Home History Discover Nikkei On Nikkei and Cross-Racial Solidarity:Three Seattle-Area Artist/Activist Perspectives, Part 2

On Nikkei and Cross-Racial Solidarity:Three Seattle-Area Artist/Activist Perspectives, Part 2

Photo courtesy of Gabrielle Kazuko Nomura Gainor.

By Tamiko Nimura, for The North American Post

Below, we continue with the second and third artist/activists of Tamiko’s article from the May 14 issue—Ed.

Erin Shigaki: “I want us to be loud”

Erin Shigaki is a Yonsei born and raised in Seattle. While not formally trained in any single artistic practice, she considers her mother’s and grandparents’ artistic interests and encouragement to be foundational to her curiosity and exploration. In her social justice practice, she infuses community stories into murals, sculpture, and installations. Erin is also a community activist with the Minidoka Pilgrimage, Tsuru for Solidarity, and serves on the board of the TV program, “Look Listen and Learn.” All of this work is fundamental to her art. Find out more about Erin at her website, purplegatedesign.com.

Where do you find inspiration or foundation for your work in cross-racial solidarity? Who or what in your experience urged you towards cross-racial solidarity, and how?

Erin: I’m inspired by spending so much of my childhood in Seattle’s Central Area where my Grandma and Grandpa Shigaki owned a home. In the time of redlining, it was a neighborhood where Black, Indigenous, and people of color could buy homes. Communities flourished together there—in the shops, in the schools, on the sports fields. I also think about my time at Franklin High School which, due to mandatory busing, was about one-third Black, one- third Asian and one-third white. I had the best social education, despite being naive enough to think that we reflected Seattle’s make-up. When I next landed in the extremely white and privileged setting of Yale, we kids of color found each other, found ethnic studies, and I started to find my voice in cross-racial solidarity movements.

What kinds of histories or stories do we need in our current searches for cross-racial solidarity?

Erin: So many of our solidarity stories have been erased by the supremacist machine that was designed to keep us apart. Nikkei active in the liberation movement have always known what we owe to our Black siblings and to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. And we were also there, awakening and demanding that African Americans have equal access to voting, housing, education, employment, and public accommodations. I also think that individual, cross-racial relationships make meaningful change and can powerfully divert us from stereotypes and misunderstandings about the other.

Where would you suggest we direct our current and future efforts in cross-racial solidarity as Nikkei?

Erin: My wish for Nikkei is that we not only remember and tell what our people went through during World War II, but that we also understand how our incarceration is entwined in the history of white supremacy in the U.S. I want us to be loud in the liberation movement to end mass incarceration and abolish the current police state—never silenced, never erased. I want us to support reparations for Black people because we know that our own reparations brought healing and reassurance that our faith in the American Dream of belonging was not in vain.

Gabrielle Kazuko Nomura Gainor: “I’m in it for the liberation of all beings”

Gabrielle Kazuko Nomura Gainor (she/her) tells stories about Asian America through dance. The Japanese/Filipinx/Irish American has received grants from Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture and the Washington State Arts Commission. A dancer, choreographer, and community activist, Gabrielle also works for Seattle Opera in communications and public engagement. Learn more at gabriellekazuko.com.

Where do you find inspiration or foundation for your work in cross-racial solidarity? Who or what in your experience urged you towards cross-racial solidarity, and how?

Photo courtesy of Erin Shigaki

Gabrielle: The foundation of my work in cross-racial solidarity is my own experience of growing up “other.”

A woman of Filipinx, Japanese, and white heritage, I have always been acutely aware of my “other-ness.” There were few places for me to rest in the comfort of being “just like everyone else.” From being taunted with “Chinese, Japanese, Dirty Knees” in elementary school, to being the one Filipina in my family, I understood what it felt like to not belong, and how deeply unsettling that felt in my body as a child.

My experience with racial justice work is that it’s like falling down a rabbit hole: when I came to deeply know the oppression that Japanese Americans have experienced, how could my heart not be opened to the pain of families crossing borders, fleeing for their lives in search of safety and human dignity? How could my caring stop at the threshold of Asian oppression when my family was still able to immigrate to this country of their own free will (unlike enslaved Black people)?

Therefore, it’s not possible for my love, my longing for justice, my rage, and my action to remain in the sole interest of Asian America. My allegiance is not simply with Asians. My allegiance is with Black folks. With Indigenous folks. With Latinx folks. My allegiance is with those who are still waiting to be free. While I am an Asian American activist, I strive to be a person who places those most harmed by white supremacy at the center of my anti-racist thought and action. And as a Buddhist, I’m in it for the liberation of all beings—not simply the ones I share a culture with. Not simply the ones who look like me, or my aunties, or my grandparents.

When we as Nikkei prioritize our own interests yet turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, we are taking the bait of model minority status. When our “Stop Asian Hate” efforts call for an increase in policing that endangers our Black siblings, we’re throwing other people under the bus for our own safety. When we speak out against affirmative action and prioritize our own people in higher-education settings, we send the message that Asian representation is important but the representation of our BIPOC [Black and Indigenous People of Color] siblings is not a priority. If we truly believe that “Never Again is Now,” then won’t our voices also ring out—loud and clear—that “Black Lives Matter”?!

What kinds of histories or stories do we need in our current searches for cross-racial solidarity?

Gabrielle: The women who shared the following quotes are the type of people who inspire me. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the courageous Nikkei men who stood up for our rights during WW2. I am interested in intersectional stories, stories of radical Asian American women, including queer and trans women, who have worked arm-and-arm with our Black and Brown siblings for our collective liberation.

“I came to realize that our internment was a trifle compared to the two hundred years or so of enslavement and prejudice that others in this county were heir to.”

—Hisaye Yamamoto, acclaimed Nisei author

“The United States of America is a nation where people are not united because of those three glaring frailties: racism, injustices, and inequities.”

—Yuri Kochiyama, iconic Japanese American civil rights and anti-war activist

“The fate of each minority depends upon the extent of justice given all other groups.”

—Ina Sugihara, Nisei activist

Where would you suggest we direct our current and future efforts in cross-racial solidarity as Nikkei?

Gabrielle: All People of Color come from distinct communities. However, I would encourage my fellow Nikkei to think about this more from a place of antiracism, and less from a place of cross-racial solidarity. To me, cross-racial solidarity implies that People of Color are playing to win for our own teams. In reality, our fates are tied up, our pain rooted in a common oppressive system: white supremacy. When we can zoom way out, when we can commit to truly seeing the entirety of the rigged system, we WILL be better accomplices for Black liberation. We will also be more powerful advocates for ourselves, whether we’re speaking to the lasting trauma of wartime incarceration, or [to] the hatred, violence, and attacks we face now.

With the deepest of love and respect, I invite my fellow Nikkei to compare and contrast our American origin stories of immigration to [those] of genocide and enslavement. This is not about playing “oppression Olympics” with Indigenous folks or Black folks. It’s about understanding our own place in a country whose prosperity is built on stolen land and stolen labor; a country that has relied on unthinkable violence and acts against humanity to become “number-one.” We as Japanese Americans must fully understand how we are harmed by the rigged system, and also, how we benefit. We have to understand how and why our country is harmful in order to remove the danger, and ultimately to help with the healing.

Please read Black authors, follow the work of Black and Indigenous community leaders, and show up with your protest signs—not only when our own community is in danger—but when our BIPOC siblings are crying out for support, as well.

I’d love to have you all at an upcoming event that Seattle JACL is presenting. As part of our Uprooting Anti-Blackness Series, we’re hosting Dr. Ayanna Yonemura, a brilliant Black/Nikkei scholar… on Saturday, April 17. More details [are] on the Seattle JACL Facebook page.

Tamiko Nimura is a Tacoma-based writer.

Editor’s notes. Erin’s mother is Polly Shigaki, of YouTube fame. The term, “Filipinx” is gender-neutral, like “Latinx.” The Ayanna Yonemura talk that Gabrielle ends with is now on YouTube, at the Seattle JACL channel, together with others in the series.