The first time I went to Japan in 2011, I was with a translator and a friend, another African American male, who gave me the rundown on what to expect out in the “Land of the Rising Sun”.
“Expect a lot of stares man,” My friend Austell, known as DJ AAROCK let me know. “It’s not always bad, but there will be a lot of general curiosity.” And you’re big too, remember that Japan was not built for large people.”
He didn’t lie.
Everywhere I went, I ducked, squeezed, and contorted to make myself fit comfortably. It wasn’t easy, but I love everything about Japan, so I didn’t mind it. He said they would stare, and man did they. I got looks. I got the tilt-your-head-to-the-side looks. People would stop in traffic to eyeball me. I had strangers touch my skin. I had children ask me if my entire body were this dark. And in the cutest moment, I have had kids ask me if my skin were made of chocolate.
That trip made me realize one of my biggest fears: not claustrophobia, but the fear of being in the way. As a 6’0, 300+ pound Black man, I’ve tried my entire life to get out of the way of people. My wife has made me extra aware of when my pants may sag too much and show off a little crack, so I’m always tucking my shirt in and sliding out of the path of passersby. I spend most of my life just trying to blend in, despite working in a field where it’s advantageous to stand out.
People are often impressed by my vocal clarity and stamina on stage, despite me being a big guy, and I love that, when folks get surprised by what they see and hear. Those 30 to 45 minutes are the coolest time ever to be a fat guy. The issues usually start once I’m off stage.
The problem is, though not nearly as much as in Asia, American-made establishments don’t always cater to big people. I cringe when someone asks me to sit in a lawn chair, because I’ve had some hilarious moments where those bad boys have crumbled under pressure like James Harden in a playoff series. I’ve been in moments on small planes where I’ve had to encroach on the person next to me, and I’ve been extremely apologetic. This week in Phoenix, I experience an odd combo of bigotry that I’d never seen in my years of traveling.
I bought myself and my wife tickets to see Santana and The Doobie Brothers in Phoenix at AK-Chin Pavillion, a mostly-outdoor venue with lawn standing/sitting room as well as stadium-style seats. We got to the show 20 minutes late, after having to return to our cars because my wife’s purse was too large, and sat down next to two men, both Caucasian and in their 60’s, who were initially in our seats, perfectly man-spreading across four chairs.
When we asked them to move, they got a little perturbed, but we made small talk about the high priced drinks and how much of the Doobie’s set we had missed. Once we got settled, I noticed the gentleman next to me trying hard not to touch my leg with his own. He fidgeted, crossed and uncrossed his legs, and turned to each side to get a comfortable position.
To break the tension, I turned to him to say “Hey man, we’re all here to see a show and relax, I don’t mind if your leg touches mine.” Before I could get a word out, the man cut me off and yelled, spewing beer in my direction.
“They shoulda made you buy two fucking seats! Lean on her (my wife), not me, I don’t want you up against me!”
Shocked, I could only respond, “It’s okay man, it’s cool.” and try to get back to the concert. Things got awkward when I overheard him say that he was disappointed that he had to sit next to “black fatties.”
“Every fucking time I wanna have a good time, here they come,” He lamented under his breath to his mate, while right next to me.
What did I do?
Oh you know what I did. I waited until the Doobie Brothers encore ended, and then did what I’d wanted to from the moment he gave me the first cross look.
I found another section to the side, full of empty seats, and then I called my wife and told her to come with me. I don’t have time to ruin a great date night with foolishness. Did he deserve a sock in the mouth? Most likely. But that’s just not me. As I said, I’m the type of guy to get out of the way.
We sat next to a group of Native American couples, and we had the time of our lives. We danced, we laughed, we cried. Santana brought us together. No way I would’ve missed that just to teach a slack-jawed yokel a lesson. Did he think he could shame me into getting into the gym? Or maybe make me angry enough to leave the area, which I did? Regardless, I can think of 20 other ways that could’ve ended.
The encounter really made me think about how difficult it can be for overweight people, particularly people of color, in public settings. We all probably do small things that can make people feel so horrible about themselves…heck, even big people themselves may do or say things. These microaggressions probably occur 15-20 times a day without us realizing it.
For overweight people it could include:
Getting on a bus and seeing a person sitting next to an empty seat scowl at them or place their bag on the seat;
People watching them while they’re eating in a restaurant or checking out the contents of their cart in the supermarket;
A fat joke on TV or in a film;
A slimmer friend asking if she “looks fat in this”;
Hearing a group of children (or adults) making fun of them;
And many more.
It’s called fat shaming, and there’s no nice way to term it, because it’s not nice.
Now, how could Mr. Black Fatties have made this work out better?
Contact the venue staff, and privately ask to be re-seated. Most times if you’re nice, professionals will take care of you to help you feel comfortable. I have friends who do the same on planes. Privately approach a flight attendant and state your case, and usually they will do what they can. No need to make a scene. Shaming someone won’t make your ride, your flight, or your concert any easier.
These steps can’t solve everything, but I think that if we all use a little more common decency in public settings, this wacky life can run a lot smoother.
Jerry Springer used to say the most cliche thing at the end of his wild and ridiculous show, but I think about it every day and I almost use it as a mantra.
“Take care of yourselves…and each other.”
Raheem “Mega Ran” Jarbo
Note: I’d never referred to myself as “fat” until this year. It took 40 years of my life for me to finally find acceptance and comfort in a word. It’s not a bad word, it’s not an insult. It’s just a fact. Until I change it, it is what it is, and I’m okay with it.
About Raheem Jarbo
Mega Ran, aka Raheem Jarbo of Philadelphia is arguably the world's most well known video-game influenced performance artist. Since signing an unprecedented licensing deal with international developer Capcom, the former teacher's high-energy shows and fun, nerdy persona have led to world tours, festival and video game tournament performances, and a legion of smart art fans he calls "Team Mega."
Ran continues to bend genre definitions and reality with each release, and the sky is the limit. Mega Ran may have traded in the chalk for the microphone, but every song, every lyric, and every appearance is a lesson. School is in.