Relatively small though we are, as a Nikkei community, our growing acceptance into dominant white, middle-class culture is something I do not take lightly (particularly as a Japanese American with European ancestry). I have come to notice that false binaries (i.e. “Republicans vs. Democrats”) have and continue to play a devastating role in my own life, as well as the lives of too many that I love. I am greatly weary of the ways historical amnesia may cause us to forget, not only about the unjust suffering of our own community, but of that of our many other brothers and sisters of color in America, and beyond.
I fear that our longing to escape what my Jodo-Shinshu Buddhist background informs me is legitimate suffering, and what my Protestant Christian-Liberation theology background informs me is the painful path to love and justice, will leave us just as isolated and alone as we once found ourselves as we whispered Shikata ga nai to our children and grandchildren. In his research, Psychiatrist Carl Jung found that when privilege allowed certain people to escape legitimate suffering, it did not but vanish, but rather relocated elsewhere, creating illegitimate suffering. As Muslim, Arab, and South Asian Americans suffer unjustly from xenophobic racism in post 9-11 America, and innocent brown children continue to have bombs dropped upon them abroad, my hope and prayer is that our community will not turn a blind eye, or watch from the relative safety of the “side-lines” as false binaries push us into conformity, complacency or cowardice.
As the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once stated, “indifference to evil is more invidious than evil itself because indifference to evil is contagious.” We must never forget our cultural connections to Jewish brothers and sisters, who also faced concentration camps and were the original “model minorities” met with xenophobia and otherization in the United States. And while our assimilation into white dominant culture, at least to me, feels impossible due to our phenotypical traits as Asian peoples, it is not beyond me that the system we currently operate within will do whatever is has to in order to sustain itself.
At present time, I feel it safe to say that if not beginning already, Nikkei and other East Asian American communities are fast approaching acceptance into the safety that being allowed access into the “dominant culture” brings about. If we are to study the histories (and herstories) of the Irish, Scottish, Italian, and Jewish Americans (among others), we may identify an undeniable pattern of subjugation, followed by acceptance in the form of assimilation and conformity/complacency — all while at the expense of poor and working people (not limited to, but predominantly Black, Latin@ and Indigenous Americans).
To my fellow Yonsei and all young adult Nikkei who are maladjusted to injustice and are not adapted to indifference, I applaud you as you continue taking hold of the courage and art of gaman that has been passed down to us by our elders. Take pride as you study our and others’ histories, think critically, identify false binaries, and always push to move from awareness to action in addressing unjust suffering. As part of an American an human generation whose future is simply not secure, “awareness” alone is quite plainly, not enough. We must choose solidarity over sympathy and recognize that there are no “sidelines.” Because while I pay great homage to the non-Japanese heritage allies who stood beside us as we were interned on the West Coast and bombed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a primary reason we suffered such atrocities was due to in many ways to our inability to create pan-ethnic coalitions with other peoples being targeted by unjust suffering.
There are no “sidelines.” Every time we see someone carrying more suffering than they are meant to bear, we make a un/conscious decision as to whether we will stand in solidarity with them or not. As Yonsei and/or young adult Nikkei people, we hold the key to a certain amount of relative privilege in a racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, xenophobic society. In such a society, identifying the false binary of “oppressor” versus “oppressed” must be identified if we are ever to move from awareness to action in redistributing material and spiritual resources, addressing unjust suffering, and removing forever, the isolating,emasculating, exotifying, disempowering, and dehumanizing “model minority” mask that has been placed upon us.
Love takes off masks that we fear we canot live without and know we canot live within.
In solidarity & with love, respect, & gratitude,
Colin Masashi “Senbei” Ehara
Colin Masashi “Senbei” Ehara is a Yonsei Nikkei/Scottish/German/Iroquois American writer, Hip-Hop/Spoken Word artist, and educator from Richmond, Calif. He received a B.A. in American Studies and Education from UC Santa Cruz, an M.A. in Asian American Studies from San Francisco State University, and is currently completing a Single-Subject (English) Teaching Credential at the University of San Francisco. He resides in El Cerrito, Calif., with his wife, artist Emalyn Lopez.