From the daughter of a RevGal teaching in Japan:
This past Saturday I went to a local mall in Tokushima to do some shopping with my girlfriend, J. As we were walking to the ATMs, a few preteen girls and a mom came walking toward us from the opposite direction. I heard the girls start to giggle as they passed us, so I turned around, wondering if they might be reacting to J’s hair. She rocks a natural afro. She regularly has to deal with people mocking her hairstyle here in Japan, where afro wigs are often worn for comedic effect.
When I turned around I saw that the group had stopped, maybe 8 yards away. Two of the girls turned back toward us, still giggling — and then I saw one of them take out her phone and very obviously try to take a picture of J.
I stood in front of J, blocking the picture and looking right at the girl with the phone. Meanwhile J, who noticed what was going on because I had turned around and stopped walking, ducked into the shop next to us. I gave the girls my teacher’s look, but they definitely didn’t notice; I was just an obstacle to the picture. After a moment they gave up on getting the picture and moved on.
They moved on, but needless to say J and I were a bit shaken. J — my social butterfly who normally has no trouble with big groups of people — had already started to feel anxious as soon as we drove into the packed parking lot. Now she’d not only been pointed and stared at, but also laughed at and even photographed as if she were an animal in a zoo.
J told me that she noticed one of the girls pointing her out to the mom, and the mom acknowledging it. So this lady knew the kids were laughing at J. As the adult in that situation, she should have put a stop to it right away. I was livid. And I was disappointed in myself for not telling them off.
Sadly, this isn’t the first time this has happened while I’m out with J. Last year a couple of girls in a drugstore laughed at her and successfully took pictures of her. When we were visiting Iya Valley this month, a mom and daughter tried to snap a picture together. But the thing is, those other times, I actually didn’t notice it in the moment; J had to tell me afterwards.
Like any visible foreigner in rural Japan, I also get stared at a lot and sometimes treated very rudely. But at the end of the day, my whiteness is felt as less of a threat than J’s blackness. White skin tends to be admired, whereas black skin is mocked or feared. This allows me to move through the world more comfortably than I would if I were black, whether I’m at the grocery store, the bank, wherever. That’s why I would never say, “Now that I’ve lived as a minority in Japan, I know how POCs feel in the US.” No matter how hard it might get for me sometimes living here — as a foreigner, as a woman, as a bisexual — I still carry my white privilege with me. I have the privilege of not having to be on edge in public spaces in the same way that J is. It hurts to admit it, but that must be part of why I don’t always notice people being rude to J.
So, lately I’ve been making an effort to be more aware of my surroundings when I’m out with J. I want to use my privilege (and my Japanese) to stand up for her, and I can’t do that if I don’t see this stuff happening in the first place. It’s about putting myself in her shoes. It’s work, and as an ally I need to do it.
Do I wish that I’d gotten over my shock, walked over and shared a few choice words with those kids and their mom? Absolutely. But I’m glad that this time, at least, I was able to stand in the way.
Lucy Bauer grew up in the United Church of Christ congregations her mom pastored in Maine. She graduated from Smith College in 2017 and is in her second year teaching in the JET Program.
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