An Open Letter To As Am/JA Allies:

Hello you ❤

When we compare Japanese American internment to the threat of Muslim American internment, I worry about collapsing difference, about collapsing history, about what we lose in practicing a certain brand of solidarity. It’s easy to reduce internment to hatred, bigotry, a “mistake that should never happen again.” In the same way that it’s easy to say “Love Trumps Hate.” As if love ever were the solution. As if hate ever were the problem.

I want us to begin with the acknowledgement that “American” is a constructed identity, a politically useful construction, a coerced construction, a Nissei construction, perhaps (if not this exactly, we yet must consider generational difference as we interrogate Americanness). At the very least, we must recognize that even still, many immigrants read American as whiteness, or choose to, for whatever reason, distance themselves from such an identity. We must remember that not all Japanese identified as American in the 1940s, just as not all Muslims will identify as American today. It may be more useful to hold your identity apart from the state, the nation. Who could blame anyone for doing such a thing.

In this way, we recognize the fact that being American is not the common denominator here. It is useless to cry, “We’re all American!” Because we’re not, and to do so is to highlight assimilation, to romanticize it, to put the state above its residents. I am not interested in forcing this identity upon others who do not want it, just as I am not interested in white people drawing the American flag as hijab, wearing hijab, #IAmAMuslimToo (no, you’re not), empathy, equation, erasure, assimilation. Belonging to a nation should not be the implied requirement for protecting the rights of residents. Empathy should not stop with citizenship.

Japanese Americans, in particular, should be careful while navigating this line, as we bring with us decades of assimilationist and model minority strategies alongside our activism and solidarity strategies, and I do not want to disown such a history: better to acknowledge and work through. Better to understand how we’ve been conditioned to accept whiteness as normative, in subtle ways that we may not recognize. To accept assimilation as normative. We must not cling to narratives of assimilation especially when, for yellow and brown people, assimilation can never be complete. When assimilation always leads to some form of haunting (I am thinking of Jane Wong’s Poetics of Haunting, and of Eng & Han’s work on Racial Melancholy, though their work must be read with certain reservations, and carefully).

In short: assimilation is an immigrant survival strategy, it is not the only one, it should not be. I am over claiming American-ness. What then, in place of it?

First, the key differences between Japanese American internment and a proposed Muslim internment. We see fear of the other, yes, this is easily recognizable, we can sort of fit such an affect into common themes that link yellow peril to the rhetoric of terrorism to bans and walls and what have you, but I think it is important to remember that in 1940, Japanese Americans were perceived as spies operating on behalf of a racially foreign and oppositional state: the threat being tied to a distinct entity, such that many efforts were made to distinguish Japanese from Chinese people, since it was so very hard for white people to do this (and still is, tbh). It was a race thing, yes, of course, but it is more complicated than racial hatred. It was based also in Japanese American imagined proximity to the imperialism of the Japanese state which was at odds with the imperialism of the American state.

Again, it is about race. But it is also about American imperialism, American colonization, American foreign policy, American exploitation, economic interests, capital. This is the key piece missing from “progressive” think pieces and all the Facebook posts I’ve been scrolling through that prompted me to write this thing. It’s fundamentally about race, capital, imperialism, and colonialism, everything at once.

Affect cannot be divorced from capital; neoliberal love literally cannot trump hate, because hate is not even the problem (try: racial capitalism, or something like that). We need a different kind of love, a radical love, that acknowledges it is not hatred that leads to oppression, but our own complicity in neoliberalism and neocolonialism; we need a love that recognizes our histories as being linked and yet distinct from the present, from this historical moment, a love that understands all the various nuances that allowed for internment to happen in the first place.

Internment not as “a bad thing” or “a mistake.” We do not stop at good/bad. We do not stop at descriptions and images of how “bad” it was. We know it was “bad.” It is not enough to say this.

Which is to say: THEY IMPRISONED US. THEY POSITIONED US WITHIN THEIR VIOLENT DISCOURSE. THEY DIVIDED OUR FAMILIES. THEY TOOK OUR PEOPLE AND MADE THEM FIGHT IN A WAR THAT WAS NOT OURS. THEY HAD US KILLED TO PROTECT THE SAME STATE THAT IMPRISONED US. THERE WAS NOTHING HEROIC ABOUT OUR DEAD BODIES. THEY MADE US BELIEVE THAT THERE WAS.

NISSEI MEMORIAL @ LAKE VIEW CEMETERY

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You can go to Seattle and see the graves of our dead. Three displaced years, 100,000 lives, 53 graves, these, our dead, and so many others wounded. For what.

How to find love in this. This is not “bad.” This is not “hatred.” This is a system designed to exploit our bodies, our labor, even in the face of the complete disregard of our rights as citizens and residents. I think of Return to Manzanar, plates smashing on the ground, the puzzled white man who cannot possibly understand. I love the plates smashing, but I feel like I am smashing, too. I love the hand that throws the plates, but I am tired of throwing, too.

Do not say that this was a “mistake.” Do not take their apologies. Do not believe in reconciliation. Not until they lift the ban. Not until they tear down the walls. Not until they abolish all prisons. Not until they give to native people their sovereignty, not until they decenter whiteness. Your fight is not for your identity, not for your rights, but for the complete and utter destruction of the imperialist state. The complete and utter destruction of empire. Do not believe the white liberals are on your side. Do not become a liberal. You are more than identity, more than politics, more than state. You are a person, and you deserve to live without oppression, and your ancestors do too.

AWP PANEL: WE ARE HERE BECAUSE YOU WERE THERE ❤ ❤ ❤

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Also prompting this piece: attending the panel “We Are Here Because You Were There” at AWP. Hearing from Hmong & Salvadoran poets about the American military program. About the deep connected between American militarism and refugees, about secret wars, hidden from the American public, the complete destruction of communities, the complete disregard for the lives of yellow and brown people.

I say all of this, because I want to name an important difference between the Japanese American and Muslim American experience. It is important to name this difference, also, because in a small way it gives space to Hmong people, allows for Hmong narratives, gives voice to those from destabilized states, gives voice to those who are seen as rogue, refugee, feral, stateless. To the displaced, those living under American-funded regimes, American-created chaos.

I say this to decenter Japanese and Chinese experience in Asian-American experience. I say this to ask that Japanese Americans understand their intersecting privileges and oppressions, to ask that we connect our experiences based not on a shared affect alone, but on the understanding of all that goes into that affect. That yellowness might be more than identity, might take on a historical perspective, a historical feeling, a historical understanding. That yellowness include difference, that we come together in our shared understanding of American imperialism and racial capitalism. And only to connect with our feelings then.

This difference: Japanese Americans were seen as being connected to a larger, more sinister entity: the Japanese state.

They were seen as threats, due to the potential for their allegiance to Japan. This is reflected in questions 27 & 28. This is reflected in the 442nd. This was a solvable problem, to the US government. You break allegiances and assimilate, convince the people to sacrifice their bodies, their lives, convince them to prove where their allegiances lie. Make life even worse for those who do not comply. Send them to Tule Lake. Make them disappear.

But there is no single Muslim state.

Nor is their perceived violence one of observation, of being seen, of owning a radio with which to transmit information back across the Pacific. Japanese American resistance was always hedged as allegiance to another imperialist nation; but what is the fear propelling the Muslim ban? It is not spying, leading to violence at some other time; it is not the fear of: “Shoot over there!” but of a direct act of violence, a bombing, a shooting. The fear of violence is not in the eyes, not in the voice, but in the hands. It is the fear not of allegiance, but of non-allegiance.

With perceived proximity to refugee-ness comes proximity to retreat, to need for sponsorship, and to resistance. Resistance always in proximity to violence, to combatting the imperialist state. (I think of Sara Ahmed, again, as I always do. Of the “stickiness” of fear, the way in which the threat of terrorism attaches itself to brown bodies in an affective economy). I am thinking of the countries in the Muslim ban. I am thinking of American occupation or military action in each and every one.

White people do not fear that Muslims are acting on behalf of their state; rather that they are acting violently on behalf of themselves. On behalf of their religion, on behalf of something deeply individual, deeply personal (this is how we understand religion here, yes?). They fear their opposition to the state’s imperialism, not to the state itself. And as American imperialism is even more intimately tied to whiteness than American identity itself (WOW this is how I feel, but I can’t back this up), Muslims are seen as a threat to “freedom, security, democracy:” to conquest, militarism, imperialism.

For whites, to be Muslim in America is already to be radical. It scares them. They are afraid. This is why they wear hijabs for a day. This is why they paint hijabs with American flags.

Instead of allying with a radical love that centers people and not the state, they want to take the radical out of the equation. WE MUST NOT BE LIKE THEM.

They want to BE A MUSLIM TOO! They want to be able to see it as personal, as freedom of expression, freedom of choice, freedom of religion. But they can’t stop attaching resistance to imperialism to the religion. They can’t stop seeing Islam as being ALREADY OPPOSITIONAL. And instead of joining in that opposition, they try to destroy it.

It is not about Islam, alone. It is not about Muslims, alone. This is why in our historical moment yellowness is seen as robotic and unthinking brainwashed drone clones and brownness/blackness as immediate threat of violence. It is already oppositional, in its conception. These distinctions in 1940s Japaneseness still remain. This is why we must include in our understanding the way that race is constructed in conjunction with imperialism, in conjunction with colonialism. So that we do not erase differences, so that we do not allow for bigotry to simply be a belief system that springs out of nowhere, so that whiteness is not the enemy, so that whiteness remains a tool, a strategy, among other oppressive tools. We must understand that Japanese-American perspective must grapple with Japanese imperialism, American imperialism, must not stop at victimization. We must join our friends in proffering this radical love, one that is aware of intersecting systems of state violence, both discursive and physical. This is what Asian American love can be.

I am not interested any more in identity, alone. I am interested in the construction of identity as it sits at the crossroads of capital and colonialism, at it sits at the crossroads of imperialism and racial formation. Nothing in isolation. Nothing ignored, nothing erased. I am searching for a radical love, and believe this is where it begins: acknowledging difference, imperialism, empire.

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