Why Asian American Representation Matters, Even in the South

Read Anita Sugimura's first person account of being an Asian American filmmaker in the rural South, part of CAAM's initiative to support Asian American filmmakers in the American South.

Five years ago, I relocated to Lafayette, Louisiana to care for my dying step-father and subsequently stayed to care for my aging mother. It is a world away from my Southern California roots and life as a filmmaker and an Asian American woman. I am a first-generation Japanese American. My mother is from Japan and a survivor of the U.S. bombing of Nagasaki. My biological father was a blonde, midwestern American from Indiana. The two met post-war in Iwakuni, Japan when my father was stationed with the U.S. Marines. Upon returning to California, where I was born, he abandoned my mother and me, unable to cope with having an immigrant wife and a bi-racial daughter.

Fortunately, years later my stepfather entered our life; ironically, he was another U.S. Marine, who embraced our Japanese heritage with open arms and open heart. While my parents came from polar opposite worlds, there was great symmetry between them especially when it came to culture, identities and respect for others. The richness of my mother’s heritage, and the global duty stations to which we were assigned, provided me a lifetime of influence, an appreciation of cultural diversity both inside and outside of my own. Understanding varying perspectives brings a duality that is often missed. This shared journey within our eclectic military community propelled me to bring attention to the impact of post combat trauma that families and veterans endure regardless of theatre of war through my documentary Battlefield: Home – Breaking the Silence.

In the fall of 2019, CAAM invited me to attend the first Rural Women’s Summit sponsored by The Rural Assembly, a program that fosters relationships within rural communities across America under the parent organization of The Center for Rural Strategies. The conference underscored the importance of being acknowledged in the rural space as an Asian American, particularly in the South; a call to have a seat at the table instead of watching from the sidelines.

Read Anita’s reflections on the Rural Women’s Summit

This year, the spread of COVID-19 and the subsequent shut down across America, as well as the current national movement against racial injustice, have added more layers to my perspective. While I remain in advocacy for Asian representation, the recent national events give pause to how and what we need to do to engage and support the current dialogue.

To now bear witness to the nationwide movement of the growing cultural divide, becomes so profoundly personal and socially frustrating at the same time. What is occurring nationally with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement affects us all, and subsequently trickles down to the actions or inactions within our own communities. While I was always acutely aware of prejudices and racism, I never experienced it directly until residing in the South, in the rural community of Lafayette, Louisiana in particular. All too often I am asked how to make sushi or the ever present “You don’t look Japanese.”

Such subliminal prejudice indeed impacts and challenges my “acceptance” into the Southern film community. The subtle exclusions and barriers slowly came to light the longer I stayed in this rural space. As a filmmaker here in the South, I was never visible to them until it was vogue, until my Asian-ness could garner something they needed.

Granted, my interactions are momentary by comparison to a lifetime of challenges the BLM movement is addressing, but our journeys reflect each other and we must pay attention.

When George Floyd was killed, the image of the Hmong officer, Tou Thao just gutted me. How can an Asian allow this to happen? How could this be? Have we reached a point of complacency thereby being complicit or was this a demonstration of underlying of anti-Blackness? Are we too silent as a people? As a culture? Have we bought into the stereotypes denoted upon us or are we silently waging against another minority group because they did not directly affect or address us? So many questions that speak to a wider dialogue, and impacts the smaller community conversations.

George, Breonna, Jacob, just a few of the far too many names added to a devastating and ongoing list. Here in Lafayette, we too have now joined the national conversation with the killing of Trayford Pellerin, fatally shot by local law enforcement officers in August. Without the BLM movement, this story would probably just fade away into oblivion as just another killing of a Black man. Because of BLM, the nation news has covered this story and the reaction within this small rural town. Yet the BLM movement’s presence is extremely slight in this town.

While there has been public outcry, it has been small in number, and the faction of who comprises the protestors is very telling and a reflection of this rural space. There seems to be a fear of backlash if one supports BLM, so many remain silent, falling back to the old Southern ways of one’s place in the “systemic hierarchy” of the Jim Crow racism laden South.

Family photo of the author with her parents

Lafayette, Louisiana is an insular town, two hours west of New Orleans. The population of roughly 120,000 is 63% white, 31% Black and 1% Asian. Of Acadian/French ancestry, it is deeply rooted in traditional Southern norms, including prejudices. When you add in the recent astonishing words of Congressman Clay Higgins, it is clear what this place’s attitude must be and a sense of the divided nature of this town.

The transition has certainly not been an easy one. Old traditions do not easily fade away here, nor does unedited racism. Stereotypical or not, I care for my mother, a symbol of my Japanese heritage. Even with an aging Asian mother, I fight prejudices of ignorance and intolerance. During her recent hospital stay I asked the hospital staff to correct the entry under “language spoken” to Japanese instead of the Vietnamese listed. “Did it really matter?” they responded.

“Despite your belief that we all look and sound alike, Japan is a completely different country with its own language, so yes, it does matter” I retorted.

Sadly, this was not the first such incident. With the recent barrage of hurricanes, neighbors checked on each other, but not my mother, the only Asian in the area. My mother and I were left alone in our attempts to deal with the aftermath of the storm destruction. Even tree cutting services denied assistance, stating that they would not work for Asians because “they always want a cheaper price.”

As Asians we are often maligned to stereotypical representations: STEM scientists, convenience store operators, anime artists, and sword-wielding samurais. We are and have been defined by others, rather than ourselves. Even within the scope of creative endeavors, we too find ourselves represented on-screen as much of the same. Inclusion became a “token” issue—being included due to my minority status for funding purposes or crew diversity. Instead of seeing me as a contributing creative, I am sidelined to a supporting role under the hierarchy of film opportunities for what my ethnicity could bring to them, rather than my true value as an equal contributor. Unfortunately, like many of our ethnic brothers and sisters, we have played that card because we must in order to sustain our limited opportunities, a forced silence of acceptance, playing the “banana” role with no guarantee of inclusion.

Being an Asian American filmmaker in the Southern states can be frustrating as the support from community is challenging at best, especially in rural regions, like Lafayette. So the alliances we create are even more important both inside and outside of our ethnicities. I enlisted my fiscal sponsorship through a southern-based organization, but found no support and even less engagement. I was forced to rely upon my alliances outside of the South, leaning on colleagues and organizations from New York and LA. Despite our film’s national award-winning recognition and impact, the support from the Southern-based sponsor and the local community never materialized.

Like the BLM movement, we as Asians are defined by our ethnicities and our journeys. We can allow others to compartmentalize us, or we can create our own place within the social and creative spaces by reaffirming our global roots. My lineage is that of a samurai and a U.S. Marine; I am both Japanese and American. My samurai roots ground me in my traditions of the Bushido, and it is the strength of the code and the Corps that keep me persevering despite the barriers of racism that I have faced here in the south.

As Southern based Asian Americans, we seek a seat at the table. We seek equality, recognition and representation as members of the nation’s fabric. But instead of waiting for others to recognize us, let us build our own table to celebrate and share our heritages through our creative practices.

Anita Sugimura is a southern-based documentary filmmaker. Her feature film, Battlefield: Home – Breaking The Silence, about the ripple effect invisible war wounds have on individuals, families, and communities,. As a former professional chef, Anita is currently working on her new multi-media project about foodways, in addition to being a mental health advocate for military veterans and their families. Anita is also a rescue mom to her Japanese AkitaBushi.