“Do you need help finding your jeans size?”
A cold sweat ran down my back. I quickly turned around and stuttered, “N-no I’m just looking,” in broken Japanese.
Snap out of it man, why are you so nervous? I thought. Yet I was so conditioned to being watched. So conditioned to being aware of how others reacted to my presence. Even living in Japan still hasn’t lifted the double consciousness that was written into my brain’s programming at an early age.
Growing up, I watched my parents and relatives experience racism. As I got older I began to experience it myself. There were the little things, like being followed around in stores. And there were more serious incidents, like being accused of trespassing in my own, almost entirely white, high school; during school hours. Not to mention getting called derogatory epithets by some classmates for not fitting the black stereotype.
Ironic, right? All of these things made me very aware of how I was perceived in public. They molded what W.E.B. Du Bois called a “double consciousness”: an almost natural awareness of not just one’s self, but how one is seen through the eyes of others in their immediate environment.
Choosing to bow instead of shaking hands during an introduction
Just because an African-American man coined this term doesn’t mean that this phenomenon is only a part of the black psyche. Anyone who has been out of their comfort zone or is striving to adjust to a foreign culture has probably experienced this type of mind state. Having this kind of awareness allows one to adapt to unfamiliar situations. A Japan-related example: Choosing to bow instead of shaking hands during an introduction.
Yet when someone has practically spent most of their life with this awareness, what happens when they leave the culture they grew up in and move to Japan? Weird things, based off of my personal experience.
Whenever I enter a コンビニ (conbini, convenience store), I often feel like I have to buy something. Even if I don’t find what I came for, I still feel compelled to get something. I know I probably could stand in a Seven-Eleven reading magazines for hours and not buy anything, like many people do. And I know the last thing on the clerk’s mind is to accuse me of stealing. Yet even knowing this, I still feel like I am being watched with the same side-eyed glares I would get in Philly.
I still sometimes worry that the clerk might just question me as I exit the store, as I’ve seen happen so often back in America. Even though I’m no longer in that environment, the effects of psychological oppression still find ways to sneak back into my life.
It took me some time to figure out why I had developed this habit of buying things so as not to arouse possible suspicion. In Japan of all places; where petty crime rarely happens on the scale that it does in the States. A country whose society has never been told the age-old narrative to fear the color black. I still felt like I was feared by society. When in reality, the people of Japan probably didn’t see me that way.
This is just one tiny example of how a country’s narrative—in this case, America’s—of a particular ethnic group can change how individuals within that group view themselves. Being in Japan has made me see how much I was subconsciously attached to that narrative. I was so attached that I kept living it out, even though no one else around me was.