Kristen Nemoto Jay
Growing up in Hawai‘i, I never really felt “othered” in terms of my race. As a mixed plate of Japanese, Okinawan, Hawaiian and Norwegian, my background wasn’t questioned as most of my classmates and friends had just as much, if not more, mixed plate identities than me. As most locals can agree, that’s part of the unique beauty of our island home here in Hawai‘i. Most of the time, we’re all just “local” and respect each other’s differing cultures and identities. I didn’t quite know or understand what racism was until I learned about the Civil Rights Movement in grade school. I remember being completely shocked when I saw a photo of a segregated drinking fountain for “Colored” and “White” people, what we all know now as the “separate but equal” rule that was hailed in the Jim Crow-era South. It was a world away from what I knew; what I was taught. I couldn’t imagine what that would be like. What that would feel like to be discriminated against because of my race.
Racism was still confined to the pages in my history book until I took a class trip to Disneyland with my elementary school choir in the fifth grade. We were scheduled to perform in the afternoon, and got in early — along with other visitors — to experience the theme park before it got busy. The hot ticket that year was the Indiana Jones ride so my friends and I took advantage of our early entrance and raced over to the unusually short line to get to experience it. After the exhilarating two and a half minutes were done, my friends and I followed the small crowd towards the exit signs. As we walked, we noticed that there was still no one else in line. Without hesitation, we quickly hopped over the roped off area and started to run back in line to ride it one more time. It was a thrilling moment, I’ll never forget, a bunch of us kids giggling and laughing, about to get to ride the most popular ride in Disneyland for a second time in a row! Running by my side were some of my friends, all dressed in the same bright pink T-shirts with our school logo, made specially for the days that we were at the park so that our chaperones could easily spot us in case we got lost. We stood out like a sore thumb with those shirts, and many of the ride employees could tell that we had already ridden the Indiana Jones ride before but shrugged as there was no one else in line anyway and just gave us a smile as we whizzed by them. Sprinkled among us pink shirts were a mixture of other kids and teens who got in the park early as well that day. I remember smiling at them, and they smiled back, as we shared a mutual agreement that this was a cool moment in our youth to remember for days to come. My excitement grew as my choir-mates in front of me passed the last ride employee prior to getting on the ride with no pushback. But when I and a couple other tween visitors got closer to him, the ride employee stuck out his hand in front of us, halting us abruptly in our tracks. I saw the ride employee before when we first rode the ride, and he saw us (pink shirts at least) too. But the tall, overpowering man, dressed in an Indiana Jones costume, didn’t care that I or anyone else was running, he only cared that the one Black teenager — who I shared a smile with just a minute prior — was running with us.
“Son, have you ridden the ride already?” said the employee.
“Well yeah but…” said the teenager.
“Son, I’m going to have to ask you to exit as this is only a ride for those who haven’t ridden yet,” he interrupted.
“But all those people running…” he explained.
“Son, am I going to have to call security?” he barked as he stepped toward the teenager.
I froze. Frightened and confused, yet completely aware of what was going on, my heart sank to my stomach. Fifty of us pink shirts, the very pink shirts that had ridden the Indiana Jones ride already, had just run past this employee, and he hadn’t stopped any of us. What will one more person hurt? As my friends called back for me to hurry up, to my regret, I continued to run and left that teenager behind.
Yes, I was young and can’t blame myself too much for being scared. That doesn’t negate the fact that I will forever regret turning my back on him. I’ll never forget that moment; how awful and ugly it felt. To witness that as a young kid, just having learned about the Civil Rights Movement in my history book, and thinking how far off the thought of racism was; it was an unbelievable and teachable moment.
This issue’s theme, along with celebrating Black History Month in conjunction with Japanese American history and culture, is about solidarity. While there has been an uptick in Asian hate crimes throughout the nation since the pandemic, systemic racism, especially against Black lives, will continue unless we stand in solidarity against it. In order to do so, it’s up to us individually to call out when something is wrong and then become examples of what needs to be done in order to make it right. My hope with this issue is to share stories that exemplify what it means to rise up together against injustice.
There’s a slim chance that the teenager who I left behind nearly 30 years ago is reading this, however, I dedicate this issue to him and any one else who has ever felt “othered.” We see you and we’re here with you. You are not alone. Solidarity starts when we all are in agreement that there’s no other alternative. And it starts now.