I recently released an episode on my podcast that touched my experiences being Black in Japan. On that episode, I shared three but only detailed two. The third, gave me pause especially it being Black History Month. Actually, I had recorded the episode with the third experience being spoken to more at length but I didn’t feel comfortable with the way I presented the issue, so I chose to make it short. Having thought more about it, I decided to share the story. Don’t worry, I’ll start from the beginning.
When I was in my teens, I used to volunteer a whole lot at my community centre. It was the only place besides being at school with my friends, that I could talk about a wide range of topics with likeminded young people and adults who engaged me in conversation. One day, as I and others were at this Centre, a friend said something to me that I hadn’t heard before. It was actually the only time someone had said something like that to me. Almost out of nowhere, I still can’t recall how it came up, she (yes, it’s a girl) said to me “I don’t like you because you’re light skinned.” I was in shock. “Excuse me?” I said, while laughing awkwardly. I tend to do that in uncomfortable situations. She repeated herself. I didn’t know how else to react except for being defensive. I couldn’t understand why she would say something like that to me. I remember saying to her that she was being rude and offensive because I had done nothing for her to say such a horrible thing to me.
She further added that the reason she felt that way was because I had life easier than she did and will continue to do so. Rubbish! How could she have thought that? We were friends, from the same neighbourhood, from what I believed were similar socioeconomic backgrounds (you best believe I was familiar with such concepts at an early age), so how could she think that? She wasn’t finished. If both of us applied for the same job, with her being the more qualified candidate, she said that I’d still get the job over her because, not only was I light skinned, I was man. Again, I was stumped. Nothing she said at the time made sense to me. I felt attacked and it hurt.
I’ve never considered myself to be light skinned. I may not have been dark skinned but I wasn’t light skinned either. Puzzled, with my defenses going all the way up, I was prepared to continue defending myself against what I felt was one of the worst things anyone had ever said to my face. I told her that what she said was extremely hurtful and that she was wrong. I mean, she was…right? In my mind, we were both Black people, and as I mentioned, had similar upbringings so how dare she do this?! It was then she said (not verbatim), “Keirn, I’m a woman. I’m a Black woman. A dark skinned Black woman. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.” Still, being as upset as I as, I couldn’t absorb what she said. I retorted with “it doesn’t matter” because I’m Black also and have the same struggles. Remember, I was a kid. I couldn’t care less what her feelings were because she was hurting mine. We kept going back and forth and agreed to disagree.
Was she right? Did she have a point? I needed answers because for the first time in my life, I hated the skin that I was born in. I thought maybe if I was darker, she wouldn’t have said that. But, I would still be a man. A lot of things were rummaging through my mind. It’s not that it kept me up at night because nothing really ever does. I wanted to understand where she was coming from. I reached out to two friends of mine, people who knew her best, because only they could help me understand what happened. I did this intentionally because if she didn’t like me for being “light skinned”, then what did she think about let’s say, family members?
When I spoke to my friends, at first one of the responses was to not let it get to me because that’s just how she was. But how could I not? I felt I was being cut down and my Blackness was, in some way, not being seen. I expressed that to my friends (I do have some of the greatest friends). They then told me that although my friend’s words were harsh, it wasn’t that she disliked me, Keirn, it was frustration that came out and unfortunately it was directed at me. Frustration though? What could she have been frustrated about? I knew she was just a few years older than I was but she was still in school, so what was it? The frustration was due to her being a dark skinned Black woman that a racist/colourist system put at the bottom of some totem pole. Maybe she had a bad day or maybe she had seem me get something easier than she had to at my age. I was yearning more explanation because even though the information wasn’t really new to me, I had never needed to confront it. I was given a quick refresher about the hardships Black people have to face daily even after the period of enslavement ended. A hardship we all face but none like the dark skinned Black woman with quintessential Black features. Things started to make sense.
Though we were friends, of the same race, same community and similar socio-economic backgrounds, outside of our neighbourhood, the world would treat me a little better than her. That was a pill I didn’t know I needed to swallow. I never thought of myself as having any sort of privilege because I always saw myself as this poor kid from the ghetto, that is just trying to make better life for himself and his family. So when she said that to me, it did hurt. I cried. I cried because I felt I was being cut down by someone who knew that I also had to fight. Fight to not be just another Black man that failed to make something of himself. Heck, I’m crying now even writing this part. But after talking with my friends, my tears were no longer for myself, but for every Black woman that had it harder, depending on how much melanin they possessed.
I looked at the women in my life very differently. I started seeing things more clearly. I, at that point, understood fully what being frustrated with a system that was designed to keep Black people at bay meant. None, like Black women. None like dark skinned Black women. I didn’t stop liking my friend. We were and still are friends. She had hurt me unintentionally and apologized for it but I was and am also sorry (not in the I need to be some saviour for Black women way) that she, the women in my life and every other Black woman had/has this fight.
In university, I had the pleasure of being part of a theatre arts company that was so purposefully and unapologetically Black. Check out this blog entry on a show I went to for that company. That company reintroduced me to the legendary Nina Simone. One of her most critically acclaimed songs, Four Women, was used in a performance piece the company did. Four Women tells the story of four different types of Black women and the different struggles they had/have to face. My friend was one of the four women. I got it. I get it.
Would I have changed that moment if I could do it over? It would’ve been good to not have felt the hurt from those words because I’m sure I’d have been enlightened some other way. However, often times we have to experience certain things, in order to gain a better understanding of a subject matter. That was my wake up call. I had/have my own struggles, but some had/have it harder. The “some” in this case are Black women. Dark skinned Black women.