I’ve been really shocked by the virtually instantaneous racist responses to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan (e.g., Angry Asian Man’s depressing roundup of some of these). A number of people, including several public figures, have either made jokes about the disaster or suggested it’s some sort of karmic or divine retribution for Pearl Harbor. In addition to being horrifically callous, these responses inexplicably don’t seem to consider the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the firebombing of Tokyo (which killed more people than both nuclear attacks combined), or the continued American military presence in Japan to be sufficient “payback” for an attack now nearly seventy years past. Further, they reflect lingering stereotypes of Asians as a “yellow menace” and perpetual foreigners – so foreign that for some, even a disaster on this scale doesn’t warrant any real sympathy for the Japanese people.
Somewhat more subtle but also racist and wildly inappropriate are speculations about why there has supposedly been no looting in the wake of the tsunami. Not only does this claim appear to be false (follow up here), it also echoes racist tropes about the model minority, the passive or emotionally cold Asian, and Asians as completely identical and homogenous. Some assertions about the lack of looting are very blatantly motivated by racial prejudice, as evidenced by the many people using the cover of online anonymity to hold up the racial homogeneity of Japan and the absence of large numbers of black people as the reason for low crime in the aftermath of the earthquake. Beyond being prejudiced, this false claim harms people by erasing the realities of crime in Japan. More importantly, it erases the voices and experiences of Japanese survivors further victimized by people who use the chaos created by natural disasters as an opportunity to rob, defraud, or assault people with impunity – for example, it erases the experiences of numerous women who were raped or sexually assaulted in the weeks following the 1995 Kobe earthquake.
Also making the rounds is a video by a white UCLA student who complains about ‘hordes of Asians” at “our school,” mocks Asian and Asian American students for talking on cell phones in the library (complete with Charlie Chan-style “Asian” accent and fake “Chinese,” and claims that Asian students are ignorant of proper “American manners.” You know, because people of Asian descent can’t possibly be American like white people are, and UCLA rightfully belongs to white people. You can watch the video here, but you’re not missing out on much if you don’t.
I loved Beau Sia’s response to the video because, rather than personally attacking the student, he explores the anxieties, fears, and ignorance that inform her rant, turning it into a teaching moment instead of just a reactive one (credit Angry Asian Man for that last insight).
after watching “asians in the library,” and many subsequent postings in response, i wrote this. rather than attack alexandra wallace for her thoughts, i decided to write a persona piece in her voice, as a means to address some of the greater issues revealed in her rant. in the end, this poem isn’t really about her and what she said, but more the thoughts and beliefs people hold, without considering the entire history that may have led them to think and believe in the manner that they do. my hope is that we can all use this moment to recognize that we all need to improve our ability to understand and share this world with each other. this is just a small contribution to furthering that conversation. thank you for listening.