May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
Like any other month that is dedicated to a particular group or interest, I like to take time to not just reflect on that particular group or interest throughout the month, but also learn new things about them/it.
During the month of May, I’ve read about several Asian Americans who have made great contributions to — and in turn, a great impact on — American history and our current society.
One of those people is Yuri Kochiyama.
Yuri was born in 1921 in San Pedro, California, and during World War II, she and her family spent two years in an internment camp in Jerome, Arkansas.
As she grew older and continued to experience life in American culture, she realized that there were many similarities between the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II and how African Americans were being treated in the Jim Crow South.
Observing and experiencing these similarities inspired Yuri to dedicate her life to activism on behalf of marginalized communities.
I’ve been in awe of Yuri as I’ve read about her — not just because of her activism, but because of her willingness to truly learn about other people’s experiences. Like how, In the early 1960s, she and her husband Bill, a decorated veteran of the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the U.S. Army, enrolled in the Harlem “freedom schools” to learn about black history and culture. Soon after, Yuri began participating in sit-ins and inviting Freedom Riders to speak at weekly open houses in the family’s apartment.
What I love about Yuri is that she didn’t let her struggles as a Japanese American isolate her or keep her solely focused on the challenges of her “group”. Instead, she used her struggles to learn about others, support others, and fight to help them.
Her struggles were CONNECTION points with other people and other races, not points of difference.
Yuri’s approach got me thinking about my own life.
As an African American man, I can get really concentrated on the issues of African American men. That’s totally understandable, of course, but it’s important for me to learn from others and see other perspectives, too.
I think the same can be said just about all of us. It’s very easy to become connected to your own struggles and history, and not remember that other people have their own struggles and history, just like you do.
When you dig in and learn about other people — including their families and experiences — you come to a better appreciation for the contributions that so many different groups of people have made to American society.
When you begin to appreciate the contributions that everyone has made, you begin to see the connectivity that we all share and the richness of our culture and its development.
Sports has always been my biggest opportunity throughout my life to gain awareness for other people and their backgrounds and experiences, though because I’m an African American Muslim, I’m usually the rare one and educating people about my way of life.
Another opportunity is at work. Working with other people, whether it’s our team, boss, clients, or other colleagues, usually provides endless opportunities to learn more about people.
When you take the opportunities that are all around you and spend time talking and learning about other people, it helps us go beyond seeing the differences that we have, and instead much more quickly recognize the common threads we have that connect us.
Especially in a time in our society where people feel so fractured and divided, it’s crucial that we find ways to come together and recognize that, in one way or another, each person’s heritage — and potentially even members of their own family — have done a big part in building our community, with a heart and a history of trying to keep us all together.