Illuminating historical intersections of Black and Japanese Americans
BBSO and JSA held an event to discuss the similarities between their two cultures.
On March 3, the Brandeis Asian American and Pacific Islander Department, the Brandeis Black Student Organization, and the Japanese Student Association held an educational event called ‘The Intertwining Histories of Black and Japanese Americans’ to shed light on the unspoken history of the relationship between the two communities.
There were three presenters: Professor Yuichiro Onishi from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities who studies the intersection of African American & African Studies and Asian American Studies; Prof. Aida Yuen Wong (FA) who is an art and fashion historian affiliated with the East Asian Studies program; and Director of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Education and Learning Initiatives Charles Chip Mc Neal. Kiwa Shinoda ’25 from JSA and Madison Williams-Casey ’25 from BBSO moderated the discussion.
Onishi started the discussion with a presentation on Afro-Asian solidarity and stated that there is an extensive history of camaraderie between the two communities in fighting against imperialism, colonialism, and war. Both supported each other in the U.S., but also did so on a global scale. Some Black Americans and citizens of India, China, Japan, and Vietnam shared anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and/or antiracist ideas that shaped each other’s domestic social movements. Onishi explained that the mutual support between African and Asian Americans manifested in the U.S. as the Asian American movement grew during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s to the early 1970s.
He talked about two Asian American social activists, Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama, and their connections to Black social movements. Boggs was a Chinese American revolutionary activist and philosopher who was involved with Black radical politics and Marxism. She collaborated with Trinidadian Marxist thinker C.L. R. James throughout the 1940s and 50s. Gender and racial discrimination prevented Boggs from pursuing an academic position, so she focused her energy on movement building. Onishi recommended Boggs’ book “The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century” and her documentary “American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs” for further information if people were interested.
Yuri Kochiyama was incarcerated in the Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas during World War II and afterward moved to New York with her husband. According to an NPR article, “Living in housing projects among Black and Puerto Rican neighbors inspired her interest in the civil rights movement.” She started holding weekly meetings for social activists in her home. Meeting Malcolm X in 1963 radicalized her beliefs, and she became involved in Black nationalist movements. Kochiyama was present when Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965 and cradled his head in her lap; there is an infamous photo of this moment in Life magazine.
Mc Neal presented next, explaining that all forms of oppression are connected. Injustice against racial groups that people do not identify with may seem like a separate issue and thus irrelevant. However, he argued that “once they come for you, they [sic] coming for me next,” and it is an “illusion that they have taught you to think that ‘Oh, this is an Asian problem.’ ‘This is a Southern problem.’” White supremacists have pitted racial minorities against one another to keep them separate, because unified opposition would be too powerful. Moreover, he advised against comparing atrocities and arguing over who has suffered more or for longer because it creates more divisions. Every injustice has unique characteristics, and he said that it is unproductive to set them against each other.
Mc Neal acknowledged how difficult it is for Black people and Asian Americans to confront their past. “We’ve got those tensions, and we carry them with us,” he said. “It’s transgenerational, it’s in my blood, … skin, … [and] DNA. That oppression, that history, that sadness, that trauma — I carry it with me. So when I see these images, I didn’t live that time, but I know that those are my ancestors.”
He then discussed how both communities shared many experiences in the fight for equal rights. Frederick Douglass, known for his abolitionist work, also advocated for the rights of Chinese laborers after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 passed. Japanese internment during World War II was a pivotal moment for Black Americans because it demonstrated that the U.S. government was willing to imprison a minority population. This example of race-based imprisonment sparked fears that the same could happen to Black people. Additionally, Asian Americans were significantly involved in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Mc Neal looked up to Ruth Asawa, a Japanese American artist. The War Relocation Authority forcibly moved Asawa to the Santa Anita race track in Arcadia, California, and Asawa was eventually incarcerated at the Rohwer Relocation Center. She used her free time to pursue art and explored multiple mediums, such as wire and electroplated sculptures, paintings, and drawings. She also taught art — Asawa and her friend Sally Woodbridge created the Alvarado School Arts Workshop in 1968, teaching art to young children in public schools.
Mc Neal emotionally recounted memories of meeting Asawa and becoming one of her students. Asawa taught him everything he knows “about love, honor, ethics, forgiveness, compassion, and resilience. That word is not an abstract word to me. She was a woman who lived through the internment and had no bitterness. She turned all her energy into art and love,” he said. Asawa inspired him to become a teacher and a social activist and highlighted how Afro-Asian intersectionality personally impacted him, illustrating a concrete example of what Afro-Asian solidarity looks like.
Asian Americans and African Americans also shape each other’s music and media. Both groups’ influences can be seen in the hip-hop genre as well as anime. Mc Neal stated that anime appealed to the Black community because of its focus on heroes fighting against injustice. He talked about the Japanese word mukokuseki, which means “nationless” or “without nationality.” Some anime reflect the meaning of this word when they have characters that lack distinct ethnic features. Mc Neal said that this allowed the story to appeal to many people.
Building on this point, Wong added that not only do both communities impact each other’s pop culture in terms of music and media, but they also affect beauty standards and fashion. In the 1990s, a subcultural phenomenon called ganguro, meaning “blackface,” flourished in Japan. Japanese girls participated in ganguro because they wanted to emulate English model Naomi Campbell and Okinawan singer Amuro Namie, due to their sun-tanned complexion. Additionally, B-style — in which the B stands for Black — is a fashion trend in Japan inspired by Black culture. There is a more extreme variation of ganguro called yamanba or manba that consists of darker face makeup, light colored hair, dark eyeliner, fake eyelashes, as well as short skirts and dresses. Defenders of this style claimed that it was not intended to be racist and was meant to provide alternative methods of expression to defy traditional Japanese beauty standards.
Bihaku, meaning “beautifully white,” is the mainstream ideal and promotes light skin and dark hair. These features are highlighted because they traditionally symbolize affluence and non-labor. Skin whitening cosmetics are prevalent in Asia, and “The Asia-Pacific market accounted for over half of global revenue in 2018,” according to a CNN article. The use of ganguro faded in the early 2000s due to the resurgence of a light skin aesthetic.
Wong also mentioned Ariana Mamiko Miyamoto, a Japanese model and pageant titleholder. She is half Black, half Japanese, and she became the first biracial woman to be crowned Miss Universe Japan in 2015. Miyamoto placed in the top 10 at the Miss Universe pageant. According to an interview with the BBC, Miyamoto discussed how some people do not consider her to be Japanese and how her pageant victory sparked harsh criticism. She described how foreign media outlets paid more attention to her than the Japanese media. One of Miyamoto’s friends committed suicide because he felt unaccepted due to his multiracial identity. The tragedy pushed Miyamoto to enter the pageant, and she wishes to reduce stigma against multiracial people in Japan.
Similar to Mc Neal, Wong also shared a personal anecdote about a former colleague, Robert Maeda, who taught Asian art history. When Wong arrived at Brandeis in 2000, Maeda was retiring. She found out that he was interned at the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona. Maeda’s daughter paid tribute to her late father with performance art that Wong moderated. Recently, his widow reached out to Wong about donating some of his personal book collections to the library, and subsequently, she learned more about Maeda’s history.
After the three presentations, the moderators began a Q&A session. The first question asked why the history of Afro-Asian solidarity is not more well known. Wong echoed earlier points of white supremacists generating divisions between racial minorities as the reason why this intersectional history is hidden. Moreover, she talked about academic disciplinary boundaries and that there is not enough intersectional research.
Onishi mentioned how some Asian Americans identified less with the Civil Rights Movement and more with the concept of Black radicalism; they were more interested in self- determination than racial integration. Additionally, he mentioned how “Asian America was a category of struggle. It wasn’t a category for identity. It was a political category to begin with.” Since conceptions of Asian America and African America are different from each other, it could have decreased visibility of the overlapping characteristics.
The discussion ended on the topic of healing and unity. One way of coming to terms with the past is reparations, of which there have been none for Black people. Mc Neal talked about the first attempt to give reparations to former slaves, which is known by the common phrase, “40 acres and a mule.” General William T. Sherman’s “Special Field Order No. 15” granted freed slaves 40 acres, and while the order did not explicitly mention mules, some received leftover Army mules. However, this policy never came to fruition because former President Andrew Johnson revoked the order. For interned Japanese Americans, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 provided surviving Japanese Americans $20,000 in reparations and a formal apology by former President Ronald Reagan.
All three speakers discussed ways to promote unity among racial minorities — especially on campus — and Wong emphasized the need to have more events like this. Wong argued that more knowledge of each community’s historic struggles can break down divisions between them by eliminating false narratives. For example, learning about Chinese immigrants’ sacrifices while building the Transcontinental Railroad and Asian Americans’ fight for U.S. citizenship can help dispel the model minority myth.
Mc Neal highlighted two costs of disunity. Poverty generated by systemic racism produces a burden not only on individuals but also on society through lack of productivity and missed potential. Furthermore, when people do not fight for equal rights for all, there are significant moral costs. Just as diverse groups can come together to defend common causes, there are also multiple ways to participate, and he encouraged people to become involved. He invited people to reflect on what they can do because non-action has consequences too.