Colorism And My Black Experience In Japan
Colorism and my Black experience in Japan is about drawing strength from the ongoing BLM movement to finally confront microaggressions in my childhood. It’s about understanding how colorism has shaped my life in Japan. It’s about addressing the impact colorism will have on my daughter’s life and encouraging her to embrace her heritage.
What is “colorism”?
“Colorism is an intra-racial system that hold biases based upon an individual’s hair texture, facial features or skin color.” Iris Sumo (Source)
We often talk about colorism in relation to the Black experience in America, but colorism exists in ethnic groups across the globe.
So, what happened when I moved to homogeneous Japan after growing up with colorism?
Well, for starters, my complexion, hair texture, and even height (because all Black people are tall, you know), are a curious combination here.
95% of the time Japanese people don’t know “what” I am, and find it hard to pinpoint a country of origin.
Add in Japanese language ability and a Japanese last name, and it kind of keeps me out of the kowai gaijin (怖い外人 | Scary foreigner) category.
Colorism is a funny thing. It afforded me unlikely privilege in Japan, yet it was a major source of anxiety throughout my childhood. However, I can’t deny that colorism also afforded me privilege in the US at the great expense of feeling shame and self-hate.
The America that shaped my childhood was literally Black and White.
In Black America, I didn’t look like anyone else, and received constant reminders of how I didn’t belong.
In 1% white America, where I went to private schools, I was a perpetual guest. I always mindful of how to act, dress, and speak.
I understand now that many of the “compliments” that I received growing up were in fact microaggressions: subtle and ambiguous forms of racism that perhaps were even unintentional at times.
Now, here it begins: Colorism and My Black Experience in Japan.
Imagine my joy, after years of not fitting in, I come to Japan, and suddenly, I belong. There’s a place for me — all precisely because I don’t fit in. Finally, there’s a word for people like me: gaijin!
Some expats lament that no matter how hard they try, no matter how long they live in Japan they will never be treated as Japanese. But for me, it was a relief! After years of pretending and being who society/family wanted me to be, I didn’t have to pretend any more.
Not only that, I could start over.
I found acceptance among Shibuya gyaru* and my co-workers and manager were like a family to me. Being gyaru gave me the confidence and freedom that I’d previously had never felt. It was very easy for me to “blend in” and adapt to life in Japan during my first years here…as long as I wore my armor of wigs and garrish makeup.
*A post about colorism and being Black in Japan, during the end of gyaru fashion, should address the origins of the subculture. So, let me quickly clear up the misconception that gyaru were “blackfishing,” AKA trying to be Black. Gyaru were rebelling against mainstream Japanese beauty standards. There was/is a subgenre, B-gyaru, that even incorporated parts of Black fashion and culture. But, the girls and boys (that I met) were genuinely interested in Black American culture.
After gyaru fashion faded away, I switched to a more “sophisticated,” mainstream fashion, and continued to straighten my hair, add extensions, and experiment with wigs. Being a graduate of a top tier private university and having a work visa sponsored by a top company also did wonders when it came to applying for credit and trouble-free apartment hunting.
I just thought I was doing well as a foreigner in Japan, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t consider why things were relatively easy for me. Perhaps I drank enough of that “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” Kool-Aid back when I was younger.
I just never gave being Black in Japan any serious thought. I knew I was Black. Other Black people in Japan saw me as Black. So, why was it my issue that Japan was ignorant of Black culture and identity?
Then came Fall 2018, when I was interviewed by Ranzo of Black Experience Japan.
I welcomed the opportunity because I had just started blogging and looked forward to connecting with others.
But, as the interview progressed, I realized that I didn’t have anything significant to say.
To date, I haven’t watched the video because I knew I wasn’t being true to myself during the interview. And, that had nothing to do with Ranzo, I just felt like a fraud knowing that my Black experience didn’t match up with a lot of the other interviews.
Now I know that even though, I was embracing my transition to natural hair at the time, I really wasn’t having conversations with myself on colorism and race in Japan.
As I began to find my voice on this blogging/social media journey, I realized that I needed to step out of my privileged “naijin* gaijin” bubble.
*naijin= very self-aware, tongue-in-cheek way to say “Japan insider”
I truly appreciate the current Black Lives Matter movement because we, as a society, have no choice but to reexamine our views of Black people and Black culture. It’s certainly forced me to be honest about my own childhood and to make efforts to undo all the colorism that I internalized. (Related post here.)
Critics will say that BLM has no place in “monolithic” Japan. But, let’s remember that BLM isn’t just about police brutality and qualified immunity. It’s about acknowledging systemic racism and intersectionality in the United States.
BLM is also about how the media can negatively influence global perspectives on Black travelers, Black immigrants, and Black people in general. (Case in point: NHK’s cringeworthy attempt at an animated short to explain BLM to a Japanese audience.)
In my case, I personally don’t see the need for Japanese society to accept me. I’m not Japanese, never have been, and never will be. I do have a bit of fun when asked to present my Alien Registration Card as identification (because I don’t have one). This life is easy for me to accept, as coming here was my choice.
I worry about how my daughter will feel growing up in Japan. (We have many reasons for setting up home in Japan. However, life in the US is not entirely off the table, especially if Hawaii is an option!)
My baby Kaiju is now 3 years old, and I don’t know what’s in her future.
I don’t yet know the struggles of raising a ha-fu* child in Japan.
Because she goes to daycare at the school where I work, where her teachers and classmates know me.
But, we can’t stay in this bubble forever.
*”Half” (ハーフ | ha-fu) means “half Japanese,” a child with one Japanese parent and one non-Japanese parent. It is a loaded term and it’s not uncommon for parents of mixed kids to avoid using it. I am aware that “half” typically describes people who have “Eurasian” features. However, when writing this, I am using it in relation to all mixed kids, regardless if they’re Asian/Japanese, Black/Japanese, White/Japanese, etc.
My daughter is Black. She’s also Japanese.
Now, how society sees her is different. There is/will be no singular answer.
She will encounter all kinds of people, in Japan, and outside of Japan, curious about her looks and background. And, her looks and gender will influence how people perceive her and treat her.
In the US, her skin tone, “good” hair texture, and “exotic” background will provide her with privileges.
These privileges will unfortunately come at the expense of dark skinned women with less than desirable features and hair textures.
On the other hand, my daughter doesn’t look Japanese. So, here in Japan, her looks are sure to invite curiosity in elementary school and beyond. It’s very likely that she won’t look like anyone else at school or have classmates with a similar background
No doubt she’ll hear (unintentional?) backhanded compliments related to her family tree (specifically having a Black mom and Black relatives). Her Japanese language ability will “impress” many. She’ll “wow” with her supposedly innate athletic abilities.
There’s sure to be hurtful words to come in her future, unfortunately.
Will she come to resent her background and wish her features were more Japanese?
Will she hide me from her classmates and beg me not to attend her recitals, athletic games, and other school/social functions?
Unfortunately, I know those feelings all too well…
This won’t be an easy journey for either of us.
That’s why it’s important for me to embrace myself as I am and to be honest about colorism and my Black experience in Japan. I want my daughter to find the beauty in her features as well as in the features of other women.
I am still unlearning colorism. Honestly, at times, I can’t even tell if my love of Japanese sunscreen is because I’m 100% Team #Fuckcancer or if I’m afraid of getting darker. Strange how things said decades ago still ring fresh in my mind, yet I’m always misplacing my iPhone…
Speaking out about colorism and my Black experience in Japan goes beyond my responsibilities as a parent. It also means using my platform to address social issues and becoming a better ally and supporter of those with darker complextions.