Today, it can be hard to imagine a Seattle in which Asian Americans were barred from certain places of work based on their ethnicity. But not even 50 years ago, administrators at Seattle Central Community College refused to hire Asian Americans for work.
In response, a crowd of Asian Americans marched into the administration office in 1971 chanting, “What do we want? Asians now!” and holding signs reading “Quiet Asians? Hell no!”
This story and other tales of civil rights struggles were the topic of October’s “Think & Drink” programs held bimonthly in cities throughout Washington. The idea behind the program was to introduce thought-provoking topics in a casual setting, such as pubs and tasting rooms. The goal is to generate lively and stimulating conversation.
“Earlier in the year, we produced a program tackling Seattle’s civil rights history from the 1960s onward,” said Zaki Abdelhamid, program manager for Humanities Washington, which is the host of the forums. “Our research led us to the rich and often untold story of Seattle’s Asian American civil rights history.”
The myth of the “quiet Asian,” which stereotyped Asians as shy and passive toward their rights, was prevalent in the 20th century and further fueled Asian Americans to action. Titled “Loud and Proud: Washington State’s Asian American Civil Rights Movement,” the two Think and Drink sessions held in Seattle in October attempted to shed light on the active role of Asian Americans in Seattle’s Civil Rights movement.
Connie So, American Ethnic Studies Professor at the University of Washington, and Kevin Owyang, the filmmaker behind the Wing Luke Museum documentary In Struggle, spoke at “Loud and Proud” discussions. Tonya Mosley, a Seattle journalist with Al Jazeera America, The Huffington Post and KUOW, moderated the discussion.
Owyang said he was surprised to hear about the unique struggles Asian Americans faced in Washington state compared to the East Coast where he was raised.
“I want to believe that people see me for who I am and that my race does not alter their perception,” Owyang said. “[But] we are not in a utopia where race doesn’t matter and we are not in a time where my race is the singular determinant of my relationship with people.”
According to Owyang, these discussions help bring clarity for people targeted by racism and for the people with whom they interact.
The discussions’ attendees, who ranged in number from 25 to 40, heard the tale of a Japanese American from Washington who resisted being moved to concentration camps in 1942, at great risk to his own safety. The 1960s, which saw the rise of peaceful anti-war and civil rights protests, also inspired Asian Americans to peacefully demonstrate.
Al Sugiyama, co-founder of the Oriental Students Union at Seattle Central Community College, said he and activist Frank Irigon were motivated to protest the college’s bigoted rules by the desire to build a future in which their children don’t have to struggle.
“It really doesn’t matter the color of your skin or your nationality … it comes right down to, are you progressive enough to understand the issue,” Sugiyama said in the documentary produced by Owyang. “Progress is such that you have to keep moving forward and pushing. Otherwise it’s either going to stop or come tumbling back.”
Decades later, it has become clear to these lifelong activists that the grassroots movement is continuing but with different issues at bay.
“That’s one thing people have to understand sometimes about a movement,” Irigon said. “A lot of it was based on friendship and love for one another than based on ideology. It’s just that we believed in one another.”