Shade (Essay)

Words by Minzi Robert. Feature photo by Ben Bonsu.

There was a time when I felt like I wasn’t enough.

I didn’t know anyone else who looked like me. In 2006, a year or two before I left Japan, I was only 12 years old. I wasn’t a typical Japanese girl in the eyes of those around me. My skin hadn’t met cocoa butter and my hair hadn’t met Moroccan oil yet. And without knowing how to embrace my skin and my hair, while they were in desperate need of some tender loving care, my dark complexion and frizzy hair became my identity.

Courtesy of Minzi Robert.

Twelve year-old kids have no filter. I didn’t know any better to fight back.  I only knew how to conform to their idea of me. I came to accept that I was a “gaijin” (foreigner) and my hair was “pussy hair.” Somewhere between collectivism and shadeism, a social norm was in place which featured girls tying up their silky pin-straight hair all the same way, or how most boys (and society), would worship girls with pale, snowy cheeks. Every one had to look similar, and everyone preferred lighter skin. I would adore the Japanese girls’ hairstyles and how pale their skin was. I’d wish to scrub off the skin that defined me. I’d wish my skin would shed to a lighter shade, a shade as light as theirs. But, I’d wake up every morning with the same black skin and more shame.

Courtesy of Minzi Robert.

Verbally abusive jokes were humiliating, and they’d remind me of my skin color and intertwined hair. Inherently, I was a socially undesirable human being. I had never been wanted, nor been called beautiful. The connotation that having a darker complexion is equivalent to being inferior began to grow deep within me like a root. It wasn’t taught to me, but I grew up seeing it as so. I was to accept that I was different and everyone else was superior. But I wouldn’t tell that to my Japanese mommy or my Black daddy because I wouldn’t want them to be sad; my pride wouldn’t want them to know that I was sad.

There was a rise in suicide in Japan around 2005-2006; teens committing suicide became overly publicized in the media and it gave me an idea.

I started romanticizing suicide.

Courtesy of Minzi Robert.

It’s not that I wanted to die. I only wanted to disappear, even for a few minutes, without letting anyone know that I had such desire. I was silently yearning for a safe space, or somewhere else that was nothing like here. For that same reason, I loved closing my eyes during nightly prayers. Maybe if I disappeared for a bit, I’d receive the attention I never received just like the kids on the news and it would stop all the nonsense, I thought. But thanks to prayers being answered, I’d always arrive at the conclusion that it would be too chaotic and messy. (I also feared that my parents would send me to a mental health clinic if I disclosed my darkest thoughts.)

The years I spent living in Japan as a young girl introduced me to the sensitive, yet strong versions of me. I endured sorrows that manifested into self-hatred, low self-esteem, and severe anxiety; I still wonder if would’ve experienced all that I experienced, and felt all that I felt, if I was born in Toronto, where I currently reside. Hurtful words trained me to be sympathetic; they taught me to be cautious with my words. Words carry power.

Deciding to leave my parents at a young age, and to live in Canada, meant ditching everything I had, and imagined of having, in Japan. But, it also meant the opportunity to embrace the culture that was used to degrade me, the opportunity to earn confidence in the hair that was used to shame me. Leaving was an opportunity to find pride in the shade of my skin. Now, I find myself healing from trauma, and not only living in the skin that once was a source of distress, but celebrating it; celebrating me.