how to tell
how to tell
how to tell
how to tell

In the December 22, 1941 issue of Life magazine there is an article titled “How to Tell Japs from the Chinese.” A Chinese public servant and a Japanese warrior are presented to the reader and the racial differences between the two are explicitly highlighted.

The pictures deliver and perpetuate the enemy discernibly. The Chinese man has a slight smile on his face whereas the Japanese man stares somewhat ominously into the camera, with his lips turned down. The text, of course, is hardly subtle: “Life here adduces a rule-of-thumb from the anthropometric conformations that distinguish friendly Chinese from enemy alien Japs.”

The early 1900s was a time of war, a time of hardship, and a time of extreme patriotism. Along with all of this, came a dose of irrationality. “Yellow peril” paranoia infected the nation, and, on February 19, 1942, shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, removing approximately 120,000 people of Japanese heritage from their lives and confining them to concentration camps behind barbed wire fences for close to four years.

The Exclusion Exhibition at the Presidio Officer’s Club in San Francisco gives context and urgency to this Japanese incarceration experience. The deeply unsettling black and white images bring home the idea that exclusion and alienation can all too easily be replicated. The Exclusion Order was a great big squeeze of a racist tube which had fueled injunctive political policies like the Immigration Act of 1907 and the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924. These policies swept up all Asian communities under its scope, including Indians, on the basis that they were not white.

Between 1903 and 1908, 3,000 Punjabis entered America and worked for the Western Pacific Railways, lumber mills and logging camps in the west. They were frequently targeted by mobs.

This is our history—our Asian American, ethnic and racial history—not so very long ago. Yesterday it was the Japanese, today it’s the Muslims, who will it be tomorrow? The past is invariably someone else’s present.

We often point to white supremacy as the underlying ideology behind racial truculence and antipathy, and in this blame game we often forget our own roles. The 1991 movie Mississippi Masala exposed uncomfortable attitudes that minority cultures bear for each other. The movie’s primary articulation is an inter-racial romance between Mina, an Indian woman, and Demetrius, an African American man. “Can you imagine turning down Harry Patel for a black man?” a character asks rhetorically, framing the answer in the same way that the pictures of the Chinese and Japanese men are framed in the Life article.

The ironies in the movie are manifold. The Indian family escapes “Indophobia” in Uganda, under Idi Amin’s peremptory diktat that all Indians leave Uganda within 90 days in August of 1972. The family was forced to leave behind their property, personal belongings and history, but, they bring to America their own racial prejudices, preferring to think of the black community in stereotypes.

Indeed, as the movie portrayed, being a victim of racial insensitivity does not shield one from performing acts of racism. We cannot turn away from the experiences of the Japanese in 1942 as not belonging to us, just as we cannot turn away from the experiences of African Americans, Native Americans, Muslims, Dreamers, or the undocumented men and women who are de-humanized and de-characterized by the frequently applied “illegal” derivative.

At an ethnic media round table organized by New America Media and the Presidio Trust, when the idea of exclusion as an insular concept was brought up, Fernando Torres, freelance reporter for La Opinion de la Bahia remarked about how inclusion and exclusion are closely interrelated especially in the context of Latino migration. “If you were never included for real, you can be excluded,” he charged. He offered up the idea that it’s ethnic and racial protection that’s the reason for our cultural ghettoization though that may be an oversimplification.

Yes, we do protect ourselves with like-mindedness, color-mindedness, creed-mindedness, and class-mindedness, but we also alienate ourselves in exactly that way.

At the moment, more and more Indian Americans are being targeted for the “taking away our jobs” sentiment. In these times, we must make ourselves recall our histories and participate in each other’s instances of alienation as people of the same community. Certainly, it’s not the color of our complexions that differentiates us, or the size of our jawbone. But the scale of our engagement for each other. Our survival depends on that.

Jaya Padmanabhan is editor emeritus, contributing writer, and board member of India Currents. She is a veteran journalist, essayist, and fiction writer with over 250 published articles and short stories....