Building on the momentum of the summertime marches during which protesters took to the streets of Tokyo and Osaka to speak out against racial discrimination, Black Lives Matter Tokyo, an organization dedicated to spreading awareness of racial prejudice, is continuing the conversation about race with its free webinar series, “RealTalk.”
The aim of the series is to have educational talks about racial inequality and systemic injustice. The webinar’s first installment, which took place in June, was a two-hour panel discussion focused on informing people, particularly in Japan, on the background of the Black Lives Matter movement. The second installment is scheduled to be held on Oct. 18 and will discuss the harmful representation of Black people in media, touching on issues such as blackface, whitewashing and colorism.
Although Black culture is often put in the spotlight, and many people want to understand and show their appreciation for it, cultural appropriation and microaggressions are still common. Such unconscious bias is added on top of those who deliberately attempt to be hurtful, and it’s quite an upsetting mixture.
Navigating stereotypes and prejudices can be tricky, which is where “RealTalk.” comes in. The webinar series will feature a range of speakers to guide the conversation with their own distinct experiences on how they’ve dealt with these issues in their respective fields.
One of the panelists is BLM Tokyo vice-chair Jaime Smith, a Maryland native with experience working in education, marketing and entertainment. Having lived in Japan since 2017, Smith says she has gotten used to racist comments — in the media and in her own daily life — about Black people. Upon hearing of the incident that occurred last year where a Japanese comedy duo joked about tennis player Naomi Osaka’s skin color on national television, Smith had felt apathy, especially since it was not the first time that she herself had heard derogatory comments about Black skin.
While working as a teacher in Tokushima, Smith recalls her students jokingly commenting that her skin “looked like poop.”
“It was very hurtful at the time, but I try not to hold it against them as they’re very young and immature,” says Smith.
And so the Osaka incident was not unfamiliar to Smith, but it did discourage her from going into the entertainment industry, an original goal of hers.
“Those instances gave me the impression that dark skin in Japan is not considered beautiful,” she says. “It made me a bit nervous to start pursuing a career as a (TV personality).”
On another occasion, during a picnic, one Japanese acquaintance made a comment that stuck with her.
“They told me I’m the right shade of brown, not too dark, so I’d be considered attractive,” Smith recalls. “I genuinely think they meant this as a compliment and didn’t understand the implications of it.”
In the end, such incidents and anecdotes didn’t completely dissuade Smith of a career in entertainment. However, her eyes are wide open and she is fully aware of the issue of colorism and the idea in Japan that lighter shades of skin are often inaccurately perceived as being “better.”
“Whitewashing occurs in (American) media, but it usually takes place in adaptations of other media (such as comic books and movies),” Smith says. “People are still vocal about it, but they’re rarely reported on or apologized for because they’re not (seen as) real people.”
Colorism is a huge problem all over the world, and while microaggressions continue to happen regularly, there’s still hope that with open and educational discussions, people will become more aware of their biases.
Another speaker for Sunday’s webinar is Eric L. Robinson, a creative director and former entertainer known for his character, Afro Eric. Robinson’s brand, Black Tokyo, which was initially an online chat forum, has been an extensive source in providing an Afro-perspective of Japan and the dynamics between the Japanese and the Afro diaspora since 1999. He continues to develop the brand, spreading across media platforms such as YouTube and podcasts.
Robinson has also had his fair share of experience with racism and discrimination, and acknolwedges that the use of social media can be a double-edged sword.
“These ills are problematic and amplified more so than in the past due to media and technology,” says Robinson. “(On television), harmful or stereotypical representations remain, but the fight or response to dealing with either is much quicker. Mobile devices, social media platforms and quick in-your-face online answers shed light on the offense and promote a call for action.”
With social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, the general public is able to open a discussion and confront discrimination, much like in this webinar series. And similar to Smith, Robinson has forged his way into these industries regardless and has made many fruitful connections.
“Whether I appeared in a commercial, magazine or on primetime television, it was vital for me to have creative control and promote a positive image of my character, Afro Eric. It has always been imperative that viewers laugh with me or the situation I created, and not at me!”
The second installment of “RealTalk.” will take place online on Oct. 18 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. The discussion will be in English with Japanese interpretation. To register for the event, visit blacklivesmattertokyo.carrd.co/#realtalk.