On August 15, 1945, 68 year ago today, Japan surrendered to the Allied forces, signaling the end of World War II. For attitudes domestically in the U.S., WWII brought out the best and the worst in us. From the same president who brought us the Social Security Act and other saving elements of the New Deal also came Executive Order 9066, which imprisoned some 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry into relocation camps, the majority of whom were American-born citizens.
In face of blatant adversity and discrimination, Japanese Americans remained loyal to Uncle Sam, heeding the call-to-arms and fighting in the European theater during WWII. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit of mostly American soldiers of Japanese descent, went on to become the most decorated regiment in the history of the U.S. Military, earning the nickname the “Purple Heart Battalion.”
Unfortunately after the war, Japanese Americans continued to face prejudice. Some lost their homes, their businesses, and others unwelcomed in their former communities.
Attitudes have certainly changed since then, reparations and apologies issued. But the brush of the “perpetual foreigner” remains.
Just the other day, I was asked, “What’s your nationality?”
I can’t help but think, would I even be asked this if I were white or Black? It’s likely a non-malicious attempt at conversation, but it also certainly to me signals an embedded attitude in society that sometimes has very deleterious results.
Despite the challenges that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders face, the community both individually and collectively has endured and found a home in America. From the SCOTUS challenges of Takao Ozawa and Bhagat Singh Thind (unfortunately unsuccessful attempts to gain citizenship through naturalization) in the 1920s to Larry Itliong and others who contributed to the labor movement in the 1960s, AAPIs have been and continue to be embedded in the fabric of America, like Yuri Kochiyama, the grassroots activist who held Malcolm X as he died.
Today, Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial group in America. North Carolina is among the top five states with the largest increases in populations of Asian descent and has the fourth largest Hmong community in the U.S.
With a growing community also come efforts toward meaningful engagement, like that of Maykia Yang, educating Hmong farmers about USDA’s Farm Service Agency programs, and more broad efforts like those of APIAvote on voter registration and engagement amid challenges of language access and voter ID.
And it’s these types of engagement that give me hope for the futures of my friend’s infant son Raheem and the future child of my close friend currently working as an expat in Beijing, both American children of multiethnic backgrounds who will define the America of tomorrow (and, really, today).
As for the question of “What is your nationality?”
I found this photo of a Japanese American grocery store closed when its owner was relocated during WWII that answers it for me.