By SHARON YAMATO
I sit in horror as I write this after the devastating killing of eight people, six of them Asian women, in Atlanta. Though the exact motive is still under investigation, there’s no way to separate this crime from the virulent anti-Asian hatred sweeping the country. Seeing how these Korean women were the target of the biggest mass shooting since COVID-19 began, it’s no mystery what (and who) started it all.
It’s on all our minds. It clearly stems from the disgusting rhetoric spewed by none other than the Racist-in-Chief himself. His successor, President Biden, recently attempted to curtail it by calling out anti-Asian hate crimes as “un-American.”
For a country founded on slavery and marred by lynchings, gun violence, and mob attacks, the dilemma between race and American ideals has never been more real. After the Capitol insurrection, a police officer shouted, “I got called (the N-word) 15 times today,” then proceeded to break down in tears. Another black officer responded, “Is this America?”
There’s never been a doubt in my mind that America is racist, but the question that now screams out is “Has America become even more racist?” As vicious name-calling strikes close to home again, Asian Americans in particular have become frighteningly aware that no minority, model or otherwise, has ever been or is immune from hateful rhetoric and ensuing violence. Being an elderly Asian woman, never before have I been so aware that the color of my skin (as well as age and gender) makes me more vulnerable to attack.
It feels like yesterday when the word “Jap” was in every headline and on every white person’s lips. It was a time when “Chinks” and “Japs” were differentiated in this country to prevent Chinese Americans from going to camps with their lookalike brethren or being targets of anti-Asian hysteria. Since Asian Americans have always been considered lookalikes, all of us, whether Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai or Indian, are often seen as the common enemy.
To cite another ugly example of mistaken Asian identity, the 1982 killing of Vincent Chin was precipitated by anti-Japanese attitudes in Detroit when white workers felt threatened by the Japanese auto industry, which they feared was taking over their jobs. Two white auto workers directed their anger at Chin, a Chinese American they thought was Japanese, and beat him in a parking lot with a baseball bat, which led to his death.
That’s when Asian Americans came together as a group in protest over this despicable killing in a rare show of unity. It was a time of solidarity despite the lack of camaraderie among Asian American groups. Given our ethnocentricism and ongoing political history, it’s no surprise that Chinese have been known to look down on Japanese, Japanese on Koreans, Koreans on Blacks, and so on. I only hope that the current violence against our people of color will provide yet another opportunity for Americans of all ethnicities to unite in solidarity with all those victimized by violent crime.
It’s important to see the current problems in the context of this country’s ongoing racial divides — many of which have been disguised by idealism that everyone in this country is “created equal” and that “America is great.” Loyalty was a huge issue during the war when Japanese Americans were asked to pledge their allegiance to the country that imprisoned them. They would fantasize that loyalty to America meant the government would treat them as equals. Instead, they were thrown into “Jap camps” as punishment for being different.
Then I spent a month in the white heartland of Wyoming — in the shadow of the former camp known as Heart Mountain — I was taken aback by the courtesies extended me by this Trump-loving, gun-toting and former Jap-hating population. On the surface, every polite social courtesy was extended me as if I were one of them, but there’s no doubt that some of these same people could easily be the ones who stormed the Capitol to protect what they called their America, i.e., one that didn’t include me or the other 120,000 former detainees; or innocent foreign-looking women who happened to work in a massage parlor.
Over casual conversation with some of the people I interviewed while in Wyoming, I came to realize I had my own prejudices against what I considered their ill-informed beliefs. I was forced to acknowledge that real change happens from deep within, that we needed to try to understand each other, or at least communicate with each other, to begin that journey away from the underlying racist beliefs that persist.
To start off, we must speak out against using racial language, like “Chinese virus” and “kung flu,” or racist epithets meant to subjugate and divide.
Other issues at the top of the list include addressing racist policing policies and immigrant detention — issues that must be tackled if there’s any hope for an America that works for everyone.
I remember a time when I was told to “go back to my own country,” by someone who was obviously angry at me for something (I can’t remember what) I did to provoke him. I realize many people don’t want to face up to possible inequities in the way things are in this country. They would rather get rid of everyone who reminds them that this country isn’t as great as they would like to believe it is.
America is my home, and I would like to see it be as great as it can possibly be. However, I also realize that we need to point out its flaws if we are to work to correct them. What’s more, we must all feel safe enough to speak out against them interracially, intergenerationally, and humanly.
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.