05/18/2014 04:17 am ET Updated Sep 24, 2014

How I Engage in Racial Profiling

I oppose racial profiling in general. But I recognize that we all do it. We usually are hardly even aware of it.

I wonder if it can be innocuous. Here is an example. I just landed in Tokyo, coming from San Francisco. Traveling abroad is, as they say, the best education.

I am Asian American, of Chinese descent, born in the heartland of the new world. My wife, who also is on this business trip, is Asian American, of Japanese descent, the third generation of her family in California as measured along maternal lineage. When I met my late mother-in-law for the first time, she remarked to her daughter, "He's good looking. He looks Japanese." Thus I can "pass" easily enough.

We're joined by a colleague who is African American. He spent much of his early life in Tokyo, because his father was one of the first black United States Foreign Service Officers, stationed there before its ascent as a global city.

Neither my wife nor I speak Japanese. We resemble most Americans: We're monolingual, more or less. We each know a smattering of our respective ancestral tongues, but at a childlike level that only causes people to cringe with embarrassment about our assimilation.

The amusing aspect is, as white Americans realize, if they displayed the same skill in either Chinese or Japanese, they might be complimented on how proficient and polite they are to say "hello," how are you," and "thank you."

Needless to say, we are at a loss navigating this metropolis of more than 13 million.

So here is what we do. We accost random Caucasians. If we need help with directions, etc., we saunter up to a white person, in the belief we will be able to communicate with them.

We're playing the odds. Many Japanese know English, at least to some extent -- though knowing a language does not imply willingness to chat with a stranger on the street in it. It is much more likely, however, that the random American or European will be fluent in English, and, we suppose, amenable to assisting us.

Strictly speaking, we're using race as the basis for drawing an inference. From skin color, we guess language skill. Asian means less likely to speak English; Caucasian, more likely. According to formal logic, these propositions cannot be distinguished from invidious prejudice. By that, I mean if you were to diagram in abstract terms the line of reasoning from X to Y, you can substitute any traits for X and Y. (For logicians, the validity of a syllogism is not dependent on the truth of the premises.)

The people whom we approach mirror us. They sometimes express surprise that we are who we are, much less that we have any affinity with them. From their perspective, people who look like natives of Asia suddenly appear before them to ask about the nearest subway station. (A careful observer would suspect we are not Japanese. We're too loud, take up too much space, and move differently.)

In reverse back home, I cannot say I have ever been all that flattered by the people who compliment me on my English. Yet they are doing exactly what I am doing, except they might object to having it described as racial.

Most conversations about racial profiling confuse different issues: whether it is in fact taking place, whether it is even arguably rational, and whether it is morally right. As with many arguments about complex subjects, especially those touching upon race, the tendency to merge together what are separate inquiries only makes people angrier toward one another. The person who assumes that policies are based on stereotypes, who wishes to argue that the practice is abhorrent, ends up debating the person who claims there is not a generalization at work but who agrees that if there were then that would be indefensible.

I can rationalize my actions. I do not wish to deny that they have at their core a reliance on race. I'd like to mull over how appalling, if at all, it is to invoke race in this manner. I regard it as a challenge to explain the distinction between what I have done and what a bigot would do -- the law apparently would deem our behavior to be identical insofar as we refer to race.

In any event, the correlation of race and culture is not what it used to be. That's for the better.

The hotel where we are staying, a mid-market option for the thrifty, has a faux French theme meant to recall the nineteenth century (albeit with Toto toilets featuring a built-in bidet function), and the restaurant we wandered into offered only French cuisine -- we left to find my favorite breakfast, the full Japanese version. The background music at that eatery was Western classical. When I opened the English language newspaper, the big stories I came across were about Yu Darvish, the Persian-Japanese baseball pitcher for the Texas franchise in the American major leagues (he struck out eleven but lost), and Randy Messenger, his expatriate counterpart who decided to stay in the Nippon league rather than return to the States (he threw a shutout). I'm not sure where either Western classical music and the American pastime of baseball would be without the enthusiasm of Japanese audiences and the size of their markets.

At the end of the day, I still want to avoid making any judgment on the basis of superficial characteristics. However you look at it, our dynamic reality is making it more risky to do that.