I was on the road a lot this past summer. Here’s where my travels took me.
Photo: The Staples Family learn how to play the ancient Gaelic sport of curling in Kilkenny, Ireland, June 2022. (Left to right – Ali, Kyra, Joshua, Bill). And yes, that is a Fuji Athletic Club tee-shirt (JA Baseball team from Portland, OR)
In June my family and I visited Ireland – the landof my ancestors who emigrated to America during the Great Famine in the late 1840s. With the surnames Brady, Cavanaugh, Corbett, Dowd and Gill, my Irish ancestors hailed from locales such as Longford, Limerick, Tipperary and Cork.
I learned quite a bit while on the road. For example, I learned that Ireland has a rich history and culture that dates back thousands of years, but the nation itself is young – founded in 1922. And I learned that there are a handful of Americans who are loved by the Irish. They are:
George Washington – because he led the revolution against the British (a hero and model for many Irish revolutionaries)
John F. Kennedy – because of his Irish-Catholic roots
Martin Luther King Jr. – because he inspired a generation of Irish Catholics in the 1960s to rise in the fight for first-class citizenship for all (unfair employment and housing practices by British/Protestants created oppressive conditions for the Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland).
Bill Clinton – because he helped negotiate the peace agreement between the Irish Republican Army (Nationalist) and the British – way back in 1998 (really not that long ago). Next year, 2023, Northern Ireland will celebrate 25 years of “The Great Peace”.
And one valuable lesson from my travels is that as proud as I am of my Irish heritage, I am not Irish – I am an American of Irish Ancestry.
And when I returned to the U.S., others did not look at me and automatically assume that I was not a U.S. Citizen. (Admittedly, this is white privilege.) That stereotype is called the “perpetual foreigner,” a form of racism “in which naturalized and even native-born citizens (including families that have lived in a country for generations) are perceived by some members of the majority as foreign because they belong to a minority ethnic or racial group.”
In July I traveled to Los Angeles for the 2022 MLB All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium, to work at the traveling exhibit “Baseball’s Bridge to the Pacific: Celebrating the Legacy of Japanese American Baseball”. In partnership with the Nisei Baseball Research Project (www.niseibaseball.com) and generous support from the JACL community, the exhibit educated fans about the rich legacy of Japanese American baseball during the all-star game. As expected, baseball fans from all walks of life were fascinated by the crown-jewel of the exhibit, Kenichi Zenimura’s wooden home plate from the Gila River Incarceration Camp.
We also expected that many fans would not truly understand the difference between Japanese American baseball and Japanese nationals (like Ichiro and Shohei Ohtani), so NBRP founder Kerry Yo Nakagawa (Sansei) added the following panel to the exhibit:
Some fans got it. Some did not. For many, Lenn Sakata of Hawaii and Don Wakamatsu of California are just as Japanese as Ichiro and Ohtani. Again, the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype was at work.
(Note: Prior to the exhibit installation at Dodger Stadium, a member of the Nisei Veterans group commented on Facebook that we should consider using the term “Americans of Japanese Ancestry” (AJA) instead of Japanese American – presumably to place emphasis on, and reinforce, the first adjective, “American”.)
Then, in August I traveled to Las Vegas for the annual JACL National Convention. It was the first in-person JACL national convention since 2019 (which had shifted to virtual in 2020-2021 due to the pandemic). Despite several positive Covid tests by attendees (yes, Covid is still with us), it was a positive experience. Until … a representative (Caucasian) from Nevada’s 1st Congressional district addressed the audience during the opening reception, and during the politician’s remarks they expressed their condolences to the group for the death of Shinzo Abe, former Prime Minister of Japan (who was assassinated on July 8). Yes, a member of U.S. Congress, speaking at the national convention of the Japanese American Citizens League, thought they were speaking to an audience of Japanese nationals.
At the core, this elected official revealed that the idea of the “perpetual foreigner” existed in their brain, and that the members of the audience were somehow less American than they were.
Where to go next?
So, I finished my summer travels with the unsettling belief and understanding that this concept of the “perpetual foreigner” is the root of most (if not all) anti-Asian attitudes in the U.S. And if this is the case, how do we combat it?
In the book, “How to be an Anti-Racist,” author Ibram X. Kendi argues that unless one takes a proactive stance against racism as an Anti-Racist, they are simply “a racist in denial.” Perhaps a proactive stance against the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype is now in order? Just as Anti-Racism is a weapon to battle Racism, perhaps the opposite of the “perpetual foreigner” might be the solution.
So I humbly introduce the concept of “Presumed American Citizenship” or PAC (because who doesn’t love a new acronym). PAC is a proactive mindset that assumes everyone you meet living in America is a U.S. Citizen (or is on the path to citizenship). PAC is a proactive mindset that believes everyone belongs and is welcome in America.
Honestly, I think I’ve always believed this … but it took a journey of a thousand miles (or more) this past summer to find the words to articulate both the problem and a potential solution.
And I also think that the member of the Nisei Veterans group has a good point … perhaps the term “Americans of Japanese Ancestry” (AJA) can help counter the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype? And if that is indeed the case, then maybe it is time for JACL as a national organization to consider a rebrand? This is probably not the first time that this question has been asked either … but we can address this topic another day.