By LEON KIMURA, President, San Jose JACL
The issue of black and white race relations struck with a vengeance in our hallowed San Jose State University institution. At the press conference held on campus this past Monday (Nov. 25), emotions ran deep and rightfully so as university and community leaders tried to reconcile NAACP demands for justice, including a call for felony charges to be brought against the four white young-adult perpetrators who terrorized their black roommate over several months.
The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the nation’s oldest and largest Asian American civil rights organization, was there to stand in support and solidarity with our NAACP brethren in this call for justice. As president of the San Jose JACL Chapter, member of the Asian American Pacific Islander Justice Coalition (APIJC) and the NAACP, native son of San Jose, and former student of SJSU, I felt compelled to reach out to the NAACP leadership.
Andy Noguchi, Florin JACL Chapter civil rights co-chair, asked me after we left the press conference why I got involved in this issue. First, it happened in my own backyard, so to speak. As noted, I was once a student at SJSU and it struck a personal chord that such egregious acts of racism could occur here in MY hometown. This is said as a resident and native son of San Jose, born scant blocks away from the campus in San Jose Hospital.
Second, I consider a large part of being a leader in the JACL or any civil rights organization includes building relationships throughout the community in anticipation of a social justice “event” that needs to be dealt with quickly. This effort is crucial to maintain strong and relevant organizations and enables its leaders to take the lead in effective responses.
Andy also asked my thoughts about AAPI involvement in this issue. I believe that even though the acts directly impacted a black student, it indirectly impacted all people of color when ignorance and lack of internalized social norms manifests itself in bad behavior. We all need to stand in solidarity as a society when racist acts or hate crimes occur, but there is also value added in seeing AAPI faces in the light of black and white or any race-relations issues.
The AAPI faces are important reminders that will help instill by association the feeling that other races are part of the issue at hand too. Therefore, it is not acceptable to treat ANY minorities in a discriminatory fashion, including those (and perhaps subliminally, especially those) with faces standing in solidarity together.
As I digest Thanksgiving dinner and reflect on all that I am thankful for, I cannot help but to also think about others who are not so fortunate, including the black and white SJSU students that were failed by everyone and will now suffer the lifelong consequences of their actions. Emotional distress, shattered dreams, redirected lives, due in large to a pervasive permissiveness in today’s society that allows daily reinforcement of stereotypical racism.
As an Asian example, Mickey Rooney’s slant eyed-bucktooth Mr. Yunioshi character in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is now arguably mimicked by kids, including teen idol Miley Cyrus when she pulled down the corners of her eyes — kidding around innocently of course, just joking. Sound familiar? Now we have three young adults who may be facing a two-year minimum jail term for a hate crime perpetrated as a group. Not so innocent now.
During World War II, when the U.S. government falsely imprisoned 120,000 Japanese Americans, most of whom were “non-aliens” (euphemism for U.S. citizens), the American public was pummeled with caricatures of “the enemy” depicted as the slant-eyed, buck-toothed “Yellow Peril.” Yet some still do not see why the Mr. Yunioshi character is offensive to Asian Americans.
And to make matters worse, it seems that, in general, the American public cannot distinguish between the Asian cultures. Vincent Chin was a Chinese American who was beaten to death by Detroit autoworkers who were upset by the Japanese competition. Or Margaret Abe-Koga, former mayor of Mountain View, was taunted by kids with the “Ching Chong Chinaman” routine as she walked her young children home from a neighborhood park.
It seems that all the Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Hmong Americans, Samoan Americans, etc. will be collectively lumped together as “Asian” in the minds of “mainstream” America. This has many ramifications, including the need to disaggregate data to identify the true needs of each ethnic minority group contained in the 20-plus separate races captured under the general “Asian” umbrella.
But that’s another story… For now, I hope that the silver lining in the cloud of the SJSU tragedy is that a greater awareness grows for the need to refrain from “innocent” racism that can mushroom out of control even in an enlightened institution of higher education where the population should know better.
So, if people tell me I speak good English and ask where I am from, I tell them “I was born right here in San Jose, and you?” It does take a village and each of us are villagers.