On Presidents Day: Looking back on history and racism
Presidents Day weekend is our time to ski down the hill of oppressive history. There’s a lot of it against Asian Americans of all stripes.
“Emil Amok: Lost NPR Host…,” the one man show I’m doing at Under St. Marks Theater in New York City now (click here for tickets), wasn’t really intended as a history show. But it has turned into that. I talk about how Filipino Americans continue to overcome the cloud of being America’s First Colony. After being one of 13 original colonies, I guess America just felt the need to have a colony of its own in order to feel its own oppressive power.
As I prepared for my show looking at history, it’s incredible how much crap as a group AAPIs have had to endure. If you look throughout Asian American history, from the Chinese exclusion, to the Filipino colonialism, to the incarceration of Japanese Americans, it’s amazing that we’ve survived as a community.
But it’s frustrating to see how things keep coming up in our history as responses to us as Asian Americans.
That’s historical racism for you. In fact, if you think it’s taken a toll on your brain, you’re right.
Richard Sima, a neuroscientist and science journalist in the Washington Post, writes:
“Experiences of racial discrimination are consistently linked with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, substance use and PTSD, as well as physical ailments such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity. Black Americans, for instance, are about twice as likely as White Americans to develop dementia.”
Sima says over the long term, racism accelerates aging and degrades the parts of the brain that deal with emotion and cognition.
“This is not an effect of race,” Nathaniel Harnett, neuroscientist at McLean Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, told Sima. “It is an effect of the burdens we place on racial groups.”
The problems really kick in personally when the trauma we experience from race is invalidated or questioned by society.
How many times do people tell you, “That’s not racism.” Or, “It’s in your head.” Or “You’re imagining things.”
Chance are you’re not imagining things. But that’s the problem. The self-doubt leads to “individual invalidation” and the struggle over self-worth.
And either we think about it, get vigilant, and struggle to overcome. Or we get crushed by it, run out of resources and can’t regulate the constancy of racism in our everyday experience.
I choose to do my one man show about being Filipino in America. It’s not therapy. But it’s entertaining.
Get tickets here.
Presidents Day and E.O. 9066
The Presidents Day holiday this year, Feb. 20, is a reminder of how damning a single action like a presidential order can be.
For Asian Americans, is there anything more damning than Executive Order 9066?
It was specific to Japanese Americans, but it is the justification for taking action against all of us whenever any executive damn well pleases.
Executive Order 9066 was signed into law on February 19, 1942, by FDR. Despite two intelligence reports indicating the Japanese Americans on the west coast represented no threat, more than 120,000 were forcibly rounded up and incarcerated in camps.
Seventy percent were American citizens. You thought that mattered? Not when your blood was Asian.
When it comes to policy, immigration remains a hot button issue as it has since the first Asians came to the U.S. And even though immigration reform at this point appears politically dormant, the Biden Administration has had a plan ready to go that includes a real path to citizenship for 11 million people, relief for DACA recipients, more work visas, and increased family reunification efforts. There’s also a move to strike the word “alien” and replace it with “non-citizen.” Let’s not forget: the guiding phrase of America has always been “we the people,” not “we the citizens.”
Will we ever see it passed into law in our current divided government? Unlikely, but there’s a better chance under a Biden presidency. What about the South Asian American Nikki Haley, who announced a presidential run for 2024? She’s so anti-immigrant MAGA focused, I wouldn’t trust her to do the right thing for the AAPI community.
But Biden from day one of his presidency has never forgotten the plight of Asian American and Pacific Islanders. And not just in the past, but in the present. In light of the thousands of anti-Asian transgressions of hate, from minor to major, during the pandemic, it takes a special president to remind the nation that AAPIs are Americans too. Few would bother. The former president before Biden chose to fan the flames.
When you think about what presidents can do for a community, Biden has done more for us specifically than any president I can think of.
Of course, the bar was set low, when FDR on Feb. 19, 1942, signed Executive Order 9066.
I’m still somewhat stunned that a bigger deal wasn’t made about that on the news on Sunday. It wasn’t in the lead block when I caught CNN. It wasn’t on the news websites I frequent. But then again, what happened in 1942 isn’t news. It’s history.
But significant, nevertheless. This is the act that gives all Asian Americans, not just Japanese Americans, moral high ground.
You can’t sweep incarceration under a rug.
Although if you didn’t hear about it yesterday, maybe that is what’s happening.
So think about E.O. 9066 for what it was. More than just a signing day, but the first day of a long stretch of history that impacted Asian American lives for every day of the incarceration.
Because if we don’t honor and understand it, then we will most assuredly and tragically get another chance to experience it, when the ghost of E.O. 9066 gets renewed in the present day.
That’s just the way it goes.
We never learn fast enough to avoid the repetition of history.
NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on www.amok.com
Emil Guillermo is an journalist, commentator, and amok monologist. He writes a column for the Inquirer.net’s North American bureau.