By BILL WATANABE
I was a farm boy who grew up in the hot and sunny San Fernando Valley in the 1950s. Every summer, I would gain a dark coffee-colored tan, even though I tried to cover up from the sun’s warm rays by wearing a large straw hat and long-sleeve shirts. My whole family had dark complexions, so I never thought much about it.
In high school, teachers would occasionally assign seats alphabetically according to last names and so I found myself often seated next to a pretty Caucasian girl whose last name was Weaver. We became friends — she was always warm and accepting of me and I never saw any hint that she felt any prejudice towards me for being Japanese American.
One day in chemistry class, I was sitting next to Ms. Weaver and I was wearing a short-sleeve shirt. For some reason I can no longer recall, we were talking and she put her hand on my arm. I saw how her white hand contrasted with my dark-skinned arm, and I felt appalled — I was embarrassed at how dark I was. I was afraid she might be put off by the contrast, and without thinking, I discreetly pulled my arm out from under her touch. I felt embarrassed but I didn’t know why.
Some years later, while I was in college, I read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Other than the Bible, this book has affected me more than any other book I have ever read. In this book, Malcolm revealed his innermost thoughts and feelings about experiencing institutional racism and how he was a victim of racial self-hatred.
As I read his accounts of trying to deny and change his black traits (before he became Malcolm X), I realized that I too had unknowingly succumbed to a form of self-hatred. I thought back to “the touch” incident and It became clear to me why I felt threatened by Ms. Weaver’s innocent touching of my arm — the fear that she would reject me for being dark just as I had already subconsciously rejected dark skin-color as inferior. Her innocent touch opened my eyes to my own internalized racism inculcated by the systemic racism in our country.
Over 50 years have passed since that day in chemistry class, and Ms. Weaver has remained one of my good friends. Long after this incident, I mentioned to her about my conflicted feelings when she touched my arm, and she felt hurt that I would think that of her. I assured her it was not her but my own issue and that she helped to open my eyes and to move me towards a path of greater self-acceptance. Her simple touch was a great gift.
Bill Watanabe writes from Silver Lake near Downtown Los Angeles and can be reached at email@example.com. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.