Last week I had an interesting conversation over a cup of coffee with one my Japanese friends. We were discussing various differences between Japanese and American culture and making a few cultural observations about Japan and the United States. You know-- the regular conversation.
We rambled on about various things for a moment and the conversation began to shift towards African-Americans in Japan. He explained that he has often felt as if African-Americans in Japan, myself included, do things because they felt like they had to 'represent' and create a good impression for the rest of world. I was surprised...
"Really?" I replied. I thought to myself for a moment and my mind traveled back to the Black Tokyo discussion board where there was a very heated and controversial discussion about the very topic. Black people living in Japan feeling as if they have to 'impress' others and disprove stereotypes.
I replied, "You know, that's actually something that I have thought about a few times since being here." It's true. Occasionally I will go back and forth on the issue, however the longer I am here, the less I feel the need to 'represent'/'impress' others.
I remember my first time going to a hip-hop club in Japan during the fall of 2003. What an interesting experience. Interesting because it really encouraged me to critically examine myself outside of an American context. I went with one of the other sistas in Tokyo at the time and we went to some place in Shibuya. The experience itself wasn't all that much different. Take away black faces and replace them with Japanese and there you have it, hip-hop club in Japan. But I did notice something different about me. I was extremely conscious of what I did. In my mind, I kept thinking, "Don't promote any more stereotypes." (Stereotype-- All Black People can dance and Black women love to gyrate their hips.) So for an hour or so I just chilled. I danced a little but not too much, and not as I would have back in DC--hehehe! Later on though, the music became better and I began to have fun. I thought, "Forget about the stereotype crap. I can't possibly represent all black women in this world, even if I tried." And I had a blast!
Later the next morning on the train to return home, I asked my friend how she felt about the situation. She explained that at first she felt the same as I did-- don't promote bad stereotypes of black people, so she too was conscious of her actions. But she later realized that she couldn't possibly represent everybody.
It's like a sea saw-- one day I say, "I can just be me... Can't be anybody else and I definitely can't represent anyone else. Yet another part of me says, "It doesn't matter. To some people you are representing Black women. You are representing Black America. You are probably the only Black woman that they will ever see or interact with."
Why do I feel like this? Where does this urge to 'represent' come from? I think W.E.B Dubois best articulated the root of the problem in his book The Souls of Black Folk. Dubois writes of the African-American:
"..Born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, - a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself though the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness,this sense of always looking at ones self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity."
Dubois speaks this only of African-Americans. Is he attempting to say that it is the psyche of American that creates such mental flip-flopping among African-Americans. The need by many to prove themselves. To be seen as an equal among co-workers, other students, our colleagues? This encourages me to remember all of my interactions with Black people in Japan who are not African-American. How do they feel about representing? It's interesting in that with most of the African men and women that I come across in Japan, I don't see that representing urge. Maybe Dubois was on to something.
My Japanese friend said of the Japanese, "I don't think Japanese feel like that. I don't think when Japanese go to other countries they feel they have represent their Japanese-ness." It's interesting. And the most interesting thing that I am discovering is that, the longer that I am in Japan the more my urge to represent decreases. Indeed, I feel that I CAN only be me. When I write my thoughts, I am not writing the thoughts of every African-American woman living in Japan, I am writing my thoughts only.
Before actually living in Japan I had so many thoughts about how Japanese people viewed black people that I wanted to go and erase all of those thoughts and replace them with all happy images of intelligent black people doing beautiful things in the world. How idealistic was that!
In conclusion, I feel that I can only be myself. Just being myself I am representing a lot. However, it is not my life mission in Japan to 'prove' anything to anyone. I see myself standing on the shoulders of my ancestors, generation after generation that have come before me. Indeed, I DO represent them. I DO represent myself. But do I represent to prove others wrong and to impress others? Not anymore.
You are invited to share your thoughts with me!