At the Intersection of Identities: In Conversation with Jaime Smith, Black Lives Matter Tokyo

Jaime Smith of BLM Tokyo discusses the complexities of intersectional politics, interrogates what it means to be Black and LGBT+, and explores where to go from here in the current global political climate and in our historical moment.

By Alexine Castillo Yap | Translated into Japanese by Ayşe Haruka Açıkbaş

Voice Up Japan got to speak with Jaime Smith, currently Vice-Chair and head of the graphic design team of BLM (Black Lives Matter) Tokyo. Outside of BLM Tokyo, Jaime works as a graphic designer and teacher. Jaime is originally from Baltimore, Maryland in the U.S. and has been in Tokyo since 2017.

In this interview, I ask Jaime about the nexus of being LGBT+ and being in a movement for racial liberation and equality in Japan. Jaime discusses the complexities around intersectionality, politics, and everything in between.

Photo of Jaime Smith by Yoshiya Yamazaki.
Photo of Jaime Smith by Yoshiya Yamazaki.

A: First off, how do you identify with the LGBT+ community? Tell us about your preferred pronouns, your gender identity, and your sexual orientation.

J: I identify as bisexual. I’m also agender, which means that I myself don’t feel like I have a gender, so that falls under “nonbinary” and the greater “trans” umbrella. I don’t prefer any pronouns, but I use she/her out of sheer convenience.

A: That’s really cool. I don’t usually hear about people who fall under the “nonbinary umbrella” choosing no pronouns.

J: Growing up, I very much have always felt my race, but I’ve never really felt female. I don’t think I was ever really treated as female or a girl until I hit puberty, and even then I didn’t really understand why people were going like “Oh, you’re a woman now!”

A lot of people look at me here in Japan and say, “Oh, but you’re so feminine, how do you not feel like a woman”? For me, I didn’t become more feminine nor really embrace my identity until I moved here. I do enjoy feminine dress, but I also felt like that’s kind of the “going” style here, and I started dressing that way to “keep up”. And I thought, “surely once I start dressing a certain way, I will feel like a woman”.

And it just didn’t happen. It also took me longer than I think maybe some others who are very leftist or progressive to really understand gender identity because gender doesn’t really have an effect, a bearing on my life. 

A: What made you identify with something outside the concept of “pronoun”?

J: It’s just felt kind of what’s right for me, even in my daily interactions. I noticed a lot of people just call me “Jaime”—they don’t really use pronouns when referring to me. So I was like, “oh, I like this”.

Image of Jaime Smith
Jaime Smith, BLM Tokyo. Image provided by Jaime Smith.

A: Do you think you’ve noticed any shifts in the past four years in Japan about gender discourse?

J: I don’t really know if anything shifted, or if I’ve just been paying more attention. When I first got here, I wasn’t paying attention to Japanese social issues or politics. I wanted to, but I was more focused on getting settled, and learning the language. But I pay a lot more attention to Japanese Twitter now, and as far as getting translations and finding out what social issues people are paying attention to, Twitter’s been very helpful. Some of these social issues include women’s rights, such as equality, sex worker’s rights, sexual assault legislation, acceptance and help for single mothers, as well as LGBT rights, foreigner rights and discrimination, and discrimination against Japanese mixed-race and ethnic minorities.

A: Have you noticed any differences between gender discourses or understandings from the U.S. and Japan?

J: I feel like it’s a lot more mainstream in the U.S. In Japan, I feel like it’s a bit more niche, and when I see people talking about gender here, it’s more so coming from groups rather than individuals. As far as something that’s “the same”, I think that although Americans would probably say that they’re a lot more willing to talk about gender, I think that both in the States and here, when you mention gender, people get uncomfortable. Almost like, “it’s a personal thing”, “you don’t really need to talk about it”, kind of like how being gay or bisexual used to be when we were younger.

On one hand, I understand that it is very much a personal decision, but on the other hand, when it comes to respect and pronouns and such, you have to talk about it, because otherwise people are going to misgender you. It can be uncomfortable for the person being misgendered.

Black trans women are killed the highest rate of Black people in the community. So yeah, we have a place. We deserve a voice. And as leaders of the movement, we will fight for that voice.

A: Regarding your LGBT+ identity, can you tell us how that is developed or how it relates to a racial liberation movement like BLM Tokyo?

J: Intersectionality is important—but it’s not the easiest thing to introduce or maintain. Even within the Black community, there are differing ideas about the LGBT community and whether or not it has a place in this movement. I say that it does because this movement was started by queer women. And as far as Tokyo goes specifically, the march was planned for the most part, or at least 50%, by queer people. So intersectionality definitely has a place. Black trans women are killed the highest rate of Black people in the community. So yeah, we have a place. We deserve a voice. And as leaders of the movement, we will fight for that voice.

However, it is the Black community’s place alone to figure out intersectionality in the community. I don’t like the idea of other groups trying to come in and saying, “well, you should do it this way”. I think that Black, queer and LGBT people would definitely speak up for ourselves. And I have. Anytime I’ve been asked, “Don’t you think the LGBT+ movement might try and derail the movement?”, I always counter and say, we are also targeted by violence—not just racial violence, but anti-trans, homophobic violence. So of course we care.

I wake up, I’m bisexual, I’m agender, I’m Black, all at the same time. All those are important to who I am, they make up who I am, so. I want to be accepted all at once.

A: I wonder what you think about racial inclusivity within the LGBT+ movement or community? What do you think of how they handle intersectionality?

J: That’s a difficult question because it’s so different everywhere. I think people—not just LGBT+, or Black, or white—people like to be able to generalise and treat people as a monolith because that makes things easier. But it just doesn’t work. And I think that’s why certain communities end up being fractured, in a way.

I’ve heard people say things like “Well, the Black LGBT+ movement is not the same as the overall LGBT+ movement, we have different issues, we face different types of discrimination and violence”. It’s like how people would say “white feminism is not our feminism”, because white people don’t necessarily want to focus on specific issues within minority communities.

Image of Jaime Smith
Image provided by Jaime Smith.

A: I think a lot of people forget that Black LGBT+ people exist, especially within the LGBT+ community, which can be really white-washed. There’s a lot of talk as well about how LGBT+ liberation needs to occur in tandem with racial liberation. Can you tell us more about why it is important these need to occur in tandem?

J: I think they need to occur in tandem because for people who are racial minorities and LGBT+, the LGBT+ kind of gets brushed off to the wayside. It might be a totally unfounded worry, but I worry that if racial liberation were to occur by itself, people would just kind of feel like they’re “done”. (laughs)

Getting rid of ideas of like toxic masculinity and gender boundaries must come along with racial equality to ensure other inequalities don’t heighten. There are people who claim, “We can get to that after we achieve racial equality”, but I just don’t see it being able to happen in separation.

Maybe that’s because people don’t exist as just being a minority and being LGBT+. I don’t get to choose that I’m Black one day, and bisexual and agender the other. I wake up, I’m bisexual, I’m agender, I’m Black, all at the same time. All those are important to who I am, they make up who I am, so. I want to be accepted all at once.

 People need to be comfortable calling out discrimination, even unintentional discrimination.

A: I wonder if you had anything to say about things that can be done by anyone who’s marginally interested in racial, gender and LGBT+ equality, outside of the electoral process.

J: I don’t think that to be involved you need to always have boots on the ground and volunteer for everything and share every post. There’s a lot more fun to be had as well. I think sometimes people have this idea that activism must always be sombre. And I know sometimes, we even get questions like, “Why a concert?” But you can’t be sombre all the time. And sometimes the best way to spread education is through something enjoyable and fun.

I also care more about personal responsibility within your sphere of influence. To me that matters a lot more. People need to be comfortable calling out discrimination, even unintentional discrimination. It doesn’t mean you have to get angry, it doesn’t mean you have to yell at people. It just means that you have to be willing to say, not scared to say, “Hey, that’s not okay”, and then be willing to stand behind it. I feel like the ability to have healthy debate, or call out the ones you love especially, is kind of being lost, and I think is something we need to be able to do. You might not always come away agreeing. My mom especially now understands not only LGBT+ issues but also me a lot more just through constant conservation. So you need to be able to have healthy debate with even the people you love.

I know it can be tough! I know it can be scary to call people out, but it has to be done.

Image provided by Jaime Smith.

A: With the political climate going on in the world right now, and with everything that has gone on since Donald Trump got elected in the U.S., why do you think intersectional representation has been gaining more attention recently? And what are ways for that to be sustained, especially after Joe Biden’s election?

J: I think it’s gained so much traction because minorities have become tired of being silent. I think growing up, there was a bit of a culture of “blend in”, and “try not to cause trouble”, and I think my generation is not okay with that anymore.

So I don’t think we’re going to keep being silent. And I think we can’t be silent. It’s important for liberals to realise that it’s not okay to get comfortable, to realise that equality, change, diversity and happiness does not come with a change of presidency. The U.S. Senate still looks the same; the Supreme Court is still majority-Republican.

There’s been some discourse about “Well, can’t we celebrate?”. I think celebration is totally fine, but there’s a difference between celebration and saying very harmful things such as “love has won” and “we voted for diversity”. You don’t gain diversity just by voting for it. You don’t gain tolerance just by voting for it.

Currently, BLM Tokyo is working on their RealTalk. bilingual webinar series, meant to help raise awareness about Black issues around the world and to provide a free educational resource for people interested in Black issues, as well as koku zine, a zine meant to highlight Black artists and creatives in Japan. They are also hoping to have another Harmonic Wavelength concert—live—in 2021, which was live-streamed earlier this year.
Instagram post promoting the second episode of BLM Tokyo’s
RealTalk. Webinar, for which Smith was a speaker.

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