The question of where non-black people of color, especially Asians, are placed in America’s racial framework—which has largely been defined as black versus white—has reappeared with a vengeance in recent months.
When Get Out hit theaters, Asian American audiences wondered about why director Jordan Peele included an Asian character among the seemingly well-intended, liberal white community. When United Airlines passenger David Dao was dragged off a plane last month, many wondered what role his race played in the assault on him. And when New York columnist Andrew Sullivan delivered a dreadful resuscitation of the model minority myth, the response from readers, academics, and journalists alike was swift and blistering.
Relocation, Arkansas: Aftermath of Incarceration, a new documentary currently streaming on PBS, provides valuable historic context for these conversations. It takes us to a time and place not often considered part of the Japanese American experience—the rural South in the 1940s and 50s.
The film does touch on the experience of internment, highlighting the existence of internment camps far away from the West Coast—a fact that may surprise many. But Relocation is most striking when it focuses on what happened after the camps were shut, and the prisoners found themselves in the truly alien territory of Arkansas. What emerges is an angle on race in the Jim Crow South that has been almost totally unexplored in mainstream history, and has powerful lessons for the conversations we’re still having today.
Relocation shows how the white population of Arkansas absorbed these relocated Japanese Americans—how they embraced and welcomed the camp’s residents in their classrooms and restaurants, all while hurling death threats at the black children who enrolled in their schools.
In this way, and without overtly intending to, the film captures how a “model minority” is formed, reinforced, and made complicit in systemic racism.
Arkansas was, of course, a segregated state, with one system for white people and one for black people. Where did Asians fall into this dichotomy? It was white Arkansans who got to decide—who, effectively, got to choose whether the relocated Japanese would be considered white or black.
The film focuses on the families from one of the camps, called Rohwer. After they were freed, many of them went to work on the farm of a wealthy white landowner named Virginia Alexander. She singlehandedly decided that the formerly interned children now on her farm should attend white schools. In the film, her choice is framed as a compassionate one. And from one perspective, it was: the children could reap the benefits of the superior education of Arkansas’ white-only schools.
This acceptance of the Japanese in the “white” category extended to the rest of the Jim Crow laws. Along with attending white schools, Japanese Americans could drink from white water fountains and ride the white section of the bus. But at the same time, the people seemingly accepting them with open arms were also doubling down on anti-black hatred.
Richard Yada, one of the film’s main subjects, was one of the people who benefited from this double standard. After the war ended, his family stayed in Arkansas rather than returning home to California, where racial discrimination against Japanese Americans ran high. Dirt poor, the entire family worked as share croppers.
While Yada looked at himself racially as “somewhere in the middle,” Arkansas’ racial fault lines were clear: There was black, and then there was white. So Yada got to go to white schools. In an interview, he told me this was a “life-changing” experience.
Yada was 14 years old when the Little Rock Nine enrolled in Little Rock Central High School—a school he had been slated to attend the following year.
Not only did Yada witness the racial animosity infamously hurled at the black students—he admits in the film that he “went along with it.”
In the film, he never specifies what “it” was, and when I followed up with Yada one on one, he still left it largely undefined, focusing instead on why he bought into racist attitudes in the first place.
“As a teenager you just hear what’s on the surface,” Yada told me. “[You’re thinking] ‘Why are they doing that? Why do they want to do that and cause all this trouble?...Why would they even want to go someplace that didn’t want them there?”
Yada had little to no interaction with black people. He also felt a deep bond with his white friends and their families, who would take him into their homes when he was a child, feeding him when his parents were working out in the field. It was a white teacher who took him and other Japanese kids to the county fair, paying for their entry, their rides, their food.
“I identified more with them at that point,” Yada told me.”As far as growing up, [they] were just really gracious and kind.”
Yada’s parents—whether from a desire to assimilate or as their way of dealing with trauma about their internment—did little to reinforce his Japanese identity, discarding their Buddhist religion and even shunning Japanese food almost entirely. With that in mind, his nearly seamless absorption into white Arkansas culture seems all the more plausible.
But in high school, particularly after hearing his white classmates say racist things, Yada became more aware of his precarious place in the Jim Crow social order.
“Some people had some strong feelings about blacks,” Yada said, recalling a bit of the anxiety he felt about those statements. “You knew if they felt that way about the blacks, that some of that could spill over to what they felt about me behind closed doors.”
But Yada maintained he never felt any different from his white friends. In fact, he would not really question his place in society until the Vietnam War, in which he served.
“What people tell me and what I hear is not necessarily the way it is,” he said, thinking back on what he had been told about the war before he served. “That got me reflecting more of what the real situation is. I didn’t really think about my cousin being killed by an atomic bomb.”
For the first time, Yada looked back at what his family had endured and saw it with a new clarity.
“My grandparents had moved back to Hiroshima from living in California way before the war. They were trying to kill them, the U.S. was. And then my parents...that wasn’t right, putting them in basically a concentration camp.”
Yada still lives in Arkansas, where he does business consulting and is a well-known figure in Little Rock. With renewed interest in the Japanese internment, Yada has also began speaking more publicly about his experiences. He’s also had the chance to make amends.
In one of the more astonishing moments of the film, Yada meets Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, and apologizes to her. Not, it seems, for anything in particular he had done, but merely for going along with it.