Searching for Solidarity as a Black Woman in Japan

Two Black girls holding protest signs Photo Credit TopTia Photography

Posted On August 30, 2020

As a Black ex-pat, living in Japan can be very lonely.

In my youth in a college town in Illinois, I’d see people who looked like me often, if not everywhere. As an adult living in New York City, I reveled in the diversity and the anonymity within that diversity. It was nice not to be the only other at the party, on the sidewalk, in the hair salon.

When I moved to Tokyo in 2018, this changed drastically. But of course it would. Japan is known to be a very homogeneous country with a well-documented history of closing its borders to outsiders. I was not going to see the racial diversity that other metropolitan cities are known for. Once again, I was very much other.

As seen in the news, thousands of people have gathered to protest and march in countries outside of the United States in solidarity over the murder of George Floyd (a black man who died under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis, MN) and the countless other killings of Black men and women at the hands of police, showcasing the apathy of the justice system and the systemic racism so pervasive in the American way of life.

Photo Credit Tia Haygood of TopTia Photography

Just like in Japan, these countries also have African Americans creating lives away from their home country, away from their family and friends. Despite this distance our Black voices continue to rise, our Black sorrows continue to be sung, and the actions of Black activism continue to be displayed.

Even though we feel guilty that we are on the outside as these much-needed movements grow, we stand up. 

Even though we feel guilty because we are comfortably outside the midst of the anguish, the destruction, and the continued cruelty, we raise our voices with allies by our side.

This perspective from the outside coupled with a deep yearning to be involved because Black lives matter—and our lives are Black lives—forms a swirl of complicated and confusing emotions, often resulting in dissociation from ourselves and where we fit in our culture and the shared pain.

The International Struggle is Real

As Black people, we have been racially profiled. We have been the subjects of systemic racism. We have experienced and continue to experience white supremacy in and outside of the United States. 

White supremacy does not stop at America’s borders. America does not have a patent on this centric and too long upheld viewpoint, although many think it does. 

Even in Japan this view is pervasive. 

  • It’s demonstrated by Japan’s largest and most respected global media network thinking it’s acceptable to showcase crude and offensive animations of African Americans protesting.
  • It’s highlighted when the Japanese media asks white foreigners to explain Black pain to Japanese viewers. 
  • It’s represented in the ugly and ignorant comments white ex-pats in Japan make about the protests and marches because they would rather protest COVID-19 (that disproportionately kills Black bodies); they think it is solely a US problem; or they equate the small amount of xenophobia they’ve faced in Japan to the centuries of hate, cruelty, and disenfranchisement that African Americans have faced in the US and abroad.

Black Community in Japan

So when I arrived in Tokyo as an African American, I tried to find a community that would welcome me. I had already faced discrimination in the US, and I had heard stories of how some Japanese people discriminate against all foreigners. And, it soon became clear to me that it could be weeks before I happened to see another Black face cross my path—a face that knows my ex-pat experience is still other and can validate it with an appreciative smile or nod of solidarity as I walk by, showing that I’m seen and my existence is appreciated, not just tolerated.

Not easily found IRL, these communities often can be found online and, in one such community, a Black woman shared her anguish that so directly reflected my own that I couldn’t help but extend my support and empathy. She said she was exhausted by the performative piety she was witnessing online, wrestling with what she could personally do while feeling disconnected in many ways, and also questioning what difference, if any, her small contributions would make in the long run.

My message wasn’t just for her, though. I realized it was a message to myself. My words represented the hug that I very much needed, an understanding from another that I craved. What surfaced was a voice I had been trying to find.

An Open Letter to Black Women Living Abroad

I share this letter for all the Black women who aren’t inherently comfortable being outspoken and in the spotlight. Who are far away from home. Who feel guilty, and proud, and confused, and a part of something huge. Who feel alone, all at the same time.

I hear you. I see you. You are not alone. Your voice matters, your existence is appreciated, and we are in this together.

This is hard and painful and downright debilitating sometimes. While going through this trauma, not only must we continue to educate ourselves—I speak from a Black American perspective who knows the history because of shared lived experience but has so much more to dig into—with names of figures, statistics, and proper definitions to lend credence to personal knowledge and experience. But, we are confronted with performative solidarity and the trauma of that as well. 

It’s not okay—seeing and feeling in your gut that people are playacting their solidarity. 

It’s overwhelming, and sometimes more harmful, when white allies desperately try to be on the right side of history while leaning on your relationship to give them ideas on how to do so.

It’s so much, on top of handling one’s own complicated emotions.

But, I realized after spiraling for three days after learning of another blatant disregard for Black life on Memorial Day, resulting in the extinguishing of that life, that we only have a finite amount of energy (not a revolutionary thought), and so we cannot give any of it up to people who don’t matter.

And the people who are silent and the people who are performing do not matter.

We can’t be distracted by their weak outcries of support. We matter. Our Black lives matter.

And therefore, the biggest act of resistance is to survive, thrive, succeed, make money, and be joyful in their faces. We need those images and stories, too.

The next question is how to support. You can do it with money, and there are some great lists of organizations helping protesters that need that financial bolstering. You can come together with people in Japan, or your host country, and join the groups forming right now to protest in solidarity.

You can continue to share resources, knowing that the internet is vast and they will be re-shared with others who find them immediately useful/informative.

You can support black businesses and organizations. You can listen to, read, and view (purchase/support) the works of black musicians, artists and writers, and uplift their voices.

You can tell others to patronize them as well.

You can support the love and growth and education and feelings of worthiness of Black children—because they see what’s going on and they understand the hate and they will internalize it even if they don’t understand why.

You can live. You can be happy. You can find joy (even with all this mess) because the truth of the matter is those who don’t care about Black lives want them gone. They want to erase them; for them to not exist in their world. And therefore, the biggest act of resistance is to survive, thrive, succeed, make money, and be joyful in their faces. We need those images and stories, too.

Most of all, you can continue to be authentic and share what feels right to you, clap back at stupidity when it feels right to you, rest and rejuvenate when it feels right to you, and continue to learn and advance and contribute at your pace.

It may feel slow and unproductive—I hear you and feel it, too—but don’t forget that no one absolutely knows the best way to move forward. We are all muddling through, but we can do it together, hopefully with less shame and more compassion towards ourselves as we strive to make a difference.

The work is not over and will not be over for a long time. We have to be kind to ourselves on this journey so we can keep going.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

Written by Ayanna Coleman

Ayanna Coleman is a business efficiency and marketing consultant living in Tokyo, Japan. For over ten years she has supported 100's of authors, planned and spoke at conferences, crafted panels and programming for myriad audiences, and elevated and streamlined business practices for organizations, entrepreneurs, and companies across industries. When not scratching items off her to-do list, she enjoys scouring Netflix for the next "big" series, drinking wine, and making quiche.

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