How Historical Trauma and Acculturation Affect my Haifu Identity Formation

The incarceration of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans left an indelible mark on America’s history and the narrative of WWII, but the repercussions reverberates within the Japanese American community today. The historical trauma of economic loss of jobs and houses, displacement, subjugation to a loyalty questionnaire, being drafted out of the camps, the no-no boys, draft resisters and “specific cultural values that shaped their internment coping included gaman (persevering through hardships), shikata ga nai (a fatalistic attitude of “it cannot be helped”), enryo (self restraint/reserve that discourages emotional expression)” have been documented in papers and films (Homma-True, 1997 as cited by Nagata 2007). Underlying this tragedy was a pressure cooker of acculturation. When American society viewed Japanese Americans as un-American and purposefully imprisoned them people based on their cultural background, there was an undue amount of pressure to demonstrate their American-’ness’ and melt into America’s melting pot, despite internal and external pressures of racism and concerns of national security raising the heat of the pot. This can be seen when 33,000 Nisei served in the military (442nd regional combat team, 100th Infantry battalion, and Military Intelligence Service) risking their lives and becoming one of the most decorated units of that time, despite having their family incarcerated (Niiya 2014). Even those who resisted the draft or said no-no to the loyalty questionnaire were exercising their constitutional freedoms and patriotism despite having being stripped of their civil liberties (Nagata 2015). The height of assimilation seemed to be achieved as Japanese Americans were crowned as the “model minority,” achieving success despite decades of racial prejudice (rise of Asiatic Exclusion League, segregation in San Francisco public schools, Gentlemen’s agreement, Alien Land Law, 1924 Immigration Act, and Internment during WWII). As Nagata writes, the historical trauma of incarceration should be viewed throughout time based on the “interaction of personal, intergenerational, and social forces” (Nagata 2015). The interconnections of our experiences and politics as it relates to microaggressions and institutionalized racism are stitched into the next generation and progress can only be seen when the next generation exposes it and heals from it.

As a haifu/ hapa/ biracial (half white and half Japanese) individual I not only have trouble balancing my mixed racial identity, but often find myself filling in the gaps of my family’s historical trauma of incarceration and war in Japan (my grandfather was incarcerated and my grandmother was in Japan during WWII) and navigating the pressure of acculturation. I’m starting to realize that my social interactions and identity are often performative and I have to ask myself if it’s because I’m trying to be ‘Japanese’ enough or fit in as an ‘American’. Growing up playing baseball, my favorite player was Ichiro Suzuki and I tried to play with a certain flavor that reflected Japanese side in an American pastime sport; playing smallball, being strong defensively, and fit in as much as I can as a team player. In terms of language I haven’t necessarily felt comfortable speaking English or Japanese. In elementary school I spent years in speech therapy because I couldn’t pronounce certain consonants sounds and I was navigating school as well as intergenerational communication with my grandmother with a thick accent that couldn’t make those same consonant sounds. Also, despite years of Japanese courses in high school and part of college, I am not fluent nor comfortable enough to carry a conversation in Japanese. I find my work in community organizing and attending community events as a way to fill the gaps in my own family history, by listening to stories and experiences that I wished I had the chance to ask my grandfather before he passed. Being self-reflective of your intentions of your actions is a skill set you develop to navigate a complex world, but becomes even more important when your haifu and have to navigate your intersectional identity while balancing historical trauma and acculturation.

Being mixed raced and/or bi-racial, we straddle a thin line between their ethnic/cultural identities and physically as well as emotionally know the tolls of acculturation and historic trauma. My experiences have demonstrated that both the rat race to assimilate and/or melt your unique individual identities into the white hetero cisgender hegemonic melting pot (America’s hegemonic narrative) as well as the hyper demonstrative of your “otherness”, can lead to a hole in your physical and spiritual self that manifests itself as mental and physical health disparities, such as depression, suicide, increase risk for cardiovascular disease, ulcers, and etc (Nagata 2015). Mixed race individuals can facilitate these conversations of how acculturation and historical trauma are linked, the health disparities that arise from dissociation of one’s identity, and process of healing.

If this is something that resonates with you, please comment or share your personal stories of assimilating/fitting in and how it may be connected to your family history as it relates to trauma (war displacement, genocide, transmigration, economic instability, and etc.)



  1. Nagata, D. K., Tsuru, G.K. (2007). Psychosocial Correlates of Self-Reported Coping Among Japanese Americans Interned During World War II. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol. 77 No.2, 221-230.
  2. Niiya, Brian. “Japanese Americans in military during World War II.” Densho Encyclopedia. 5 Mar 2014, 16:43 PST. 30 Jul 2017, 16:32 <>.
  3. Nagata, D. K., Kim, J.H.J., Nguyen, T. U. (2015). Processing Cultural Trauma: Intergenerational Effects of the Japanese American Incarceration. Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 71 No.2, 356-370.


Chris Weir is a haifu (half Japanese half white) community organizer that is part of KmB Pro-people youth (a progressive grassroots organization in Historical Filipinotown in Los Angeles) and Nikkei Progressives (a progressive organization based in Little Tokyo). Chris is an avid cyclist and his next project is organizing bike rides in Japantowns in Southern California with the hope to share local Nikkei histories, link communities together through biking, support local businesses and community programs, and share a vision for equitable and sustainable development and transportation. Professionally Chris works at APAIT (a local non-profit HIV/AIDS service organization that works to positively impact medical underserved communities through culturally competent and linguistically relevant programs) as an Outreach and Testing specialist. On his free time Chris likes to run, play with his Australian cattle dog named Kora, and try new things.

The Politics of Multi-Racial Identity – Part 3 of 4

This section requires a brief moment of intellectual self-aggrandizing, and I apologize for that, but how race impacted my high school experience can only be understood in the context of what my high school meant for the city on a whole. Stuyvesant High School, initially founded as a trade school for boys in 1904, is a name with real power in New York. This power came from the expectations of a student going to Stuyvesant: it was an academic pressure cooker, a sink-or-swim environment and a feeder for the Ivy League and top-tier universities worldwide. Multiple schools like MIT, UChicago, Yale and Harvard employ admissions officers whose specific jobs are to deal with the Stuyvesant application pool. We boast multiple Nobel prize winners, Fields Medals, Intel Science Search winners, and influential alumni both in and out of the academy.

These are the sorts of things one might expect from an affluent private school. They are not common for a public high school with a majority of students qualified for free or reduced lunch. The element of economic diversity for Stuyvesant, combined with its role as a stepping-stone for a number of first generation immigrants led to its place as a source of constant pride for New York. A group of talented and ambitious low-income kids who, based on a single test, are admitted into the “elite” company of students who attend the school.

The question on the table is whether this economic diversity was enough to speak for one of the largest racial divides in high schools across the country. Eleanor Archie, an Assistant Principal during my time at Stuyvesant, was quoted as referring to the 11 black students admitted in 2013 as the fewest she’d seen in the 20 years she’d been there[1]. Currently, the school is 72% Asian, 21% White, 1% African American and 2% Hispanic. Black and Hispanic enrollment has been declining for a variety of reasons, some of which include former principal Stanley Teitel’s decision to end Summer Discovery, a program that allowed underscoring students to attend classes over the summer to earn an admissions slot. The Summer High School Institute, a program designed to help bolster underrepresented minorities, has seen a slew of budget cuts since its inception. Outreach to schools zones like District 7, poor and with few resources, is minimal, while normal support networks like families and communities come to the growing understanding that schools like Stuyvesant were never meant for them.

Whenever I brought up this astounding lack of representation for African Americans, Indigenous or Hispanic groups, I often received the response that Stuyvesant was diverse where it matters—in terms of class. What this economic diversity showed was that anyone could make it to my high school, and that the lack of racial diversity indicated a cultural problem within those racial categories. This was an objection essentially rooted in Marx. When he wrote that history was “hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”[2], he was not ignoring the colonial legacy of the early 19th century. He was placing that legacy as a direct problem of the economic ramifications of colonial rule. Colonial Marxists, like Frantz Fanon, could be seen in turn as developing these relationships as subject to the one of capital.

It is fascinating, then, that the philosophy of Marx is used in a conservative sense. The status quo of Stuyvesant is fully operational so long as it continues to subvert traditional classist assumptions about the role of income in determining long-term prospects. Setting this remark aside, these responses also demonstrate how racial comprehension failed in this environment where racial diversity was stratified. The discussion of “cultural problems”, for example, ignores a long history in which education was a valued characteristic, and how it steadily became de-valued as a function of racial discrimination. Any cursory glance at the rise and fall of Black Wall Streets demonstrate this. Further, the lack of serious representation within such an environment rapidly pushed discussions past points where they would normally be called out on their directly racist mentalities. As it is, the rationalizations created by classmates when a number of white male students created a video targeting a black female classmate based on race and gender reveal is astounding[3].

But here is a point where my experience as Multi Racial diverged from traditional minority narratives. The fact that I was also Chinese as well as Jamaican meant that the discomfort triggered by racial episodes also included the flattening of Asian experiences at the school. The same New York Times article that lamented the loss of African Americans at Stuyvesant would also hint that Asian representation was too high[4]. Descriptions of the Asian population as “invading”, or as particular Asian students as functionally equivalent contributed to an odd discourse in which no minority was really safe from critique. There was, of course, usually one face to represent Asian Americans at Stuyvesant: a Chinese one. This is despite the conceptual boundary between populations of people like Indians, Afghans, and Pakistanis and what American consciousness conceptualizes as “Asian”. As an example, it was not Chinese Americans who were targeted after 9/11. What’s more, the difficulties for some students in terms of being first generation, or largely lower class tend to be ignored when constructing this monolithic entity of “Asian”. It was almost as Asian-ness gave its beholder some sort of super power, which rendered the model minority myth and the elements of discrimination with which it is associated irrelevant.

In a world where all people are monoracial, the polarizing nature of model minority versus under represented minority may have been discomforting, but probably did not trigger existential crises. Was I taking advantage of one identity to bolster another? Is this an acceptable way to further underrepresentation? Am I a sell-out? I was expected to have fully developed answers to these questions by the age of 14, and as soon as I began talking about these things, I could expect my peers on both sides to remind me that I was not “Black” nor “Chinese” nor “White”. Paradoxically, I was also expected to “pick” a side, regardless of how well my peers policed those conceptual boundaries. One classmate, for example, insisted on reminding me that college admissions, would only see me as African American. And since my classmate’s impression of African American was uniformly that of the inner city, gangs and violence, I had no right putting that down on my application.

These sorts of statements were deeply ironic. I wasn’t Black enough to make it acceptable for college applications, but I was Black enough for girls to explicitly mention that their fathers would kill me if I touched them. I was Black enough to transform into an expert on slavery, reparations and segregation in the inner city for classes that could be devoid of darker faces. But, for whatever reason, I was challenged to put down only “Chinese” or “Chinese and White” on college applications. The fact that I had the audacity to identify with all parts of my empirical identity was a challenge in the atmosphere of hyper-competitive college admissions season.

I pre-empted this section by asserting that what mattered less was the empirical reality of race, and more what people saw of me. The signifier shifted from my mother, to what conceptual expectations my classmates had of particular racial distinctions, and where I stood in regards to expectations. This was also true of the world at-large. Prior to my arrival at Stuyvesant, people normally guessed at my ethnicity as “some kind of Latin American”. If they knew I went to Stuyvesant, these guesses shifted to “Middle Eastern, or maybe Jewish”. I had little say in how I was perceived, or what was assigned to me. In multiple areas of institutional applications, I had to pick whatever ethnicity I best identified with, and I doubt Stuyvesant included my cross-out of the Scantron bubbles, and the write-in, “Multi Racial” as an option in its report to the Board of Education.

While my identity was not directly negated in high school, it was undermined at many turns. However, I recognized the source of that undermining as classmates who, for the most part, had their own systemic problems with which to deal. I rejected class as the primary point of tension, but a majority of us knew and understood the experience of being low-income as a large difficulty. A number of friends were frustrated by a lack of understanding as to why affirmative action helped make a level playing-field, but I found it easier to discuss with my high school classmates, a majority of which had their own problems navigating the racial hierarchy.

The transition to the University of Chicago thus became a similar marker. I had spent eighteen years in New York, living amongst an incredibly diverse array of experiences in gender, race, class and orientation. Chicago, despite its “quirky” reputation, was largely an engagement with normativity in every respect. I had seen stereotypes of what life was like West of the Hudson River, but I had little real experience in engaging with that world. Unfortunately, there was little warning that I would be expected to engage individuals who had as little experience in diversity as I had in normativity.


By: July 2014 Guest Blogger- Marley-Vincent Lindsey


Marley-Vincent Lindsey is a freelance writer and independent researcher located in New York. He recently graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in history and is primarily interested in 16th century Colonial Spain, the influence of Christianity on colonial institutions, subaltern studies and postcolonial theory and the relationship between digital media and history. He will be presenting at the Sixth Annual  Conference on Power and Struggle hosted by the University of Alabama, and is publishing a paper entitled “The Politics of Pokémon: Socialized Gaming, Religious Themes and the Construction of Communal Narratives” in the forthcoming volume of Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet. When he’s not on the academic grind, he’s probably playing Starcraft and other related strategy games, skating or thinking about contingency plans for the zombie apocalypse. He can be contacted via email ( or through his notebook-blog ( He also really likes cats.


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