Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies Scott Aalgaard studies modern and contemporary Japan, including the experiences of Japanese-Americans during World War II, when approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent were forced into internment camps. We spoke to him about the echoes of that history in the surge in racist incidents against Asian-Americans since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Professor Aalgaard, as we think about the increase in racist acts against people of Asian descent in the United States today, can you please offer a brief history of racism faced by Asian-Americans?
The first thing that I want to argue is that we can’t understand either the Japanese internment during the Pacific War or the present crisis with racism surrounding the coronavirus as exceptions. Racism is very much the norm instead of the exception in this country and others. It’s also critical to understand that racism isn’t just about vilifying the other, it’s about solidifying a sense of a pure self. In the North American context, that sense of self is understood as white. This is an argument that Ta-Nehisi Coates makes in his writings about how the construct of whiteness itself was created by positively contrasting it against blackness at the time of slavery.