Dear Andrew Yang,
I hope one day, you read this. Your op-ed isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerous.
During your presidential run, I initially thought, “Cool! An Asian American man is running for office.” Then I really really REALLY hoped you weren’t THAT kind of Asian American. The kind who believes in the model minority myth, oftentimes without realizing it. The kind who believes we live in a post-racial society, or that Asian Americans aren’t people of color, or that Asian Americans are the best kind of people of color. The kind who has been conned into believing this country’s false promises, and that as long as we show our “American-ness,” people will respect us as equals.
So when I read your op-ed in the Washington Post to say I was gravely disappointed is an understatement. But I’m not here to take a jab at you. I’m here hoping to at least use this as a teaching moment. Unfortunately, like many other Asian Americans, we know so little about our history. I want to focus on one example you used that I was appalled to see, and frankly, was incredibly disrespectful and a dangerous narrative to promote.
I’ve written other articles on my Medium account as it pertains to Asian American racial history, which I encourage you to check out. But before I get into the details, I know a lot about you, at least your public persona, so here’s a little about me. I grew up in Southern California, and realized I was an “other” in 4th grade when I found myself in a suburb of mostly white, and some Asian, classmates. Before that, I grew up in a diverse working-class community, with Black, Latino, and Asian friends. Race was a concept that was made clear to me from a young age, but it wasn’t until I was surrounded by whiteness that I was made to feel racially inferior, that I felt “othered”. And that manifested in a lot of internalized racism. I learned early on not to bring home-made lunches to school and to keep my refrigerator shut if my friends came over. As I grew older, my friends and I bought into the model minority narrative. We embodied the narrative that we were hardworking and smart, and I was proud of it. I had internalized racism, and didn’t even realize it.
Then I went to college, accidentally took a class titled Asian American History at UC San Diego, and since then I’ve spent nearly the last decade pursuing Asian American studies. I received my MA in Asian American studies and currently am pursuing a PhD in American studies. I write this letter to you as an educator and Asian American woman, in hopes of sharing this knowledge about our history. A history that’s filled with war, trauma, injustice, action, activism, hope, and solidarity. A history most of us don’t know about because it’s been erased and watered down.
When I read your op-ed and you invoked the use of Japanese American soldiers, the 442 Battalion, as a historic example of patriotism that we should be embodying during this time of crisis, I was floored. How could you, a well-educated and privileged person, write something so abysmal? Because yes, while the 442nd remains the most decorated unit in US military history, touting their story of patriotism without discussing the grave injustice they and their families had to deal with is outrageous. Because while those young men were in Europe, sacrificing their lives for a country that didn’t accept them, their family and 120,000 Japanese Americans were sent to US concentration camps. Men, women, children, and grandparents. 60% of those who were sent to camps were US citizens, the other 40% were not allowed to naturalize because the law forbid it.
So while the 442nd was sacrificing their lives to prove their worth, the US was telling them they didn’t belong. And quite literally put them on trains and sent them to the middle of nowhere, unprepared and scared. The consequences of incarceration can fill volumes. It completely uprooted family structures for generations, caused generational trauma, stripped people of their rights, liberties, and properties, and resulted in the loss of family wealth. People died in these camps, can you imagine that kind of life? Not knowing if you’d ever see a family member who was taken by the government? Not knowing if you’d ever leave this hell hole? And then learning decades later that NOT A SINGLE Japanese American was found guilty of espionage or treason? And that government documents and testimonies were fabricated to the US Supreme Court, which upheld Executive Order 9066 and the constitutionality of sending a group of people, based on their ethnicity, to concentration camps. (Also, don’t you find it funny that Japanese Americans in Hawaii weren’t sent to camp on the basis that it would ruin the economy, over legitimate concerns of national security? Yet Pearl Harbor was in Hawaii…)
So while those soldiers were fighting in Europe, their families were living a nightmare. And even when those soldiers came back home, they weren’t welcomed with warm arms by white Americans who suddenly found a new appreciation for these Japanese Americans. In fact, they, alongside Blacks, Latinos, and Natives, who also fought in the war, faced ample racism, including continued structural racism in the form of housing segregation. (And home-ownership, as we well know, plays a vital role in one’s socioeconomic future.)
You bring up the 442nd, but did you know about the No-No Boys? Young men who refused the draft order, and answered “No” to questions 27 and 28 in the War Relocation Authority’s Loyalty Questionnaire.
Question 27 asked: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?
Question 28 asked: Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attacks by foreign and domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or disobedience to the Japanese Emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization
Q27 is a draft order. In this moment, would YOU be willing to serve in the military? Imagine your family is currently being held in Manzanar, and you haven’t seen your father since the day after Pearl Harbor because he was wrongfully taken into custody because the government thought he was a spy. He eventually dies before your family gets to see him because you’re all incarcerated at Manzanar. Do you say yes to prove your loyalty and fight in a war?
And you’re a smart man, Q28 is ridiculous! A nightmare question for anyone who designs surveys. If you answer yes, it assumes you held prior loyalty, outside of the country of your birth.
So yes, while there were many brave Japanese American men who fought for a country DESPITE all of these injustices, there were also many brave Japanese American men who refused to sacrifice their lives for a country that sent their families to concentration camps.
Honestly, I would be THRILLED to have this discussion with you. I love teaching people about this stuff and wish ethnic studies were in every K-12 classroom, and didn’t have to be accessed in college (if funding for those programs haven’t been cut yet). There’s such a rich and complex history. One that shows why the model minority narrative has NEVER worked for any ethnic group. And how model minority was actually perpetuated in order to put other people of color down and blame them for their flaws, while ridding the state of any accountability (aka neoliberalism).
Racism is embedded in the very fabric of this nation. You cannot look at US history without examining racism at every level, in every aspect that helped build this country, and continues to maintain it.
Yes, I agree with you, saying, “Don’t be racist,” does absolutely nothing to stop someone from having racist beliefs or enacting hate crimes. At the same time, saying, “I’m not racist” has a similar effect. When you’re born in a racist system and society, it is not enough to say, I’m not racist. Instead, we must take an anti-racist approach, and actively combat the racial biases we are all taught to have from a young age.
Exuding extreme patriotism, going above and beyond to prove our worth to this country, does nothing to solve this problem either.
We’ve already learned this lesson from a group of people who died, doing the most patriotic thing you can ever do for this country. The 442nd proved their American-ness.
Interesting that it was never reciprocated.