I have been seeing a young black writer, Baratunde Thurston, on TV who is promoting a book that he has written called, “How To Be Black.” I have not read it yet, but I plan to, since the concept is, first, sort of funny (ha ha!) in that there’s some kind of “way” of being black that can be learned, and then intriguing in that is that what a black person should strive for, a certain role or persona in our society? Then, all sorts of ancillary questions arise, like can a black person make a choice about being black or not, or are there societal stereotypes and expectations that are put upon you that form you and then, you have to figure out ways of being what you want to be in spite of the persona that is put upon you at birth?
And then, I began to think about a parallel situation, a “how to be Asian American” format. Because, after all, there are these social stereotypes that are put upon you at birth, and you grow up knowing that you are not white and of course, that is OK. You didn’t choose to be Asian American. Now, in growing up, you are going to encounter situations in which looking like an Asian will make a difference in your interactions with others, and I have always thought that being racially different adds an extra layer of complexity in one’s life, and it can take positive and negative turns. It wasn’t a good thing to be Japanese American during WWII, since the government chose to put us into concentration camps. We were left with a feeling of vulnerability because our ancestry stamped us as possible enemies.
So one of the things that we have learned is that we have to seem innocuous and harmless to be polite and nice so that we aren’t perceived as the least bit threatening.
Well, we who live on the West Coast more or less grow up in a racially mixed society, and so we’re lucky in that we all got a lot more exposure to persons of many skin colors. But still and all, we do a first-impression sizing up of others, taking into account their appearance, including their skin color. We can’t help it, and it would be great if we could all treat each other with respect and regard for individual personalities, and we’re all getting better at it.
I have to face the fact that I carry a great deal of baggage, that I grew up on a farm in a rural area where our group was “Japanese-y.” I have characterized that milieu as something like a village in Japan, since the Issei farmers had formed a cooperative and though they had individual farms, they organized their lives together like a village. I learned English in school, my first language being Japanese. So, I have a lot of old world Japan in my background, and in spite of all of my education and life experiences, there’s a certain amount of passivity that is inbred in me. So I concede that there is within me, and I suspect in others, a bit of restraint that is self imposed. The Issei had so much to cope with in establishing themselves in a foreign land, and incarceration frightened the Nisei into conformity. We were “the quiet Americans.” But that was then, now is now.
Now, how to be Asian American has taken a new turn. For instance, in the Feb. 9–16, 2012 Nichi Bei Weekly, we have Tomo Hirai’s “A rant from a Japanese American: Pete Hoekstra, this is about you” sending a message to former Congressman Peter Hoekstra, lambasting him for running a racist-tinged political ad. And then we have Tom Ikeda, Soji Kashiwagi and Barbara Takei — “A disappointing comparison during the 70th anniversary of EO 9066, Feb. 9–16, 2012;” “Letter to President Obama Re: Indefinite military detention, Jan. 12–18, 2012;” and “Deporting ‘troublemakers’ redux; Feb. 2–8, 2012” — scolding Obama for signing legislation authorizing the military to imprison civilians including American citizens indefinitely anywhere in the world without charging or putting them on trial, much like they did to us in World War II. These are the AAs of today, who won’t do “enryo” (restraint) and stay passive when issues of great importance come up.
Having been sort of a loud mouth for most of my life, I am delighted that these letters are being written. And I truly thank the Nichi Bei Weekly for providing a vehicle for these voices.
So, to be Asian American and black American or any other kind of hyphenated American today, you can be yourself and you gotta stand up for what you think is right and not let anyone get away with bad actions. As my friend Greg Robinson put it in a letter, “Ever since the Michelle Malkin business, I have encouraged Japanese Americans to speak for themselves — otherwise, they are effectively conceding the racists’ argument that they are not real Americans.”
Chizu Omori, of San Francisco, is co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.