My career was spent as a high school counselor for 35 years. In that time I had a lot of experience with human relations issues, which included discussions about race prejudice. In my education we talked about scapegoating and other mechanisms involved in how and why humans develop prejudices toward one another.
I grew up in what was called the Seinan area, and went to Foshay Junior High, graduating in 1948. Foshay is located at Western and Exposition, west of USC and the Coliseum. Because of restrictive covenants in housing, Exposition divided the Asian and black area north of Exposition from the all-white area south of Exposition. Looking back at my old annuals I am reminded Foshay was well-integrated. (We didn’t use that term in those days.)
I was eight years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and my family, consisting of my mother and older sister Evelyn were sent to Santa Anita, before going to Amache, Colorado, then relocating to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When we were allowed to return to the West Coast, we wound up in the same segregated area in LA.
Unlike the experiences I have heard from those who relocated to white areas, like the Valley, there were no anti-Japanese problems with the black kids we went to school with.
Before the war, my sister and I spent a lot of time with my grandmother because my mother was divorced and was out working. Grandma told us that the polite name for black people was to call them “colored people.” As I got older and into adulthood, I witnessed the term going from “colored” to “black” to “African American.” The “n-word” in Japanese was “kurombo,” which was definitely never to be uttered. I am shocked when, even today, I hear older Nisei use the term.
To be sure, Donald Sterling’s comments are offensive and deserving of the censure he is getting. But he has displayed much worst prejudice in the past, and I wonder whether a lot of the reaction comes as a result of Sterling’s critics harboring deep-seated prejudices toward black people that come out with exaggerated force due to being repressed. Too, I wonder about the exaggerated enthusiasm of so many white people jumping on the bandwagon to condemn him.
In a past column, I referred to Brotherhood Camp, a human relations camp located in the mountains above Yucaipa, where I served as a counselor back in the ’70s and ’80s. In the camp, as part of the training process, we were divided into racial/ethnic groups to talk about our respective identities.
It was there I had to confront my Japanese identity, which was badly damaged growing up during WWII, being seen as the enemy. Too, I had to look at my inter-Asian prejudices: Where did I get the prejudice whereby other Asians were put on a sort of totem pole, with Japanese at the top, Koreans and Chinese below the Japanese, and Filipinos at the bottom. Vietnamese, Thai, etc. were out of the picture at that time, but they would have taken their place on the pole beneath the Japanese, as well.
Looking back at history, and learning about the rampant military conquests of the Japanese in Asia, I have a pretty good idea where these prejudices came from. For Japan to invade other countries, it had to be accompanied by a sense of superiority over these conquered countries. The anti-non-Japanese prejudice I acquired from my family had to come from this part of history. I would suspect it carried over to other families, as well.
Coming to grips with these prejudices has required a lot of soul-searching, but I take a certain amount of satisfaction in having dealt with them. In today’s world with so much interaction with other Asian groups, I am in a better place now.
Switching gears a bit: I find interesting the attitudes of a few Hawaiian JAs that I know in how they relate to the non-Japanese in Hawaii. Being in the majority, there seems to be a reversal in roles insofar as how they interact with haoles (whites) and other non-Japanese. In certain areas, haoles have increased in number and threaten the status quo. Some of the comments I have heard from Hawaiian JAs are plainly racist.
A JA Hawaiian friend told me that when she was growing up and befriended a Portuguese girl, her mother scolded her and immediately made her take a shower. Another friend told me that sometimes when a non-Japanese person would make a comment that seemed out of place, the Japanese person’s comment was something to the effect of, “Coming from you, I would expect that.”(The “you” being, of course, non-Japanese.) My friend agreed, while it was said in a kidding way, the comment was still a put-down.
It seems a given that people feel free to talk about other people’s prejudices, but are not too willing to talk about their own. Maybe Donald Sterling can open up this discussion.
Phil Shigekuni writes from San Fernando Valley and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.