

Full Disclosure: I’m a straight white man. I grew up in country Australia, I went to high school in country Australia, and I now attend university in (arguably, somewhat) country Australia. Essentially, I’m the archetype of a person who needs to check their privilege; I basically embody the status quo.

So when I tell you that – despite the above – I’ve been a victim of constant, sustained harassment and racial vilification, you’re probably harboring some serious doubts. Fair enough, let me explain.

I graduated from my predominantly white, country-high-school-bubble life at the end of 2011 and immediately plunged myself into the vastly different environment of a Japanese high school as part of a year-long exchange student program. The goal of the exchange was lofty enough: to foster an understanding and appreciation of other cultures, customs and peoples. A sufficiently altruistic vision statement, if a little ironic to boot.

Not given any choice about where it was I would be going, I found myself in a small country town in central Japan. There were few people who understood any English, and I met no other Caucasian people that lived nearby during the entire year. Given that Japan consists of a population that is around 99% Japanese born Japanese people this, of course, is unsurprising.

In short, attending high school as not just the only foreigner in the school, but the only foreigner in the entire town, was a daunting challenge; but one I was confident I could be overcome.

But then they began – the comments. The guy who sat next to me in Physics class just started out of nowhere. Not obviously aggressive, but somehow hurtful. He would constantly ask “Why are you here?” “Why did you come to Japan?” speaking in a mixture of broken English and Japanese. It wasn’t the words themselves, so much as the tone in which they were said, and the frequency with which he would them. “This is not your home” they seemed to say, “you don’t belong here, you’re not one of us”.

While by themselves these words made me uncomfortable, I didn’t feel as though I could say anything to anyone. He wasn’t explicitly saying anything racist, so perhaps I was just imagining things. Justifications like these would surface as I would worry about the next time I had to see this guy, and I honestly started to believe myself. Maybe he just doesn’t understand? Maybe he’s never met a white person before, or heard an Australian accent? Maybe he’s just confused? I tried to ignore it, but something just seemed out of place. It kept bothering me, and it made me uncomfortable.

And then the more aggressive stuff started. He would mutter things under his breath at me. The words were quiet and infrequent at first, but soon after they got louder, more imperative and commanding. “Go back to where you came from”. “Fuck off home”. “You don’t belong here”. “You’re a stupid foreigner”. These statements said in Japanese. Then; “You are our slave”. “You are dirty”. These statements said in English.

This wasn’t a once off. This was an uninterrupted hour, three times a week. I started to feel ashamed of who I was, of what I was. I wished that I could be different, that I could have been born Japanese or something that this guy would approve of, or honestly anything else just so I could get him to stop. By this point, I had internalized so much of what he had said that I didn’t feel as though I could reach out to anyone. No teachers. No friends. No-one.

Eventually, and after it escalated to him stabbing me with his pen, I went and told someone, got him admonished and the whole thing lessened. But it never fully stopped, and I never fully got over the fact that someone who had never met me decided that I was worthless based on the colour of my skin and the country of my upbringing.

It made me think back to high school. While the school I attended was predominantly white, there was a large minority of Indigenous students, and a small minority of students from south and south-east Asia. Some of these students would experience similar things; being called FOBs (Fresh Off the Boat) and told, both jokingly and seriously, to go back to where they came from. I had never really thought much of it, sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me – that’s what my parents used to say.

But the idea that “words will never hurt me” is bullshit. Words don’t just hurt, words inflict lasting pain onto a person. I don’t know if this guy was joking. At this point, I don’t care. I found out the hard way that words, said often enough, can be internalised and catastrophically damaging to person.

Don’t get me wrong, on the whole I absolutely loved my year abroad, and I would absolutely go over again in a heartbeat. And of course, the vast majority of people there were not rude or racist in any way. But that doesn’t matter when all you can hear is the one voice among the many.

The things we say to another person about their heritage, culture, skin colour, or ethnicity have a lot of unintentional power – power that increases exponentially with the societal privilege held by the person saying them. I fully and deeply appreciate and understand this now.
It just shouldn’t have taken a first-hand experience of racial vilification for me to change my actions.