How to Be an Ally as a Non-Black POC: Lessons From Yuri Kochiyama

Anyone with a slight sense of empathy and compassion should be deeply hurt and enraged over the recent murder of George Floyd. Let’s not forget the countless innocent lives in the past decade who have also been murdered by police brutality. As a non-Black person of color, I first and foremost want to say that I stand in solidarity with the Black Community. BLACK LIVES MATTER.

To all my fellow non-Black people of color, we cannot stay silent and passive any longer. It is not enough to do the bare minimum of re-posting or sharing a hashtag. In order for change to happen, we must support those who are hurting and take action against clear acts of injustice. Like me, you may be wondering how to actually help the Black community and try to navigate ways to be an active anti-racist during this time. It starts with education. There will be plenty of resource links provided for you throughout this article if you want to dig deeper. Perhaps we can start learning what being a true ally means from the life of dedicated social justice activist, Yuri Kochiyama. 

Yuri Kochiyama was born in San Pedro, California in 1921. Due to the racist and fear-fueled Executive Order 9066 enacted by FDR after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Kochiyama was forced to relocate to a Japanese Internment camp with the rest of her family and thousands of other innocent Japanese Americans. Her father, simply because he was a fisherman, was supposedly one of the first people to be wrongfully taken and interrogated by the FBI in suspicion for being a spy. Just shortly after this traumatic experience, only 12 hours after he was brought back to his family, her father died. 

It was after WWII when she moved east to Harlem, New York with her husband, where what became her life-long interest in the civil rights movement, activism, and advocacy for social justice was born — thanks to her Black and Puerto Rican neighbors. Apparently, she even “held weekly open houses for activists in the family's apartment, where she taped newspaper clippings to the walls and kept piles of leaflets on the kitchen table.” It was throughout the 1960s where she continuously participated in various pan-ethnic movements, supporting Asian American, Black, and Third World causes for human rights. She thoroughly encouraged Asians to align themselves with the fight for racial equality between Blacks and whites. In her own words she passionately urged, “Asian Americans must be more vocal, visible, and take stands on crucial issues. Hopefully, Asians will side with the most dispossessed, oppressed, and marginalized, remembering our own culture.”

Most people know Kochiyama by her brief friendship with popular civil rights activist Malcom X, she was even photographed right by his side after he was assassinated on February 21, 1965 at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. Kochiyama and her eldest son were arrested at a protest advocating for jobs for Black and Puerto Rican construction workers in Brooklyn, which led to her eventual meeting with Malcom X in a “’packed courthouse [with] a lot of [other] activists who [were] hearing on the civil disobedience charges.’” It was there that she asked Malcom X for a handshake, then the two met regularly through activist meetings for the next couple of years. In an interview with Democracy Now!, she disclosed that he, together at her house, even met with atomic bombing survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One of my favorite moments from the interview was when Kochiyama mentioned that Malcom X was “interested in every group … And he knew about Asian history so well” during that meeting.

After Malcom X died, her activism surely did not end with him. In the 1980s, Kochiyama and her husband were also involved with the campaign that made huge progress in reparations for the Japanese American community. They pushed for the Civil Liberties Act, eventually signed by Reagan in 1988, in which the federal government formally apologized and financially compensated those who were forced into internment camps. Kochiyama stayed active by holding interviews about her experiences and continuing to speak out for the marginalized until she died of natural causes on June 1, 2014. 

So, what can we apply to our present day from Yuri Kochiyama’s inspiring activism? 

For starters, we need to show up. Show up for the Black community at this time by not only voicing your support and solidarity through social media, but also donating to non-profits, going to protests (safely), and even by simply letting any of your Black friends know you’re there for them. Empathize with their pain and anger. Kochiyama and Malcom X’s meaningful friendship that were centered around activism and human rights gives us a clear example of minorities working together, each being aware of each other’s struggles in order to enact change on a larger scale. As minorities, we are all still oppressed by the same unjust system at the end of the day. Of course, not every issue will affect every group to the same degree or even at all. This is why we need to show up for each other. Some minority groups, especially Black people, feel the effects of oppression to a greater extent in many instances. If something doesn’t affect you directly, that’s a privilege. Recognize the privileges you have in certain circumstances and use it for the greater good. 

Most urgently, we need to get educated. It’s your responsibility to get educated on these issues for yourself, especially considering the millions of resources we can access through our fingertips. Black people are not obligated to sit down with you and offer you every little explanation, nonetheless you should reach out and ask questions to those who make it clear that they are willing to do so. I admit, I don’t know everything about Black history in America, but I am in the process of learning as much as I can, whenever I can. This can be done through watching historical documentaries, films about the inhumane practices of our government to Black communities, reading books and articles on U.S. history (written or recommended by Black people/scholars; not your government mandated textbooks since a lot tends to get left out, surprise surprise), and even quickly Google searching laws or policies as well as its history. It’s also imperative to keep up with current events and social justice issues. Twitter seems to be a good place for quick news, but also be wary and fact-check because anyone can say just about anything on that platform. 

Lastly, we need to be persistent. Even when all of the “hype” dies down, (e.g. news outlets stop talking about brutality, people stop protesting, or posts on social media go back to selfies) these issues will still continue because they stem from centuries of racial injustice. As long as these issues persist, we also need to be just as much or even more persistent and dedicated enough to keep showing up, educating ourselves, donating to the cause if financially able, and educating others too! I’m sure we all have at least one of those distant relatives on Facebook who post about MAGA and make pseudo-racist comments. Don't be afraid to have those difficult conversations and speak calculatedly from love and truth. If you’re Asian American like me, here’s a very helpful article on how to start the conversation with people in your family who are prone to siding with the white majority.

Heather MountThank you, Yuri Kochiyama, for being the example of a true ally to others. Your legacy lives on through the Asian American community you helped strengthen. 

If you would like links to other interesting resources, click here (Malcom X making points), here (mapping police violence), and here (Yuri Kochiyama’s memoir, Passing It On). Also, check out Black and Asian-American Feminist Solidarities: A Reading List by Black Women Radicals and the Asian American Feminist Collective for some reading recommendations and more about what it means to be in solidarity. 

*If you are sensitive to injury or gunshot wounds, please be aware that these are photos taken of Malcom X after he was shot. Kochiyama is seen clearly in the photos, cradling his head.